Old Post: On Eminent Domain (1)

[Originally posted December 2005]

Who knew your first election would be such a maelstrom of controversy and emotion? There’s no escaping the fact that eminent domain is the topic of conversation. Here’s three things you need to know in order to be conversant, and ultimately in order to win:

1. What is eminent domain and why is the whole nation in a tizzy over it right now?
The Constitution, while protecting our right to private property, authorizes states to seize it so long as it is for public use and the owner is justly compensated. This summer, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of New London, Connnecticut, which invoked eminent domain not for the typical use of building a highway or clearing a slum but for creating a private mixed-use development of retail, hotels, and residences. In stinging dissents, Justices O’Connor and Thomas warned that such a ruling opened the door for massive abuses, while The Economist suggested that the case would galvanize property-rights activists like Roe v. Wade did for the anti-abortion movement some thirty years ago.

2. What does this have to do with Ardmore and with this year’s election?
The board of commissioners approved a new development plan that would cluster retail, condos, and parking around a new railway stop. They then declared the area blighted and informed shop owners of their intent to invoke eminent domain. Whether or not you think the plan is good for Ardmore isn’t the point. Here’s what’s got residents upset:

 This makes all private property at risk, especially if you are poor. Justice O’Connor wrote: “The government now has license to transfer property from those with fewer resources to those with more. The Founders cannot have intended this perverse result.” Justice Thomas concurred, arguing that the ruling encourages “those with disproportionate influence and power in the political process to victimize the weak.”

 Ardmore will lose its historic flavor. The “blighted” area is actually a designated “historic” district, and includes properties whose family ownership goes back many generations. Scott Mahan’s office equipment shop was started by his grandfather in 1926, and Eni Fong’s restaurant has been in Ardmore since 1976. These are just two affected shop owners who have spoken out against the board’s actions.

 The board of commissioners completely discounted residents’ need to be involved. The Save Ardmore Coalition’s website argues, “Civic groups and individual residents felt that they had no impact on the final decisions,” and “some commissioners, our elected officials, have appeared high handed and hostile to community input.”

3. What can you do and say to resonate with voters and win this election?
Out of the 7 (of 14) commissioners who are up for re-election this fall, 4 have dropped out and one was defeated in the primaries. You can win! But you have to speak to voters, not just on this issue but on the underlying “dispositions” that gird their reactions:

 The reason why the commissioners’ flaunting of public opinion so irks residents is that it goes against the first of Descartes’ four precepts in his “Discourse on Method”: “Never to accept anything as true unless I recognized it to be evidently such.” Residents hate that the commissioners have presumed to know what’s right without giving the public the opportunity to explore and decide for themselves.

 The venom directed at a government that would have the audacity to seize private property dates back to Hobbes’ opinion in “Leviathan” of why people choose to set up governments: “to live peaceably amongst themselves, and be protected against other men.” That is, not to usurp the rights of individuals or to choose one group’s selfish interests for personal gain over another’s inherent rights to private property.

 We get our fervor for private property and for government’s role in safeguarding it from Locke, who in his “Two Treatises on Government” writes, “The great and chief end therefore, of men uniting into Commonwealths, and putting themselves under Government, is the preservation of their property.” That’s why it’s so dissonant for residents to see their government utterly discount their right to private property.

This might be the only background paper you get that quotes Descartes, Hobbes, and Locke. But trust me when I say that you need to understand them, because in doing so you’ll get to the source of peoples’ political passions. After all, our Founding Fathers were heavily influenced by these three thinkers when they declared the following:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government.

You’re not trying to start a revolution, of course; but you are asking people to say no to an old way and yes to a new way. What better way to convince them than to appeal to the very sentiments that founded our country, the very “dispositions” we hold dearest?

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