Tuesday, November 01, 2005

A Question for Mr. Alito

Harriet Miers is out and Sam Alito has been nominated by the President to be the next Supreme Court justice. It’s going to get hot and heavy in the old Senate Judiciary committee. The political pundits are predicting that he’ll be probed relentlessly on issues relating to privacy, terrorism, environmentalism, equal rights, and so on. That’s all well and good, but unfortunately, I haven’t yet seen any prediction that he’ll be grilled on what I consider a travesty of justice that occurred last June. I refer to the decision of the Supreme Court to uphold the notion that a city or state government can seize private property for private use.

I wonder why Senators aren’t putting this issue near the forefront of their concerns. In the past, eminent domain has been a means by which a state or local government would force a property owner to sell at some arbitrarily determined “fair market value” in order to use the land for some pressing and unavoidable public need, like a bridge or a school or a highway. Eminent domain was rarely used, for good reason, since the whole notion of a government seizing private property smacks of totalitarianism.

Not any more. The 5-4 Supreme Court ruling now allows governments to confiscate private property in the name of economic development, even when your property is transferred to another private party. Can you visualize the potential malfeasance? A developer offers a local government a good deal because he wants to build on the “useless, undeveloped” piece of property you happen to own. Because he dangles a fat check and the promise of “jobs!!!” in front of local politicos, they decide to force you to sell out. To justify their move, they speak in glowing terms of revitalization and urban development. But the bottom line is that politicians colluding with purveyors of big bucks, rather than market forces, can now decide the best use for the property you own—ostensibly for the “public good”. No wonder many city and state officials are salivating. The central planners of the old Soviet Union would be proud.

Yes, I’m totally biased, but I happen to believe that one of the main reasons for this country’s vigor is the healthy interplay between democracy and free markets. That interplay, in turn, is due to two fundamental precepts: the right to vote and the right to own private property. Messing around with the right to private property is as dangerous as messing around with the right to vote. Can you imagine someone suggesting that the vote of a poor person with a limited education should be transferred to an educated wealthy individual in the name of some noble cause? I don’t see a difference in taking someone’s vote and taking someone’s property. If you want my vote, give me a compelling reason to vote your way. If you want my property, give me a compelling reason—and price—to “vote” your way. But don’t take either from me by force.

I’d like to know how Mr. Alito feels about that!

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