The Rampant Injustice of Eminent Domain

Book Review

Abuse of Power—How the Government Misuses Eminent Domain
Steven Greenhut
Seven Locks Press 2004

Early on in Abuse of Power it becomes very apparent that Steven Greenhut is a very knowledgeable, principled, dedicated, caring, determined and patriotic individual. The Introduction contains a hard hitting, honest discussion of the power of the state to take private property for public use upon compensating. This practice, he states, has evolved to the point where it is theft by another name.

Greenhut hammers away at the gross injustices that are rampant. The discussion may have a tendency to become repetitious, but this may be necessary to effectively arouse the reader. Emphasis is on how a once noble, legitimate exercise has become a monster that the Founding Fathers would be ashamed of. It is now not just for truly necessary public works, but increasingly to take from one private owner to give to another. Such is the case when shopping centers replete with Home Depot and Wal-Mart stores and private business parks or sports stadiums.

Unfortunately, many people rarely doubt the legitimacy of eminent domain. They are hoodwinked by big campaign contributors and the movers and shakers in the community with the promise of expanding the tax base. Those who have their property taken routinely are offered only a fraction of the property’s value. This Greenhut emphasizes is the consequence of having the site identified as a redevelopment or blighted area. He notes that there recently have been thousand of cases of such abuse, which he characterizes as playing God, tactics similar to those used by a Mafia family, and reminiscent of the Soviet Union. And the victims, if they choose to fight, must hire expensive lawyers.

The point is rightly made that secure ownership of property is why America’s economy has flourished, while other nations have not. One of the foundations of a free society is the right to say “no.” The author notes that property rights do, or should, protect the little guy from the rich and powerful. He obviously is dismayed recognizing that only through widespread outrage are wrongs righted. A case in Lakewood, Ohio, is identified as the one where sometimes heroes emerge. City officials deemed it a waste to have prime property occupied by middle-class houses. Certainly sounds like the elite snobs reared their heads.

A stubborn, retired couple decided to spend their days battling to save their Lakewood home. Their efforts resulted in many neighbors joining in, people quoting from the Constitution and past presidents, much media attention including “60 Minutes,” assistance from the Institute of Justice, and the hosting of a Blighted Block Party. Finally an initiative was placed on the ballot, winning by 47 votes. The master planners project had unraveled. It must be noted that at this point, the reviewer was treated to Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.,” on his radio.

The first chapter ends with what the author refers to as the Eminent Domain Matrix. It is a takeoff on the popular science fiction movie The Matrix. Readers have a choice: take the blue pill, close the book and go back to your comfortable illusions; or take the red pill, keep reading further, and see how far down the slippery slope our nation has traveled. Very appropriate.

Chapter Two is entitled “We’re from the Government and We’re Here for Your Property.” It begins with a quote from Llewellyn Rockwell, Jr., President of the Ludwig von Mises Institute — “Property is private and enterprise free until and unless outcomes do not conform to the preconceptions of big government planners or big industry planners.” Readers beware. A blow by blow discussion of such travesties involving Garden Grove, California, in the year 2002 follows. Greenhut states that the people labored under the same delusion that most Americans do: namely that as citizens they were free to chart their own lives, to invest property as they desire, to raise their children in the neighborhood they choose, and to live their lives without molestation by government officials.

Then, one warm day in April of 2002, residents began learning firsthand that they, along with Americans in every state, are not quite as free as previously thought. As Greenhut put it: welcome to the world of eminent domain. The nightmare had begun, with a neighborhood of about 400 houses encircled with “theme park” stamped across it. The master planners had begun their attack. The whole scenario is well documented. Indeed, a very sickening one. Readers of this review are encouraged to obtain a copy of Abuse of Power to learn the details, which has all the earmarks of big brotherism, master planning, and social engineering. The author’s interpretation of a letter to Garden Grove residents from officials is fascinating, but ominous. Among other things, be on guard when big brother mentions a blight. If Garden Grove had a blight, then most of America is blighted. And, watch out for “finding the right balance.” A note in passing — Garden Grove is represented by a state senator, an assemblyman and a U.S. Congressman, all liberal Democrats who make frequent noises about standing up for the little guy against the big predators. The author does a splendid job spelling out the lessons to be learned and includes a quote from John Adams; “The moment the idea is admitted into society that property is not as sacred as the law of God, and that there is not a force of law and public justice to protect it, anarchy and tyranny commence.” Amen.

The third chapter, entitled “Unjust Compensation” begins with a quote from Exodus; “Thou shall not steal.” Greenhut goes to great length to identify the governmental abuses, including the twisting of laws such as the Constitution’s spelling out that taking is limited to public use and just compensation. His inclusion of a quote from the vice president of the abused Des Moines Blue Print Company — “You have to pay dearly to be treated fairly” — is very appropriate. Their sad story is chronicled. More details of the Garden Grove experience are related. The author notes that in the real world government routinely takes properties for non-public uses, owners are lucky to get any sort of notice of the action, let alone due process, rarely is anything close to “just” compensation offered, and resulting expenses reimbursed. Then there is the usual allowance of $20,000 in business good will, which Greenhut calls “such a deal.” Numerous cases are cited.

