Well, it’s now official. We live in a country of the corporation, by the corporation and for the corporation. The last nail in the coffin was today’s really amazingly bad decision by the United States Supreme Court. By 5-4 justices agreed that local governments could unilaterally take away a person’s home or business merely in order to revitalize a local economy. In short your home, where you and generations of your family may have been living, is now expendable if the local politicians feel that a Wal-Mart better
enriches the local tax coffers serves the public good.
In previous years (that we will soon look back at with nostalgia) a government could take your property only if it served a compelling public need. Typically eminent domain was exercised to build new freeways. But now, after centuries of emulating the British common law notion that a man’s home is his castle, our Supreme Court has turned this idea on its head. Now your home can be confiscated because it might make a lovely location for a new Starbucks. So don’t feel bad, property owner. Instead, think with satisfaction on the lovely tax revenues that patronizing yuppies will bring in to state and local coffers from all those Mint Moca Chip Frappuccino Blended Coffees. Clearly that is more important that your desire to continue to live your humdrum and ordinary life in your own house. But don’t worry. The government won’t steal your property. You will get “fair market value”. This means you are compensated for the property, but you certainly won’t get a dime for your distress and hassle. And since the fair market value is unlikely to buy you something in your neighborhood (which may not exist after the developers are done with it) you may join others exiled in outer exurbia and forced to endure nightmarish commutes.
Maybe this is a logical result of the “run government like a business” mantra coming from what we hilariously call our political “leadership”. Governments are not about profit and loss but are about doing the people’s business. It used to be that our politicians truly represented the people. Now it is clear that they are wholly aligned with corporate interests. If you represent a business, and particularly if you also give them fat campaign contributions, you will get first class service. Us annoying citizens, you know, the ones who actually pay taxes and vote, we get coach class service. Yep, tiny bags of pretzels for us. After all if we can afford to contribute to a political campaign, it’s likely to be $50, not $50,000.
You have to wonder what tortured logic convinced five justices to wholly forget our history. If they hadn’t recently ruled against medical marijuana I might have accused them of being high on something when they were writing their opinions. So let us review. A republic is a representative form of government. It exists to serve the needs of the people. There is nothing at all in our constitution that says that governments are formed to serve the interest of corporations. Through much of its history Great Britain’s government existed to serve the needs of its kings and queens. (Arguably for a time it existed to serve the needs of the British East India Company.) In our country citizens are not peasants. We have basic and inalienable rights. Governments become legitimate from our consent. We form governments to help us meet our common needs, not Wall Street’s.
And if government doesn’t serve our needs then, according to our Declaration of Independence, we have the right to alter or abolish it. We are unlikely to rise up in revolution on this particular issue. But some part of me would understand if the citizenry felt a revolution was justified. So after this decision we have little choice but to hope that some future Supreme Court smells the smelling salts or that our Congress, now carefully populated with politicians who also care more about corporations than the citizenry, specifically write a law to constrain this outrageous breach of the use of eminent domain.
This decision is particularly puzzling because it was the erstwhile liberals and moderates on the Supreme Court that allowed this travesty to occur. Justice John Paul Stevens, the court’s most liberal member, wrote the majority opinion. Even Justice Clarence Thomas got it. “So-called ‘urban renewal’ programs provide some compensation for the properties they take, but no compensation is possible for the subjective value of these lands to the individuals displaced and the indignity inflicted by uprooting them from their homes,” he wrote. Justice O’Connor noted, “The beneficiaries are likely to be those citizens with disproportionate influence and power in the political process, including large corporations and development firms.”
As a liberal I am appalled. Individual liberty is at the heart of liberalism. Liberals see the role of government to ensure that all citizens have equal rights and protection under the constitution. We protect people from corporate excesses. And now in one fell swoop this decision puts the interests of corporations above those of the citizenry.
You have to wonder if this court will wish they spent more time considering the implications of this ruling. Let’s hope the pressure from the citizenry will be fierce enough so that Congress does the right thing and creates a law that prohibits these uses of eminent domain.