Opponents of eminent domain finally have something to celebrate. After a public campaign, Target Corp. has decided not to build a store on condemned property in Arlington Heights, Ill.
Five years ago, the Village trustees declared the International Plaza shopping center and other properties blighted, setting the stage for condemnation under eminent domain. The business owners who were to lose their stores fought the "blight" designation in court but failed.
Yet they didn't give up. They and their supporters held protests at trustee meetings. They were aided by the Sam Adams Alliance and Foundation, which launched a letter, telephone and flyer campaign that threatened to boycott Target if the company went through with its plan to occupy property seized by the government.
In late May, the Alliance triumphantly announced, "Target backed out of their contract with the Village. International Plaza tenants have saved the property from eminent domain abuse, at least for the time being".
The Village attorney said pending lawsuits by tenants of the shopping center were one reason for Target's decision.
It's only a reprieve. The trustees smell big bucks, so they may try to find another major chain to be the principal retailer in the 35-acre development area. In the past, several retailers have been more than willing to build on stolen property. So the residents of Arlington Heights and the Sam Adams Alliance may need to launch another campaign.
Nevertheless, Target's announcement is good news indeed.
The "takings" clause in the Constitution's Fifth Amendment says government cannot take private property "for public use without just compensation." I object to anyone having his property taken by force, but at least traditionally, this power of eminent domain ("superior ownership") was limited to the building of highways, bridges and parks -- things meant for general public benefit. But over the last 40 years, governments have redefined "public use" to include private use that they argue has public benefit. Towns began to condemn properties said to be "blighted" and hand them over to private developers, who promised higher tax revenues and jobs.
In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court blessed this outrageous argument in the infamous Kelo v. New London case. Fortunately, a public backlash followed the ruling, and 41 states have put restrictions on eminent domain for private development. But many of these laws have loopholes for "blighted" property.
Blight is in the eye of the beholder. The Institute for Justice, a libertarian public-interest law firm, says that "the definition of 'blight' has become so broad and unprincipled that governments regularly target perfectly fine homes in ordinary neighborhoods for the wrecking ball."
The use of eminent domain for private profit is the tip of the iceberg of an unappreciated threat to individual freedom. States and municipalities routinely engage in economic planning that would make the old Soviet Union blush. State and local planning boards manipulate the tax laws and hand out cash subsidies to favored retailers and manufacturers, while those without political connections bear the full tax burden or are shut out altogether. The favoritism escalates when governments feverishly compete with one another to attract an auto-assembly plant or a big-box store. Private businesses play each government off against the others to get the most corporate welfare possible.
Who pays? The taxpayers and property owners who are forced to sacrifice for the "common good."
Why do we assume that politicians and bureaucrats know better what's good for the community than people themselves? Competition within free markets benefits everyone. Voluntary exchange is always win-win. Political schemes -- which always require force -- benefit some at the expense of others.
The Arlington Heights story shows that big companies respond to public protests. There is a lesson in that. Governments will stop stealing private property from the powerless when businesses refuse to cooperate in this larceny. So the next time one of those giants signs on to a development project made possible by eminent domain, give them an earful.