The next chapter is entitled “Property Rights Are Human Rights.” That, incidentally, has been the slogan of the Property Rights Foundation of America for over ten years. A quote of William Pitt does a splendid job of introducing it — “The poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the forces of the Crown — it may be frail, its roof may shake, the wind may blow through it, the storm may enter, the rain may enter, but the King of England cannot enter; all his forces dare not cross the threshold of the ruined tenement.” Greenhut facetiously refers to this as a radical idea, as he does the Third Amendment to the U.S. Constitution dealing with the quartering of soldiers and the Fourth which has to do with people being secure in their houses, papers and effects. Think about it — are these rights still honored? A logical basis for property rights is chronicled. It is noted that in the early days of the Republic the Constitution’s words were consistently accepted as meaning what they said, although there were some exceptions. Numerous recent abuses are detailed, including the triumph of judicial activism. A quote from Aesop is very fitting — “Any excuse will serve a tyrant.” The chapter closes, saying that in America today, property rights are no longer human rights.

“The New Urban Renewal” was the title given to Chapter Five. Again the introductory quote is very fitting — “As in all utopias, the right to have plans of any significance belonged only to the planners in charge,” Jane Jacobs. Greenhut begins by saying “the term urban renewal conjures up plenty of memories, almost all of them bad.” He notes that the federal approach to blight removal cut a path of destruction through the nation, yet wasn’t put to rest until 1974. The horrors are noted. Now, there is a new planning fashion called New Urbanism, with the goal of invigorating cities with many of the things stripped away by the last round of planning. Incidentally, the chapter subtitle, as one might guess is “As Bad as the Old.”

Chapter Six is called “The Eminent Domain Mentality.” The author notes that victims cannot understand how something so utterly unfair can take place legally and wonders if consultants and developers who benefit have even a tinge of bad conscience. Do not judges see the obvious violation of the U.S. Constitution? His answer is “no.” They have plenty of rationales for their behavior. What a sad commentary. Add onto this a naive and apathetic public who have their own self-interests. Greenhut notes that often no one bothers to think about constitutional principles and legal niceties like property rights. Gets one to wonder what the young are taught at home and in the schools. And the author concludes that the abusers mostly sleep well at night. He goes on to explain their mentality. He compares them to those who participated in Nazi concentration camps or in the Soviet gulag system. It is hard to believe just what redevelopment advocates think. Projects in Connecticut, New Hampshire, California, Kansas, Pennsylvania, Hawaii, Alabama, and Washington are used to point out the gross injustices. The degree of rationalization is lunacy.

An interesting title is bestowed upon Chapter Seven—“God Doesn’t Pay Taxes.” This is enough to force a thinker into reading every word. The introductory quote that the City of Cypress (California) decided that a church is not the best use of land owned by the church is further enticement.What Greenhut relates is hard to believe, and, yes, California is part of the United States. And, When he wrote columns defending the church, he could not believe the level of prejudice directed toward church members. No, the setting could not have been America. Then there is the Alice In Wonderland story with the setting being Nassau County, New York, also involving a church, and a historical church in Rockford, Illinois.

Chapter Eight is called “Corporate Welfare Queens”; another intriguing title. The accompanying quote of H.L. Mencken — “These men are seldom if ever moved by anything rationally describable as public spirit; there is no more public spirit among them than among so many burglars or street-walkers” — sets the stage. Mencken was writing about government bureaucrats, but, as the author notes, he could just as easily have been writing about retailers, professional sports franchises, casino owners, lawyers, consultants, and bond dealers. However, Greenhut notes, it is the law that is responsible for the abuses and the government that is mainly to blame. The process is destructive of individual rights and freedoms. Many striking instances are cited. Special attention is given to Costco which, according to the prestigious Institute for Justice, is the worst offender. And as might be expected, race enters the scene when blight is often an interchangeable term for “African-American” or “Mexican-American neighborhood.” Then there is the redevelopment industry. Anyone who does not have the urge to rise up and fight is not alive.

The ninth chapter, “The Media Finally Wake Up,” offers some rays of hope. Greenhut notes that recently, thanks to the increasing outrageousness of many eminent domain actions and the efforts of some lawyers and activist groups, media coverage has improved. Mention is made here, as in other parts of the book, of the influence and actions of the environmentalists. The journalists are so biased in favor of government actions on behalf of the environment that they distort the news and attack property owners. Numerous cases where media broke rank are cited. However, the author notes that the preponderance of liberal reporters leads to slanted news coverage.

A quote from Aristotle, “We make war that we may live in peace” introduces the last chapter. Greenhut notes that the first reaction to abuse is despair, but despair should not be allowed to last long. The key to success is to not feel overwhelmed by the powerful forces. Four main approaches that have yielded success are identified. The first — community organizing, the second — adopting a legal strategy, the third — political, the fourth revolves around the media. Some of the success stories are reviewed in detail, including: “Illinois Stops One Stop Shopping,” “California Dreaming,” “The Constitution State Rediscovers the Constitution,” “Colorado Supremes Slap Down Wal-Mart,” “The Way From San Jose,” “Atlantic City Officials Gambled and Lost.” Much is to be learned from these anecdotes. Greenhut concludes with the “Organizing ABCs” — Build Broad Coalitions, Go On the Offensive, and Be Positive, Not Just Reactive, Know What You Want to Do, Don’t Lose Sight of Principle, Keep It Simple.

Steven Greenhut’s creation is must reading for anyone who can read, especially those who are concerned about restoring and then re-preserving traditional American values and lifestyles. The author is to be applauded for his painstaking, pull no punches effort.

Nate Dickinson
November 14, 2004

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