Jacob Sullum

The common thread running through such cases is an astonishingly arrogant assumption by government planners that they know the best use for someone else's property. They decide a big business is better than a small one, a parking lot is better than a house, a retailer is better than a church, or fancy condominiums are better than middle-class homes.

The U.S. Supreme Court opened the door to such arbitrary exercises of power by declaring that condemning land and turning it over to private parties can meet the "public use" test if the aim is to eliminate "blight." It turns out blight is in the eye of the beholder; in practice, it can mean just about any property use a politician or bureaucrat doesn't like.

City officials commonly argue that forcibly transferring property from one person to another is justified because it will increase tax revenue and employment, thereby serving a public purpose. But as Berliner notes, this argument proves too much.

"If the promise of greater jobs or profits is enough to take someone's property," she writes, "then almost no one is safe. Practically any home in the United States would generate more tax dollars as a Costco. Small businesses provide fewer jobs than an industrial park. And houses of worship produce no tax dollars and few jobs. The implications of the jobs/taxes mantra is that everyone's home, everyone's business is up for grabs."

Striking an optimistic note, the Institute for Justice suggests "the tide is turning" against eminent domain abuse. In cases heard by courts, property owners prevail around 40 percent of the time; local activists have defeated 20 or so redevelopment projects; and state legislators have passed six bills aimed at protecting people threatened by condemnation.

I'm not sure this constitutes a turning tide. But if it does, much of the credit goes to the Institute for Justice, which tirelessly defends the private domain that distinguishes our country from places like Saddam Hussein's Iraq.


Jacob Sullum

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine and a contributing columnist on Townhall.com.
 
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