A Bit of Good News on 60 Minutes

Often I am told that my observations are negative, and that's true. I protest the loss of liberty. But behind that lies my most positive idea, namely, that free men and women are better at solving problems than those in chains ' even in chains that are quite long.

This time, however, there is some good news. Mike Wallace surprised me with a segment on Sunday's, September 28th, 60 Minutes on CBS TV, one that exposed without much mercy the dastardly way governments make use of eminent domain. This is the legal provision governments use to take private property for public use, one, however, that's been grossly abused over the years.

'Public use' would normally mean building court houses, police stations, military bases and a few other bona fide public projects, ones that are supposed to benefit everyone as citizens. That's what 'public' is supposed to mean in a free society'-I argued this in my book, Private Rights and Public Illusions (Transaction Books, 1995).

Nowadays, however, zealous politicians and bureaucrats have perverted the meaning of the term 'public.' Now what they use it to mean is anything that someone in government deems to be of benefit to more people than the owners provide. Thus, if you own a home'-a perfectly decent, clean, livable home ' but the mayor of your town believes that someone else's having it would make more money for the city, eminent domain can now be used to take it and transfer it to another private owner. Courts throughout the country have been ambivalent about this, what with the way the idea of 'the public' is used having become terribly ambiguous.

Just imagine: You decide that your neighbor's car is just not being used to its full value, so you take it. After all, the neighbor is using it only on and off, whereas you could make so much better use of it, driving it all around town, getting all kinds of worthy things done with it. Or, say, the neighbor has a radio but rarely uses it, so you take it because, well, you would make so much use of it, seeing how you love listening to music and news and everything.

The idea, voiced by the various bureaucrats Mike Wallace interviewed, was no different from this. They believed the public would benefit from taking the property, for redevelopment and such. Build more expensive homes that will result in higher property taxes. Or give the property to a business that promises to hire more people who will, then, spend more money in town and, of course, pay more taxes than the displaced modest establishment did.

And, mind you, this isn't simply put forth as a rationale by government officials, people who certainly rarely show any respect for the right to private property. No, other persons, including people who own businesses, are often completely complicit in such schemes. As 60 Minutes showed, an Ace Hardware store owner was egging on city officials in a town to take away the property on which someone else was conducting a perfectly solvent operation. But because the existing establishment didn't yield the level of taxes the new one was likely to, the city should use eminent domain laws and take it.

What was so clear about the process is how corrupt it is. The mayor of one town where eminent domain was being misused like this openly admitted that the term 'blighted' had been used quite arbitrarily, to mean nothing more than that they don't want the place there any longer. So, words can be distorted for the sheer purpose of getting away with out and out robbery, to seize property that clearly belongs to someone, usually for some price the victim does not want. (Fortunately, the Institute of Justice, a vigilant organization in Washington, is going after these eminent domain abusers and standing up for their victims.)

I am not sure if any of the politicians and bureaucrats Wallace managed to expose on his show realized just how vicious they are in their takings. But certainly it was a boost to liberty to have the vicious practice exposed on this venerable television magazine show. This may not atone for all the pro-statism 60 Minutes has carried out over the years--hailing government regulators of nearly all professions (other than journalists, of course). But it is a good start.

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Tibor R. Machan's picture
Columns on STR: 70

Tibor Machan is a professor of business ethics and Western Civilization at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., and recent author of Neither Left Nor Right: Selected Columns (Hoover Institution Press, 2004).  He is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.