Voters Back Limits on Eminent Domain


by Timothy Sandefur

The New York Times—itself a beneficiary of eminent domain abuse—runs this remarkably biased (even for the New York Times) article about eminent domain reform. Notice the picture, for example. Most redevelopment projects are not like this. Most redevelopment projects take place in business areas, and consist of taking a (not very pretty, but not a nuisance, either) business and giving the land to a developer to construct a large mall or luxury condos.

Anyway, the article goes on, quoting at least five reliable enemies of property rights—John Echeverria, for instance, and John Mogk, and John Shirey, and someone from the National League of Cities, a guy from Harvard Law School—while quoting (very briefly) only a single representative of the eminent domain reform movement (me), and then saying things like "property-rights groups have played to public fears in a way that discourages thoughtful discussion." Ah, and articles that brazenly mischaracterize the nature of redevelopment, that ignore the statistics, and play down the nationwide epidemic of eminent domain abuse are encouraging thought?

No wonder the Times' reputation has fallen so dramatically among people who care about the truth.

It's unfortunate that, given the resources that I made available to the Times,* the paper chose to focus the article as though—as the Harvard Law Professor puts it—"the property-rights movement is potentially just divesting them of their ability to decide their own future as a community." Something so absurd could only come from such a source. In fact, the "community"—or, more accurately, the politicians—are precisely the folks who have been harming people here. Even if this were about the "will of the community," communities have no right to dictate to people what they may do with their lives. Rights, after all, come first; democracy only second. If democracy is put first, before rights, then rights become merely permissions.

As James Madison said, "Wherever the real power in a Government lies, there is the danger of oppression. In our Governments the real power lies in the majority of the Community, and the invasion of private rights is cheifly [sic] to be apprehended, not from acts of Government contrary to the sense of its constituents, but from acts in which the Government is the mere instrument of the major number of the constituents."

This Harvard professor would doubtless be horrified if a community presumed to tell people how to pray, or whom they could marry, or what they could say in public, so as to "decide their future as a community." Yet it's okay for the community to boss people around when it comes to their homes and businesses? But of course, it's not about the "community," or the majority's will anyway; politicians, not majorities, make decisions about eminent domain.

Fortunately, in at least nine states, the people can add, "not anymore!"

*–During what were otherwise very polite conversations with the reporter who wrote this story, I mentioned the Times' profiting from the abuse of eminent domain, and she became quite defensive, insisting repeatedly that the redevelopment project was already under way, so it wasn’t really the Times' fault. Guilt has a way of making people angry, I guess.