The politics of government usurpation, post-Kelo

Posted: Nov 15, 2009 12:00 AM

Strong-arm, power politics — how long does it take self-proclaimed “caring” folks to learn that such tactics cannot lead to their promised peaceful, loving utopia?

New London, Connecticut, was ruled by a cadre of allegedly well-intentioned movers and shakers, the kind of people who believe that politics is a way to “get things done.” This group of Democratic Party loyalists concocted a scheme to take a “blighted” neighborhood, the Fort Trumbull area, and turn it into a clean, bright, shiny complex of businesses, featuring biotech firms and the might Pfizer.

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But to do this they needed first to “take,” quite literally, the several property of the community’s owners. And, so, under a strained (but sanctified-by-recent-tradition) reading of the Takings Clause, the politicians condemned the property.

The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, the majority of which abandoned any common sense in interpreting “public use.” Infamously, the court decided Kelo v. New London in favor of New London, giving the city the go-ahead on the project.

So the property was condemned. Ms. Suzette Kelo and her neighbors were forced out. And the developers went to work.

And then stopped.

Just as the court documents demonstrated, there was no market for biotech firms in their trendy utopia. Now, even Pfizer — the main player — has started pulling out. The area becomes doubly blighted: no development, no homes.

People draw different lessons from utopia’s collapse into wasteland, as a New York Times online debate shows:

  • Matthew J. Festa notes that the whole debacle proves that eminent domain is “as much a political as a legal issue” and characterizes the New London story as a “cautionary tale.”
  • Paul Bass trenchantly drew a political one: “[U]rban liberals make mistakes, big mistakes when they stand against the little guy through the misuse of eminent domain.”
  • Dana Berliner explained the nature of this “development”: “The deal and the project didn’t make any financial sense for a private company, and no one would have agreed to it without a huge subsidy.”
  • Paul Finkelman resists any rash reaction, saying that “The project, in retrospect, was ill-conceived. . . . But this is not a constitutional issue, it is simply an issue of economic development and political decision-making.”
  • Ilya Somin stepped back to view the wider political perspective: “Government planners who undertake ‘economic development’ condemnations have strong incentives to approve takings that benefit well-connected interest groups, even if they end up destroying more development than they create. Usually, as in Kelo, those targeted for condemnation are poor or politically weak.”

This latter point deserves extended consideration. Sure, the Finkelmans of this world can just shrug the New London experience off as a glitch in the glorious creation of a brave new world. In Rope-a-Hope America, political groups, working hard, devise better ways than can free people to embrace progress and erect a clean, bright, shiny place to work and (if lucky) live.

But the problem with eminent domain used as a tool in development of grand plans (as opposed to limited projects for obviously useful things, like sewerage, roadways, power lines, etc.) is that those “grand plans” are always speculative. Field of Dreams provides no justification for government confiscation. If you build it, it doesn’t necessarily mean “they” will come.

And now Pfizer is packing up, tarnishing the savvy of political hacks in cushy offices planning our future world.

The lesson to draw is not mere skepticism and doubt. Go all the way to incredulity. Redistributionist liberalism is not noble; it’s not even civil. Take from some and give to others and of course those “others” will praise the taking. But the “some” from whom much is taken — and that includes not merely the owners of confiscated property, but also the taxpayers whose money was used to buy off that confiscated property — are not made better off.

This isn’t quantum mechanics. It’s not that hard to understand. And if some eminent domain development projects have “worked,” not much has been proved, since the common judgment of “working” restricts the view only to the obvious consequences: the new project. It doesn’t address the lives adversely affected (the expropriated, the forced-off) or the lives impoverished via the taxes. The idea in any con game, of course, is to shift our attention away from the trickery.

But tricking citizens isn’t easy. Where voters have the right to intiative and referendum, they have blocked many a grandiose scheme.

The Kelo/New London debacle will increase public opposition to political overreach. Knowledge has a way of increasing voter skepticism.

This advance in common sense now reaches into the health care debate. A recent Gallup Poll shows that a majority of Americans now believe that it is no business of the federal government to force the utopian notion of “universal health care” onto the American people.

This is a recent change. A few years ago, when Gallup began tracking this ideological question, 59 percent of Americans favored federal government action on it. By 2007, 69 percent were all for a major, government solution to the problem.

Now, only 47 percent favor this.

What happened?

Democrats took control and began floating actual proposals, that’s what. And Americans could then see what such programs would be in actuality. Glorious fantasy quickly curdles into dubious reality.

Less freedom. Higher costs. Fewer services.

Further, the “feel” of the whole issue morphed, away from hope through medicine and towards the despair inevitably induced by bureaucracy.

The Democrats in Washington, like those in New London, seem well-intentioned enough. Movers and shakers all, they merely want to “get things done.” But all they possess to do good are the rather crude instruments of their profession: strong-arm politics and bureaucracy and the barrel of a gun.

So of course Americans begin turning against that reality. We’d rather make do with the government-controlled health care we suffer from today than endure even more coercive bureaucracy and “good intentions.”

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