One of the most enduring myths about government in the United States is the idea that governmental behavior is more or less congruent with standards of individual morality. In other words, most Americans believe that government authority is shaped and ruled by the same moral standards which shape and rule the behavior of the average individual. Governmental behavior may have special leeway in a few instances, but for the most part it is constrained by the same principles which constrain the typical man on the street.
This idea, while not without foundation, falls well short of capturing the truth. What most people do not realize is that governmental morality is based on processes which are altogether different from those which form the basis for the morality of the individual. Individual morality is based on reciprocity, the classic notion of “give and take”: we refrain from damaging our neighbor’s property or stealing goods from our friends because we expect this same kind of treatment in return. Individual morality is an exchange, it stems from the basic idea that whatever action or inaction we take will be reciprocated by whoever is affected.
And because our government is nothing other than a massive collection of individuals, many people assume that governmental behavior must be based on this same principle. In reality, however, this is not the case, because our government does not take part in the sort of interactions in which the individual takes part. Instead of reciprocity, government behavior is based on reason, it derives from a wholly rational process involving the weighing of pros and cons and the careful analysis of possible outcomes. A good deal of the confusion about government would quickly disappear if this fact were realized.
There are various ways to show that this is an accurate statement; today, we will use the concept of eminent domain to prove our case. Relatively few property owners are aware that the government has the constitutionally conferred power to confiscate private property, and that the exercise of this power is not limited strictly to times of war. Denuded of its lofty name, eminent domain is simply a forcible acquisition of the sort which would be punishable if committed by an individual citizen. Of course, this does not speak to its propriety, but only illustrates the fact that governmental behavior operates according to different rules. Let’s take a peek at the case of Hawaii Housing Authority v. Midkiff (1984) to get a sense of the contours of eminent domain.
On the island of Oahu, 22 landowners held 72.5 percent of the land titles. This oligopoly led to a distorted market which involved inflated prices and general social discontent. One landowner (the Bishop Estates) held an unusually large portion of land. The Hawaii Legislature passed a measure designed to redistribute the lots held by the Bishop Estates to their corresponding lessees. The legislature reasoned that this transfer of ownership was in the best interests of the entire community. The measure was brought before the Supreme Court of the United States in order to determine its constitutionality.
The doctrine of eminent domain arises from the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. According to the so-called “public use doctrine,” the government has the ability to transfer title of ownership if such a transfer serves a legitimate public good.
In an 8-0 (unanimous) decision, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that the measure adopted by the Hawaii Legislature was constitutionally valid. The court’s decision of this case was significant because the legislature did not transfer the title of the land to the “public,” but to a larger share of private homeowners. However, though this was the case, the court determined that the legislature’s invocation of eminent domain was valid because the correction of the market conferred a substantial benefit to the general public. In other words, in order for eminent domain to be invoked, private land does not have to be put specifically to public use; it only has to confer a clear benefit to the wider populace.
Of course, circumstances will rarely compel the typical homeowner to master the finer points of eminent domain; but it is still important for virtually every homeowner – and nearly every citizen, for that matter – to have at least a basic understanding of this concept. As citizens, we have to be aware of all the functions of our government, not just those which are the most visible or common. Eminent domain may not dominate the headlines of our most popular media, but as we’ve seen it is still remarkably important.
Image credit: Nicolas Raymond
In addition to a knowledge of eminent domain, our readers who own property will also benefit from the following presentation about the tax advantages available to homeowners