Almost all of our furniture comes from Ikea. We like the fact that most of the store's merchandise is inexpensive without looking cheap. We like Ikea's wide aisles, the creative room displays, the little pencils and measuring tapes, the instant gratification of taking furniture home right after we pick it out. Our daughter likes the ball room so much that she considers visiting the store a fun family outing.
So I should have been disappointed to hear that Ikea had canceled plans to open an outlet in New Rochelle, N.Y., less than 10 miles from our house in the Bronx. The new store would have spared us the 40-minute trip across the George Washington Bridge and down the New Jersey Turnpike to the Ikea in Elizabeth.
If the promise of such convenience were not
enough reason to welcome an Ikea in New Rochelle, there was also the predictable opposition from anti-development types worried about the project's impact on their "quality of life." When suburbanites line up against the opening of a new business because of its potential to attract customers from out of town, I am usually firmly on the other side.
Not this time. The other day, when Ikea announced it was scrapping its plans in New Rochelle, I smiled.
The reason was simple. Ikea was not merely trying to develop its own property over the objections of the usual NIMBY activists. It was trying to develop other people's property, with a little help from the city government.
The site that Ikea had in mind for its new store happened to be occupied by 34 homes, 28 businesses and two churches. Instead of trying to buy the land fair and square, Ikea asked the city to force the owners to sell, at whatever price the city considered reasonable.
If Ikea did that sort of thing on its own, it would be called extortion. But when the government does it, it's called exercising the power of eminent domain.
This authority to take people's property was originally intended for "public uses" such as roads and government buildings. Nowadays, local governments routinely seize land under eminent domain and hand it over to private developers.
The first step is to declare the property "blighted," which the New Rochelle City Council did to the land coveted by Ikea in 1999. That judgment, applied by affluent politicians to a working-class neighborhood that offended their aesthetic sensibilities, was not shared by the people who lived and worked there.
"Is it right to tear people from their homes?" one resident, Dominick Gataletto, asked ABC's John Stossel in an interview that aired on Jan. 27. "All the memories I've had all these years ... I've been here 67 years, and you just don't wipe that away simply because a furniture store wants to come in. This is America."
Stossel asked New Rochelle Mayor Timothy Idoni how he could justify evicting Gataletto and his neighbors. The mayor's complacent responses nicely illustrated the mindset of petty tyrants who have no compunction about disrupting people's lives and violating their rights, as long as the interference can be said to serve some greater good.
First, Idoni was contemptuous of the way other people had chosen to live. "No urban planner would ever design a neighborhood like that, with a house next to an industrial site next to a bus depot," he sniffed. "That's not a neighborhood, in my opinion."
Second, Idoni used euphemisms to disguise the nature of what he was doing. "I have to move my city forward and then renew areas that have fallen into disrepair and into blighted conditions," he explained. "And I think the only way to do that in a city of this size is to be able to reorganize things a little bit."
The "things" that Idoni wanted to "reorganize" included human beings with plans and expectations based on what they thought was the solid foundation of ownership. That concept, so casually overturned by technocratic tinkerers like Idoni, is essential to life in a free and civilized society.
Yet respect for property rights played a much smaller role in Ikea's defeat than concerns about increased traffic, which would have been voiced regardless of how the land was acquired. And in cities across the country, politicians are still eager to "reorganize things a little bit." The Ikea project is dead, but the mentality that made it possible lives on.