With "Successes" Like These....

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

So I'm fresh off a being almost completely out of touch for several days and out of my normal blogging rhythm. Naturally, I head straight to the big boys so I can get caught up with the important stuff.

An item at Instapundit catches my eye: "FIGHTING GOLIATH: An eminent domain success story." Has another state has passed legislation to curb the effects of the Kelo decision? Or has, perhaps, a new court ruling posed a serious challenge to some fundamental aspect of eminent domain? Or has the Blogfather unearthed some entertaining bit of poetic justice in which a victim of eminent domain somewhere actually came out ahead in some unforeseen way?

The answer is: "None of the above."

Not that I am unhappy to see the couple in this story win their well-deserved court victory, but the following hardly qualifies as an "eminent domain success story":

Every once in a great while, government, as a land-grabbing Goliath, gets thumped by the most diminutive David, especially when the former fails to follow its own policies.

That may cost Philadelphia $497,230 in damages, plus the plaintiffs' legal fees.

It began when Ed and Debbie Munoz, in pursuit of the American dream, put up their New Jersey home and borrowed $1 million to buy a grocery and garden center in Juniata Park.

Afterward the couple learned -- secondhand through customers -- that their business was in the footprint of a planned housing development.

For more than two years, the Munozes sought answers from the city but said they received none. In 2004, with declining sales -- allegedly because of government's imminent land grab -- and Ed Munoz's declining health, the couple declared bankruptcy. The city picked up the property at a sheriff's sale.

The Munozes went to court.

City officials said it wasn't clear through 2004 whether the Munozes' lot would be needed. Yet an April 2003 letter from the developer asked the city's Redevelopment Authority to acquire the property.

Even the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development reportedly warned city officials in 2005 that Philadelphia violated federal relocation law.
Needless to say, Philadelphia will appeal.

But let's say that this case makes it all the way to the Supreme Court and that this decision is upheld. This decision in no way challenges the premise that the government can exercise eminent domain. It just demands that the government be up-front about doing so. The Munozes, as far as I can tell, were lied to, and are simply getting what they "should have gotten" as "compensation" for selling their property ... against their will.

And so the next time a couple goes "all in" on a business that gets in the way of something Philadelphia wants, its officials will just have to be a little more careful before they violate that couple's property rights and potentially derail their dream for good.

Lest I seem to be making a mountain out of a molehill, it is worth remembering that a man who expressed dismay about the Kelo decision and who wrote a book called An Army of Davids -- about the "empowerment" of "ordinary people" -- is calling this "an eminent domain success story".

This brings up the question: What, exactly, does Reynolds mean by "empowerment", anyway? Consider again the following criticism I offered about An Army of Davids and how it relates to this court case:
Here's another counterexample to the notion that technology -- unaided by an improvement in a society's intellectual climate -- can effect meaningful social change. Reynolds notes that Philippine President Joseph Estrada was brought down by a text-messaging flash mob. He fails to mention that this flash mob gathered in exactly the same place the old-fashioned mob that overthrew Ferdinand Marcos 15 years before had gathered. I dare say that unless the people of the Philippines make fundamental cultural and political changes, some other corrupt president will probably have to be overthrown later on. What difference does it make that a president can be overthrown if he never gets replaced by anything better?
The relation is best summed up by the following pair of questions: (1) Is an isolated success of a people against a dictatorial regime -- or its development of a culture that would not tolerate tyranny -- "empowering"? (2) Is the fact that Americans can still sue for a "fair" price in an eminent domain case "empowering" -- or would an end to eminent domain altogether (which would eliminate the need for such lawsuits) be far more so?

To answer those questions, we have to ask questions like: "What can make a culture resistant to tyranny?" and "How is a law that prevents the government from forcing some unlimited number of people from selling their property better than some unlimited number of people potentially winning court cases against the government for doing so?" (Which isn't even what happened here, but, for the sake of argument....)

For a culture to resist tyranny, it has to understand what, on principle is bad about tyranny as well as the various forms of government that can lead to tyranny. A people with such a culture will rarely, if ever have to shake off tyranny because its people will not easily allow it to develop. And the time economy of outlawing eminent domain is obvious.

In both cases, the need to demonstrate or to spend time in court would be obviated by a public with a better understanding (and consistent political application) of the concept of individual rights. Or, as Ayn Rand put this point about the real-life power of abstract principles so well in her essay, "Philosophy: Who Needs It":
Abstract ideas are conceptual integrations which subsume an incalculable number of concretes -- and ... without abstract ideas you would not be able to deal with concrete, particular, real-life problems. You would be in the position of a newborn infant, to whom every object is a unique, unprecedented phenomenon. the difference between his mental state and yours lies in the number of conceptual integrations your mind has performed. [In: Philosophy: Who Needs It, pb. p. 5; bold added]
But the Filipino people do not reject the idea that the government should violate the rights of some to "serve" others -- and so they remain under corrupt rulers. And we Americans have not worked to eliminate eminent domain -- and so we will keep hearing about court fights like these. And since so many of our pundits disdain principles, we'll keep hearing such fights being called "success stories" as we slide closer to tyranny ourselves. And we'll take gadgets and chump change as "empowerment" rather than the real thing -- the vast, untapped power of the minds of a nation with a rational culture.

Unless, that is, we insist on a return to a principled political debate and work for a wider understanding of the nature of individual rights within our culture.

-- CAV


z said...

I keep looking at celebrity scandals as an example of our culture's non-resistance to tyranny. The idea is that a group of activists can have a "success story" by agitating for the firing or prosecution of a famous person, to make an example. Martha Stewart, Don Imus, or conversely, O.J. Simpson (which was viewed largely by blacks as a rare "success story" against persecution.) Especially in the case of the first two, there are famous people behaving the way so many people act. There is no way to put everyone that does this in jail or get them fired. So the pressure group agitates aginst this one celebrity and makes him pay the price, in order to scare the population at large. This could become a bigger and bigger problem as environmentalists and evangelicals become more and more powerful. Look at what PETA just did to Michael Vick. (The obligitory: NOt that I condone torturing dongs.) Imagine the total shakedown of Bill Gates for an environmental crime, something like that. Am i just being paranoid?

Gus Van Horn said...

I don't think you're being paranoid at all.

Your comment on Michael Vick is right on the money. Torturing dogs for "fun" is reprehensible, but it should not be illegal since the law should protect individual rights.

I think that this highly visible take-down is a big victory for animal "rights" activists.