Common Sense – Chapter 5; Part 5
…Nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”
–Fifth Amendment, U.S. Constitution
Eminent domain is the power of the State to take private property for what is essentially the Progressive idea of benefitting “the greater good.” Historically, government was severely restricted in its ability to take your home or land. They had to have a public use for doing so—such as building a new highway.
The word use is very important and was specifically include in the Constitution’s Fifth Amendment by James Madison—who also include that compensation must be provided for any property taken. Why the word use? It was a compromise. Our Constitution was shaped greatly by the Founders’ experience with the tyrannical British government, which took private property virtually at will. Madison wanted language that he hoped would prevent our government from eventually falling into the same trap, but he had to compromise, since some Founders felt that “public purpose”—a term that would give the government far more power—was more appropriate.
In retrospect, arguments over purpose versus use seem irrelevant, because the Supreme Court has now weighed in. In Kelo v. City of New London, they sanctioned the taking of private property even in cases where there was no direct public use. In the Kelo case, it meant allowing the city to seize property and sell it to a developer, solely for the public benefit of increasing the municipal tax rolls.
But “benefit” does not equal “use”. A lot of things might benefit the greater good (such as seizing a part of town with the ugliest houses, demolishing them, and selling the land to a developer) but they’re not of public use, so they’re unconstitutional—or at least they used to be.
Private property is essential to personal freedom and liberty because it enables an individual to gain independence from the State by accumulating land, money, and wealth. In the Declaration of Independence, the Founding Fathers wanted to assert that Americans were protected in their “life, liberty, and property” but were instead persuaded to write “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Why? Because they didn’t want southern slave states to be able to continue their practice by asserting that slaves were property and were therefore a protected right.
The importance that private property plays in preserving freedom can easily be seen in the words of those who had diametrically opposed beliefs in the role of government.
John Adams: “The moment the idea is admitted into sciety, that property is not as sacred as the laws of God, and that there is not a force of law and public justice to protect it, anarchy and tyranny commence.”
Karl Marx: “The theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property.”