September 29, 2004

Places vs. Commodities

The Supreme Court has agreed to review a case from Connecticut challenging the town of New London's use of eminent domain to seize people's homes in pursuit of a nefarious utilitarian scheme (Kelo v. New London, No. 04-108). New London wants to make the land available to developers to build swanky hotels and offices that city leaders claim will increase tax revenues and improve the town's economy.

As the petition for the writ of certiorari puts it, the issue is simply "whether the public use clause of the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution authorizes the exercise of eminent domain to help a government increase its tax revenue and to create jobs." 2004 WL 1659558.

The Court should decide that it doesn't. I'm sure that it will have no trouble finding solid legal reasons to reject the city's position, which is a fairly extreme interpretation of the "public use" requirement for the exercise of eminent domain. The biggest winners here will be the private developers and private businesses that make use of this gift of land by the State.

In one way, though, the city of New London's thinking is very conventional. It's become normal to think of all property as fungible, because we've made the mistake of treating land as a commodity rather than as a place. This is the kind of thinking that enables city leaders to disregard their citizens' love for their homes, and makes it possible to think that a cash payment for the "value" of their land is always fair.

This kind of thinking will let us cut down the last of the old-growth forests on this continent because the trees are "worth more" as lumber than they are as old trees.

This kind of thinking, where every piece of land can be exchanged for any other on the market, and can always be converted to cash, disregards much of our actual experience as human beings on this planet. It ignores our love of places, and our recognition that places are unique and irreplaceable.

The town of New London shouldn't be able to get away with this.

Posted by Carey at September 29, 2004 07:49 AM