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Now that I’m no longer

April 3rd, 2002 · No Comments

Now that I’m no longer jet-setting about, I decided that the best way to generate blog content would be to recycle my own work as much as possible. To that end, I’ll post my weekly LFB columns here, starting with this one:

“For Public Use”

Here’s a seemingly easy multiple-choice question. When the Nissan corporation builds a new auto plant, does that constitute (a) private or (b) public use of the land? If you’re itching to hit the “a” buton on your keyboard, don’t. First, because I’m too lazy to build JavaScript interactivity into this column, and you’ll look silly fruitlessly tapping away. Second, because at least according to the state of Mississippi, anything that creates jobs within the state counts as a “public use.” What that means, to Nissan’s delight, and the dismay of the Archie and Bouldin families, is that the state can use its power of eminent domain to seize privately held land and convert it to that most traditional of state functions: car manufacturing.

As ABC News reported recently, the story begins with a competition between several southern states for a potentially lucrative Nissan factory. Mississippi tried to woo the car makers with over a quarter billion in subsidies, but these were spurned like so many wilted flowers and cheap chocolates. No, to really win Nissan’s affections, the state had to promise a dowry consisting of huge, huge…. tracts of land. And if getting that land meant throwing poor landowners off their property… well, all’s fair in love and statecraft, right?

This case is unusual because, unlike the scads of other abuses of eminent domain it managed to generate national attention. That’s probably due at least in part to the fact that the families being evicted are black, which calls to mind the myriad other times government has found it expedient to give minority groups the shaft. Not only was “forty acres and a mule” a load of bull, Mississippi seems to be saying, but whatever land your ancestors managed to buy is also up for grabs.

Critics say that race is a red herring, unrelated to the core issues in this case. In one sense, that’s true enough: seizing people’s property is pretty awful whatever their pigmentation. But race is not wholly irrelevant here. The Constitution‘s Fifth Amendment throws property owners one meager bone: it requires that government compensate citizens whose property is taken for corpor… sorry, “public” use, which usually means paying something close to market value for the land. This is, I suppose, better than nothing, though it’s clearly not full compensation. Market value is an aggregate measure of people’s subjective valuations of the property in question, but the current owner’s valuation is going to be higher than the average, pretty much by definition. After all, if the land was worth less to its owner than the market price, wouldn’t he have sold it already? In any event, this otherwise useful check also gives government an unfortunate incentive: to target the poorest citizens for expropriation. Not only will their land have the lowest value, saving the state cash on compensation, but they’re least likely to be able to put up a fight. States seldom condemn the summer homes of billionaires. If a disproportionate number of the poorest families in the South just happen to be black, that’s not the government’s fault, now is it? Oh wait… yeah it is.

Despite all that, we shouldn’t let the racial overtones of this particular seizure prevent us from keeping our “eyes on the prize.” The real problem is that as long as the state is entitled to determine what counts as a “public use,” wealthy private entities will be tempted to let government spare them the inconvenience of actually having to negotiate with property owners before seizing land. Worse yet, when states adopt a policy of offering companies taxpayer-funded benefits for deigning to move into town, they set up a potential arms-race. Instead of deciding where to set up shop on the basis of more traditional economic considerations, companies can let local governments bid against each other, with taxpayer money, until the basket of goodies offered is roughly as valuable as the prospective benefit of the company’s presence to the community. Or rather, to those members of the community who are lucky enough to secure jobs, rather than having their homes bulldozed. This is, perhaps ironically, a version of the anti-globo crowd’s “race to the bottom” — except that this one has the distinction of being real.

It is probably too late for the Archies and the Bouldins, and the hundreds of other families whose homes are taken on a variety of pretexts, environmental as well as commercial. It is not too late to demand that in the future, if our government is going to exercise a Consitutional power to steal from its citizenry, it at least stay within the prescribed bounds of that power. We’ve already allowed our wise and noble leaders to invent their own novel interpretations of “no law.” Let’s not be quite so accomodating about “public use.”

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