American Magna Carta

Force them to sign! Until citizens are given back their property rights, force your local government to agree not to abuse the carte blanche that the Supreme Court has given the never ending money pit of greed within the development housing interests and within the tax happy local schools which feed upon the same carcass of our rights to our homes.

Dynamist Blog

That’s all the more reason to crank up the grassroots activism. Cities can legally bind themselves not to abuse eminent domain. On (of all places) D Magazine’s Frontburner blog, a local lawyer points to a charter amendment passed by the citizens of Carrollton, a Dallas suburb, in 1998:

“Provided, however, nothing included above or anywhere in this charter shall authorize the City of Carrollton, or any corporations, agency or entity created by the City, or pursuant to the City’s approval and authorization, to institute and exercise the power of eminent domain to acquire private or public property if the purpose of the acquisition is the promotion of economic development for a private business enterprise which business enterprise would own any right, title, or interest in the property so acquired.” (Emphasis added.)

The Institute for Justice, which brought the Kelo case, is organizing grassroots efforts via its Castle Coalition. (Steve and I are donors to IJ and this site is running the Castle Coalition’s Blogad without charge.) From their site:

Right now, there is a tremendous momentum against this abuse of power, and we ask each of you to begin organizing to change the law in your city or county or state. The Castle Coalition will help you write the language, but now is the time to start organizing your friends and neighbors. Your local government will tell you there’s nothing to worry about, that it would never use eminent domain, or that it’s only as a “last resort.” Don’t believe a word of it. Your only protection is a change in the law (or good state court rulings, which is what the Institute for Justice is working on).

While Kelo rightly sparks the immediate demand for political action, motivated by a visceral sense of injustice, over the long run a lot of intellectual work needs to be done. Kelo is the logical result of the argument that spillovers of any sort–in this case, the positive effects of business development–constitute externalities, and that externalities justify government intervention. What’s wrong with that argument? If it’s fine for air pollution (as I believe it is), why doesn’t it apply to refusing to sell your house to a business that would enrich the local area? Why doesn’t it apply to offensive speech?

These are not easy questions, and they need to be asked. As political scientist Aaron Wildavsky warned before his untimely death in 1993, “externality” (and even “pollution”) is an elastic, socially constructed concept whose application depends on what you like or dislike. If spillovers are all it takes to justify government action, liberalism’s most basic freedoms–from freedom of speech to private property–cannot survive.