You do not own your property. That is the meaning of the Supreme Court’s ruling last month in Kelo vs. the city of New London, Conn., which held that local governments may use the power of eminent domain to transfer private property from one private owner to another in pursuit of “the public interest.”
This result ended the hope and the battle of seven property owners , the last remaining of more than 70 families whose homes and businesses were targeted for demolition five years ago by the city of New London to make room for a 90-acre private development, including offices and a proposed hotel.
Susette Kelo, a nurse, and one of the property owners, bought and painstakingly restored a home that initially was so run-down that she needed to cut her way to the front door with a hatchet. After she had achieved her dream home, she was informed by the local government that her home was condemned and ordered to vacate within 90 days.
What justifies this treatment of Kelo and the other owners, who simply want to be free to live on their own property? The seizures and transfers, the government says, are in “the public interest” , because they will lead to more jobs for New London residents and more tax dollars for the government.
A study cited by the dissenters showed that this type of justification was given more than 10,000 times between 1998 and 2002, across 41 states, to use eminent domain (or its threat) to seize private property. The attitude behind these seizures was epitomized by a Lancaster, Calif., city attorney explaining why a 99 Cent Only store should be condemned to make way for a Costco: “99 Cent produces less than $40,000 (a year) in sales taxes, and Costco was producing more than $400,000. You tell me which was more important?”
To such government officials, the fact that an individual earns a piece of property and wants to use and enjoy it, is of no importance , all that matters is “the public.” But as philosopher Ayn Rand observed, “There is no such entity as ‘the public,’ since the public is merely a number of individuals the idea that ‘the public interest’ supersedes private interests and rights can have but one meaning: that the interests and rights of some individuals take precedence over the interests and rights of others.”
In the context of the Kelo case, the idea that “the public interest” trumps private property rights simply means that the desires of some individuals for property they did not earn and cannot get from others voluntarily, trump the rights of those who did earn it and do not want to sell it. Why are their rights trumped? Because some gang with political pull doesn’t happen to like how these individuals are using their property.
This is unjust and un-American. America was founded on the principle of individual rights, including the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. What do these rights mean if an individual is not free to remain in and enjoy the house he chooses to build his life around, simply because others could use it to create more jobs or tax revenue?
Just as it would be unjust for the government to shut down the printing presses of a newspaper because its reporting is unpopular, so it is unjust for the government to raze a house that an individual has earned, developed, and loves, no matter how many cry that the land should be put to other use.
The Supreme Court’s decision against the property owners in Kelo is, in the words of Justice Clarence Thomas from his dissenting opinion, a “far-reaching, and dangerous result.” As Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, another of the four dissenting justices, wrote: “All private property is now vulnerable to being taken and transferred to another private owner, so long as it might be upgraded , i.e., given to an owner who will use it in a way that the legislature deems more beneficial to the public , in the process.”
And as Dana Berliner, an attorney for the owners, argued, this means that no one’s property or home is truly safe.
“If jobs and taxes can be a justification for taking someone’s home or business, then no property in America is safe. Anyone’s home can create more jobs if it is replaced by a business and any small business can generate greater taxes if replaced by a bigger one.”
Property owners beware: the next casualty of “the public interest” might be you.
Larry Salzman is an attorney and Alex Epstein is a fellow at the Ayn Rand Institute in Irvine.