Sunday, June 26, 2005

The U.S. Supreme Court is allowing a local government to kick out of the house in which she was born 87-year-old Wilhelmina Dery and her husband who has lived there with her for 60 years. Why? The government wants to seize their property, bulldoze their house and many others and sell the land to businesses and developers for private uses.

One must very carefully choose words in political discussions but must not mince them either. This decision in the Kelo v. New London case is another giant step toward classical corporatism or fascism in America.

In this case the city council of New London, Conn., decided to condemn and take the homes and businesses of a number of citizens, including the Derys and Susette Kelo, who filed the case, in the name of economic development.

The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution allows governments to take property by eminent domain, as long as just compensation is paid, but only for public uses. These uses have always been understood to be necessary government-provided infrastructure such as courthouses or roads.

Otherwise, property should be sacrosanct. Individuals, businesses or governments might seek to purchase it, but if the owner does not wish to sell, that is his or her right — meaning one need not secure the permission or blessing of neighbors, government or “society”to own property.

But in recent decades politicians have made increasingly brazen elitist attempts to remodel our lives and communities. They more and more have welded eminent domain to seize private homes and enterprises in order to turn them over to different businesses or developers they believe will use the property in ways that better serve the community.

Now the Supreme Court has undermined fundamental private property rights by ruling, in effect, that governments can pretty much seize property for any reason they see fit.

Thus we have a situation in which, unlike under socialism, individuals can still hold title to their own property. But unlike a free-market system, they do not own their property by right. They hold it at the discretion of political authorities who can yank it away at a whim. This is the economic principle of the classical corporatist or fascist regime.

To call it corporatist or fascist is no mere epithet. It designates a system that maintains the veneer of property while political authorities have extensive powers to limit rights in the name of economic planning. This system necessarily means political conflict is the normal state of affairs — either in open elections and legislation or closed-doors deals between lobbyists and politicians. It means no one’s property is truly secure.

Some pundits complain Americans are too apathetic about politics. Yet in a corporatist regime, everyone will be politically involved but for all the wrong reasons. Many individuals, whether through misplaced idealism, pandering paternalism or pure predation, will threaten the liberties of their neighbors while others will face a never-ending battle to defend their lives, liberties and property. Everyone will need be on guard against his neighbors. Instead of a peaceful society, we will have a war of all against all.

Pundits complain our society has become too nasty and uncivil, with every issue in life a partisan political battle. That is the nature of our corporatist system. The Supreme Court’s Kelo decision stirs the conflict down to the grass roots.

What are the Derys and Ms. Kelo to think of their city council members? What are they to think of their neighbors who failed to stand up for their property rights and denounce these politicians, shun them like the plague and vote them out of office? The only moral feelings they can have are resentment, and a sense of violation and deep injustice.

The Kelo decision is a wakeup call for restoring property rights. Under the Fourteenth Amendment, which allows Congress to protect the rights of citizens against abuses by state governments, the U.S. House and Senate could pass new civil rights legislation to protect citizens’ Fifth Amendment property rights. Congress could limit eminent domain to narrow public purposes and bar takings for ultimately private uses.

Good fences make good neighbors. The right to private property is the cornerstone of any peaceful and prosperous society that respects individual rights. In this battle, there can be no fence-sitters. There’s no better case than the Kelos’ to demonstrate that property rights are civil rights.

Edward Hudgins is executive director of the Objectivist Center.

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