New York City, New York (TFC) – Though justified for centuries through long-winded legal precedent, eminent domain has recently been a source of contention for people with any deep sense of reason. Though its existence is purely for the “greater good,” oftentimes individuals are bullied out of their property for more nefarious reasons. Eminent domain’s spider web of precedent provides increasingly easy ways for moneyed interests to loophole through the system and impart no public benefit while padding their own coffers. While it’s a neat idea in the fairy tale world where the government only exists for our benefit and never hurts its own citizens, we know quite well that’s not the world we live in. We live in a world where our government is as fallible as the worst elements of our society, and tools like eminent domain are quickly becoming the weapon of choice for oligarchs to further their own ends.
Eminent domain is written into the constitution of the united states, and the rationale used at the time was effectively “all the European countries are doing it.” It was even seen as a defining attribute of sovereignty that you could, at will, rob your citizens. Remember the fifth amendment, the part at the end saying No person [shall]… be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law? Our government decided pretty quickly that, of course, this doesn’t mean we can’t deprive people of life, liberty or property. It just means we have to do it through the courts. At surface level, the legal caveats make sense – they can only take your property for projects that better the public, and they have to reimburse you for the value of the property they take. Once you really get into the details of these, however, it becomes much less ethical. The projects they plan don’t need to help the entire community; they don’t even need to help most. The cutoff is literally that it needs to help more than one person. This conclusion was reaffirmed as recently as 1998. If they don’t really want to pay for the property they take, they can artificially reduce the value and take the claim to a court to force the property owner out. And, just in case a project that helped the public was too hard to find, any project that increases municipal revenue at all is grounds for eminent domain.
If this sounds like the perfect formula for politicians – from city council members to state legislators – to simply take whatever land they want and hand it over to the highest bidder, that’s because it is. The first step is usually approaching the property owner with a near market value offer, and if they refuse that, then there’s a toolkit of legal precedent at their disposal to begin bullying them into accepting a settlement before taking them to court. This isn’t a paranoid fear about something that could happen, it’s something that’s already happening. The victims are often small town business owners who have little or no legal recourse if negotiations go sour; they’re given the ultimatum of accept the settlement, or lose everything in court. The infamously corrupt Keystone XL pipeline takes advantage of eminent domain; so does its twisted little natural gas cousin, the “Constitution” pipeline. These aren’t public works projects – the far more compelling argument is that these are hugely damaging to the local communities and ecological systems. These undertakings are for the benefit of a small financial elite and multi-national corporations.
The precedents being set are becoming more and more troublesome. Radley Balko, author of Rise of the Warrior Cop, recently wrote about a Norfolk radio station whose banners protesting an eminent domain claim against them were declared disruptive by a local court. The same case wasn’t made against countless commercial banners and signage in the same area, setting the precedent that political speech isn’t protected as much as commercial speech. It doesn’t take legal experience to understand that free speech is most valuable so we can address political issues and confront what we see as injustice, not so we can advertise Big Macs.
This pattern of dissolving individual rights in favor of the state is becoming increasingly overt, be it through eminent domain, civil asset forfeiture, drone strikes, or whatever new flavor of fascism becomes popular in the future. Frustrations with government policy in this respect are coming to a head, and it seems like a puppet politician pretending to care about the issue is the best we can hope for these days.