Bulldozing the way for capitalism

By Greg Ellis

“A government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take from you everything you have.”

-Gerald R. Ford, 38th US President, Republican

The reasons to not have re-elected President Bush number in the thousands and it’s a time-honoured tradition for columnists to attack Bush with marked ferocity. His reshaping of America’s foreign policy with doctrines of pre-emption is as short-sighted as it is ill-fated and I can’t help but wonder what will occur as he begins to reshape the US Supreme Court. Most notably, in the June 2005 landmark case of Kelo v. New London, the court voted in favour of eminent domain to extend to private developments as well as public.

The idea allows governments to seize the property of its citizens for institutions of public good: hospitals, roads, libraries and of course military bases, setting a dangerous new precedent. In addition to buildings of “public good,” the new “private developments” clause ensures your home can be bulldozed to make room for a new fast-food restaurant or strip mall. While these things can be said to stimulate economic growth, eminent domain’s already-flimsy pretense of inflicting necessary evils for the greater good is called into question. No Democrat or Republican should be surprised when they wake up to the deafening roar of the Bobcat as their residence is demolished to make way for a Burger King or Super 8 Hotel.

The conservative party is as rich in thinking as it is in contradictions and I must admit I regularly ask for directions on the road to Republican Babylon. For Bush’s edict of the “ownership society” via privatizing social security and reducing taxes, I am not exactly sure how eminent domain represents nothing less than an abomination of the idea of property ownership. To expect complete consistency from an American President is to set the bar a little too high, but even a flexible Mr. Bush won’t be able to high-jump the unforgiving horizontal pole of eminent domain.

To many, eminent domain is nothing more than a case study into the dangers of unchecked government and judicial abuse, and the court is in need of judicial convalescence. Some of the wisest words I have ever heard came from a cab driver some years ago: “laws have and always will be designed to keep the rich rich and the poor poor.” At the time I lacked the wisdom to see just how true his cynical view was, but as I look at the packaging of eminent domain I must say the ingredients hold to his theory. The reasoning involves a crude application of utilitarianism and rests upon the notion that a new property could yield greater property taxes or create more jobs than any private developer with a shovel.

Economic stimulation under the title of legal theft doesn’t seem like a great idea, yet it holds true to an administration seasoned in offering poor trade-offs. I could not resist comparing eminent domain to the assault on America’s civil liberties via the Patriot Act. Being held hostage by fear was enough to give up freedom and pay the ransom of perceived safety. As Benjamin Franklin stated, “any society that would give up a little freedom to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both.” The world changed after 9/11–why not help a land developer fight terrorism by forking over your petty home for an impressive strip mall? Keeping the rich rich was noble but making land developers even richer was outright fabulous. How could anyone stand in the way of the golden arches and fluorescent glow of greater testaments to shallow consumerism? Just think of all the stuff you could buy with the money you got, probably less than market value, for your faith in capitalism.

America was surely once home of the brave and land of the free, but I’m afraid it no longer speaks of such values. American democracy, espoused in The Federalist Papers and through the amplification of dissent, has been hijacked not by Osama Bin Laden but by the greed of the rich and the desire to keep wealth in the hands of few and power in even fewer.

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