Column: Last call for individual rights

By David Solana

The Supreme Court heard a case Tuesday that will help define the role of social utility in American property rights. Either every landowner’s property will become the potential victim of any economic redevelopment, or private individuals will find they do retain individual rights in spite of governmental lust for tax revenue.

Eminent domain is a part of the U.S. Constitution – in the Fifth Amendment, “nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” It has been further defined through time by the Fourteenth Amendment to protect individuals against states taking property without due cause and by judicial rulings through U.S. history. The current understanding of the public use for which the government can force the sale of private property includes roads, railroads and clearing slums.

The question here is whether economic redevelopment can be included among the defined public uses by which a government can claim land. The New London, Conn., city council exercised its democratic muscle of the majority with a 6-1 vote to redevelop a 90-acre peninsula. While most of the landowners in that area sold their property, seven families with emotional ties to their property are holding out against the government.

If the court rules in favor of the city, landowners will find themselves in a country where “the government can take somebody’s land simply under the prospect of getting more tax dollars out of the new use,” said Scott Bullock, attorney at the Institute of Justice, according to National Public Radio. The city’s retort – that this use of eminent domain was voted on by the city council and is thus democratically sanctioned – does nothing to assuage people’s fears that the government is taking away their rights, but shows the dangers of the popularized democratic ideal as the greatest form of government a people can enjoy.

A large part of the argument against the New London city council is its open admission that the project is for economic development. Since we are living in a capitalist democracy, these property owners should be able to hold onto their property and let the government sell the land around them to developers. Of course this is a less attractive prospect for developers, but that should drop the value of the property until the point at which the land is worthwhile for investors to purchase. One possible outcome is that the families that held out experience an increase in the value of their property. They can either no longer afford to pay their property taxes, or they can pay and they keep their land. Another scenario sees the property owners’ presence devaluing the land even after it is developed, which is not likely if the development is well planned, regardless of the presence of a few houses.

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    Governments, while obviously able to participate in business maneuvers, have the obligation to protect their citizens. In a non-socialist country, such as this one, there is no justification for governmental participation in business. Why should the government get involved to protect its citizens from economic downturn while it does nothing to protect those same citizens from health problems or poverty? Tax revenues? Not a laudable goal.

    Social utility is a brilliant concept that works well in socialist countries where individual liberties are limited, but people can feel better about giving up so many rights because they reap great benefits from state programs for the social welfare. Trying to mix the two by compromising the rights we hold dear is a dangerous endeavor, and hopefully the Supreme Court will show that our nation truly is the great defender of personal liberties that we so often merely pretend to be.