L. Neil Smith's
Number 248, November 23, 2003

The Elvis of Science Fiction

Government Run Amok
(In little bitty pieces)

by Charles Stone, Jr.

Exclusive to TLE

Those of the libertarian bent are often accused by statists of overreacting to the predations of government. "We are the government," they say, "our elected officials are only doing the things we elected them to do, so what's the problem?"

In many (even most) cases they may be right. We do tend to be a bit hypercritical of the machinations of our leaders, but not always.

If you want a glimpse into predatory government at its worst, take a look at what's going on in Alabaster, Alabama.

Alabaster is such a booming metropolis that I only ever heard of it (until this week) as an occasional reference in the old Pogo comic strip. So, what can the politicians of this little burg be doing that threatens the nation? They are stealing private property.

There is a tool used by government in order to acquire property for public use. It's called "eminent domain." Briefly, it is a way for government to force property owners to sell land (for adequate compensation, of course) that may be necessary for the construction of public facilities such as roads, bridges, utility rights-of-way, etc.

At least that's the way it was for the first two hundred years of this Republic. Today though, the political hacks in government have found a brand new way to define what the terms public and necessary mean. They now say that additions or increases to the tax base of a community or bringing in new jobs can be viewed as contributing to the public good and thus as a necessity.

In Alabaster, on one side, there is some land owned and occupied by plain old citizens, some of whom have lived there for nearly half a century. On the other side, there is the Colonial Properties Trust, a development company, which wants to build a huge shopping center that includes a WalMart Super Store.

The problem is, some of the residents have no interest in selling their property. They see no reason why their lives should be disrupted just because a developer has chosen to build on their land.

Enter the city government of Alabaster. "You must sell," they harumph. They insist that this project is "necessary" because it will bring in many times the tax dollars of the current residences. And if the landowners still refuse to sell, the city will use its power of eminent domain to condemn the land, force its sale at extremely low prices and then the city will sell the land to Colonial and the shopping center will be built.

I wonder if the late storeowner of the people, Sam Walton, is spinning in his grave at the thought of the power of the government being used to seize folks property to be used for one of his namesake stores?

And just in case you think this is only an isolated instance, read on.

In New York City, the venerable New York Times wanted to build a brand new headquarters in Manhattan. They selected a block which contained a number of established businesses and went about trying to convince the owners to sell. As in Alabaster, AL, some of the owners didn't want to sell because they would be unable to relocate their businesses with the amount of money they were offered. In due course the NYT, having much political power in the City, went to the politicians, who dutifly condemned the recalcitrant business's properties and turned it over to the Times.

In East St. Louis, IL, the Gateway International Motorsports Corp., owner and builder of Gateway International Raceway went to the Southwestern Illinois Development Authority (SWIDA) in an attempt to have nearly one hundred-fifty acres of privately owned land condemned so they could build a parking lot for their race track. In that case, the landowners fought back and having survived several victories and reversals, at last report, the Illinois Supreme Court had found for the landowner.

These are big buck land grabs but the same thing is happening on a smaller scale all over the country and they are finally starting to generate some notice and some organized opposition. (See the Web site for the Institute for Justice at http://www.ij.org/index.shtml under "CASES," the Southeastern Legal Foundation at http://www.southeasternlegal.org/ and the Castle Coalition http://www.castlecoalition.org/ for more examples)

The right of people to own private property that is not subject to seizure on the whim of government is a fundamental underpinning of any nation that claims to be free. English Common Law asserted that right as early as the Twelfth Century and our Founding Fathers used the Fifth Amendment to the U. S. Constitution to guarantee that right to us. Governments, big and small are now usurping that right any time they think there is tax money or political advantage to be had.

In one city, an area was declared to be blighted despite the fact that the homes were occupied and well maintained. In another, an entire neighborhood of homes were condemned to allow the construction of a privately owned office park and "other unspecified uses." In yet another, a county government condemned an occupied home, forced the residents out, then allowed the manager of a nearby golf course to move in.

The Christian Science Monitor's Alexandra Marks has an article at [this link] describing more government property predation and the sometimes bizarre stratagems used to justify their taking, including a case where a government agency condemned the property of one small business so it could be transferred to another small business..

If America's governments are allowed to continue to use (or abuse) their power in order to seize the property of American citizens for no other reason than that they can derive political capital from the deal through turning the land over to those with more wealth or political power, our nation, as we know it, will not survive. And it's not just state and local governments that are involved. The Feds have taken millions of acres of land so it can be "protected" from the very citizens that provide the tax money to finance the seizures. It's time for the American people to stand up to government at all levels and a great way to start would be to stop the unconstitutional and perfidious misapplication of the doctrine of eminent domain.

Copyright © Charles Stone, Jr. 2003


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