Legal experts, property developers and lovers of liberty ought to be eagerly waiting for the outcome of a key US court ruling on what is known as the law of eminent domain. The ruling could kill off the practice in which property developers, in alliance with local politicians and bureaucrats, can push property owners from their possessions, seize the land and re-develop it, usually in the hope of grabbing higher tax revenues than was the case before.
I am not an expert on the fine print of this law as it applies in the United States, and readers ought to look at works such as the excellent book by Richard Epstein on the subject. What is clear, however, is that for years Americans, like Britons, Frenchmen, Germans and others, have been living in a world increasingly resembling the law of the jungle rather that of a liberal civil order when it comes to the treatment of property.
I honestly do not know how the ruling will turn out. Essentially, contestants in the case are arguing against the idea that eminent domain can be exercised on commercial grounds. Hard-line defenders of property will, of course, argue that eminent domain does not exist even if the supposed use of property is for something required for ‘public use’, such as a port, military airfield or highway.
Here is a thought – this ought to be a classic ‘left-wing’ sort of issue. It is actually a good issue for libertarians to try to use to convince socialist types that property rights, understood in their fullest sense, are a protection for the weak and vulnerable, not the other way round. The old man in his shabby cottage who refuses to sell up to Big Gleaming Corp. is as much a hero of the free market order as any Ayn Rand character or 19th Century industrialist in a frock coat.
Side observation: I would be interested to know if the hugely loss-making Channel Tunnel link could have been built without compulsory purchase. Somehow I very much doubt it.
Thanks to the excellent Anger Management blog for the pointer.