This is taking the long route leading up to discussing last week's Kelo decision by SCOTUS. In case you haven't been following it (or if Kelo means nothing but a TV station to you, too) this was the decision on eminent domain that stated local governments could seize private property for economic redevelopment purposes by private as well as public concerns. (I'm sure I've gotten the legal niceties wrong there, but you probably know enough about the case so that you're not misled by me.)
I meant to blog on this last week, but a combination of internet problems and more unpacking kept me from it until tonight. There's been a lot of good discussion in the Catholic blogosphere (The Seventh Age links to some excellent commentary at Mirror of Justice). I doubt there's much I can add to it.
From a Catholic perspective, this is a terrible decision. Chesterton would have been appalled, as Jason at The Seventh Age mentions. Ownership of private property is one of the key elements of Distributism; it's one of the fundamental reasons why Distributism is not Socialism. Leo XIII's encyclical Rerum Novarum lays the foundation as follows:
To remedy these wrongs the socialists, working on the poor man's envy of the rich, are striving to do away with private property, and contend that individual possessions should become the common property of all, to be administered by the State or by municipal bodies.
Aquinas would have frowned mightily. (Jason's right; Secunda Secundae, q. 66, art. 1,2,7). While one could argue that economic development in general helps everyone in a community (a rising tide lifts all boats), in fact the poor are the ones who stand to be hurt by decisions like this. The blogger Cacciaguida (HT: Eve Tushnet) picks out a pertinent section of Justice Thomas' dissent, referring to it as follows:
[I]f "economic development" is a "public use," then low-cost housing will always be a tempting target for city planners and state business promoters -- so, guess whose houses will usually be the first to face the combination of a check and a wrecking ball.
From any perspective of Catholic social teaching, this would appear to be a gravely flawed decision. Private property was also one of the principles most dearly held by the Founders, which is a nice thing to reflect on as we approach Independence Day. What would John Adams have thought of this?
I bring this up mostly because I've seen first-hand what kind of damage a debate like this can do to a city. I was living in Richfield (a first-tier suburb of Minneapolis) during the years when the city used the threat of eminent domain to acquire the property needed to build the Best Buy corporate headquarters. I don't recall if the city actually had to do it in order to get all the land that was needed, but the threat was definitely there.
The rationale for targeting these neighborhoods for redevelopment was that they had become blighted, and thus a drag on the city's tax base. A couple of auto dealerships were also affected by the decision. You can read a very good summary of the whole thing here, and read about the court case (it went all the way to the state Supreme Court) here if you're interested.
It's true that these tended to be older neighborhoods, but they were by no means slums. To the extent that some of the houses became run-down, this can in part be explained by the uncertainty under which many people were living, once it became known that the city had targeted this area for possible future redevelopment under the Comprehensive Plan. (Full disclosure: I served on the city's Planning Commission and voted in favor of the Comprehensive Plan. In my defense, I saw the development opportunities as reactive more than proactive; coming from a natural transition of land use as land became available, rather than an aggressive buy-out.)
At any rate, this became quite a divisive issue within the city. Many people defended the city's decision, citing the stabilization of the tax base, the introduction of new jobs into the area, and Best Buy's pledge to become a responsible corporate neighbor. Many attacked the decision, pointing to the lives being uprooted, the difficulty (even with a fair price being paid) for homeowners and small businesses to purchase comperable homes and/or land, and the questionable means used to arrive at the legal determination of blight that allowed the city to move ahead.
Probably the biggest factor for the opponents of the plan was the arrogance displayed by the city and its supporters. I think that arrogance was what made the subsequent debate so personal and so vicious. There were competing ad campaigns, nasty personal letters to the editor, a few acts of vandalism, some broken friendships, and dirty campaigns pitting the mayor and council incumbents against a slate of reform candidates. It was the nastiness of this whole thing, the way it poisoned the political and social atmosphere of Richfield, that really brought home to me how politics would never again be the way it was when I'd first gotten into it.
The whole thing was ugly, and if SCOTUS thinks the best way for opponents of eminent domain to deal with it is by voting out the incumbents, it's going to get uglier. But more than that, this decision sets the stage for a great injustice to be committed in this country by the unholy alliance of Big Business and Big Government. In the best tradition of local governmental control (at least the Founders would have approved of this), legislators at the city and state level must step up and enact legislation that prevents this kind of land theft. It is a perfect example of how the natural law as expressed in Catholic social teaching can inform the thinking that goes into making a legislative decision. Justice demands that the rights of the people be protected from these outrages, and on that I feel quite sure Aquinas, Adams, and Chesterton would have agreed.