Point/Counterpoint: Eminent Domain

EDITOR’S NOTE: Sometimes Evening Sun reporters just like to argue. This week, Tyler Murphy and Jeff Genung debate a topic that’s been in the local news a lot lately – the use of “eminent domain” – the seizure of private lands for public use.

Eminent domain is a required policy in our modern times. As our country progresses forward, we will continue to encounter the issue of the public demand versus private rights. As populations grow and demand for every resource increases, we will need to take steps to ensure that the needs of the many are measured against the needs of the one. In situations where some private sacrifice is needed in order to ensure the greater public good, then those actions can be justified. This is a widely accepted belief by most people until they are the ones asked to give the sacrifice. This selfish contention is in the face of a common and correct moral decision that would be easily made when the affected party was abstract from the unforeseen consequence that ultimately affected them. Deciding after the fact it isn’t right because you’re the one that must give to the public is wrong. Another justifiable reason is the fact we are a democracy; the government has an organized system that will allow representatives and public input to approve such a decision. We have the power of vote and because of this, we have the power to approve and disapprove. – TDM

Another thing we have is a Constitution, written by our Founding Fathers to protect our certain inalienable rights. I’d direct your attention to the Fifth Amendment of that Constitution, which includes at its tail end a “takings clause” which essentially prevents the assumption of private property for public use without proper compensation. It’s a precept on which our democracy was built, and one that stood the test of time – until relatively recently in our nation’s history. As corporate manifest destiny sticks its tendrils into every facet of modern life, the notions of “public use” and “proper compensation” have been muddied to the point where Joe Property Owner can’t be certain what his government’s intentions are toward his land at any point. Living in fear of what the government can do to you doesn’t sound like a democracy at all to me. – JMG

We do not need to live in fear of our democracy unless we need to live in fear of ourselves. The Constitution has a more important and revolutionary attribute that can account for this policy, Article 1, section 8, clause 18 also known as the “elastic clause.” This gives Congress the power to pass all laws necessary and proper. It allows our Constitution to grow; the Founding Fathers knew they couldn’t account for every unforeseen problem that could plague America in the next 300 years. One of those issues is our rapid resource consumption and population explosion. I don’t like compromising people’s personal rights any more than you, but if there ever was a justifiable reason it would be to ensure the public good. In the end this serves our country as a whole and protects the future generations of this country. – TDM

The crux of this problem is in the definition of the term “public good.” We didn’t start tinkering with that definition under the realm of eminent domain until FDR’s New Deal came around – since then we’ve become overly reliant on the government “fixing” our economy. That’s not how free enterprise is supposed to work. Nowadays, our public officials can decide that one person’s (or corporation’s) good is “gooder” than a private citizen’s good, and there goes your home. Further complicating the situation is our definition of “proper compensation.” Sure, when your home or business is taken you get paid fair market value – but what price do we put on pride and memories? One of the reasons we came to the New World in the first place was that the land was abundant and free to do with what we please. If we hand even more control of that over to our government, it’s just another in a long list of freedoms that we’ve lost. – JMG

So you concede that the principle of eminent domain is a valid one and you’re just concerned with the abuse of the privilege? I would use our local example of NYRI. Look at the united uproar of local communities and their elected representatives against the project. I can not say if the project is for the best or not, but what I can say is the public has overwhelmingly decided it is not. As a result, the plan is slowly beginning to fail. Thanks to our citizens’ participation in government, they have demonstrated that people do have the power. Big business can be a threat to our national security and private rights, but we should not allow their greedy misgivings to doubt our just policy and our resolve to do what is best for our people. Just policies can be abused, and if we removed every belief we have ever had because it was abused or taken advantage of, we would be left with nothing. It may seem dim at the moment, but corruption erodes with time like everything else. In the generations to come, eminent domain will play a part if you like it or not, because it will become an issue of survival. Our demands are quickly exceeding our capabilities. Let us hope before that day comes we can learn to use eminent domain wisely because it will be necessary. – TDM

Amen. Eminent domain certainly has its just purposes – I trust our government enough to determine when private lands should be taken for government necessities. What I don’t trust is when private lands are condemned and given to other private entities for the sake of making a profit or increasing a tax base, and that’s largely how eminent domain is used – or abused – these days. We all cheered in the fight against NYRI when Gov. Pataki signed the “eminent domain” bill, but in reality that small victory still lost the larger fight. The bill Pataki signed into law might as well be stamped with “This means you, NYRI” because it is so specific towards that project that it does nothing to protect an individual property owner’s rights if and when another corporate entity comes along that decides it has a better use for your land than you do. As it stands now, if they can convince the government that they’re right – that it’s for the “public good” – you don’t stand a chance. – JMG

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