Eminent Domain for Private Gain Is Terrible and Cruel — Even When It “Works”

Despite a "success" story, eminent domain for economic development is a bad policy

Ilya Somin’s excellent new book The Grasping Hand on the infamous case of Kelo v. New London recently drew a negative response from a professor who defends the use of eminent domain for “economic development.”

In his letter to the editor of the Wall Street Journal, Wayne State University professor John Mogk took issue with Somin’s book and with Ed Glaeser’s favorable WSJ review. Mogk claims that they did not adequately weigh what he regards as a successful use of eminent domain to promote economic growth in Poletown, Detroit.

The New London redevelopment project that cost Suzette Kelo her little pink house was, Mogk admits, a fiasco. But, he says, we shouldn’t paint all eminent domain cases with that brush. He wants to buttress the case that the public welfare can be enhanced by using eminent domain to obtain land for projects that are supposed to stimulate the economy and create jobs.

Mogk believes that the apparent success of Poletown saves the day for eminent domain enthusiasts.

Here are three reasons for believing that he is mistaken.

First, as a policy matter, we either give the green light to property seizures for any “public purpose” conceived by politicians, or we prohibit them and limit eminent domain just to seizures for a clear public use. (That’s the language in the Constitution.)

We cannot have a rule that says, “Eminent domain may be used for economic development plans, but only when it actually produces net benefits.”

No one can know ahead of time whether a plan will “work” (which is to say, produce at least some of the promised gains) or utterly fail. In Kelo, the City of New London’s grand redevelopment plan fell through completely. Where neat, modest houses once stood, you now see only rubble and weeds. Nobody knew that would be the outcome when the plan was conceived.

Consider this analogy: The law forbids warrantless searches by the police, but suppose that, in some illegal searches, important evidence of criminal activity is found. Should we conclude that the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement can be discarded because there are some instances where we get good results from warrantless searches? 

I don’t think that conclusion follows. And neither should we allow property seizures whenever authorities want to, just because those seizures sometimes have “good results.”

Second, Professor Mogk’s Poletown example isn’t as telling as he thinks. Perhaps it is true, as he writes, that most of the inhabitants were content with their buyouts. What I don’t think anyone can deny, however, is that for some of the residents, especially elderly people, the forced relocation was extremely disruptive and painful.

Outsiders like Mogk and the bigwigs at General Motors (who wanted the land for a new Cadillac plant) may have thought that Poletown was “declining,” but to the people who called it home, living there was their best option.

The right to quietly enjoy their property was taken away from them so that others might be more prosperous — GM stockholders and UAW workers, in particular.

We have to oppose the collectivistic philosophy that says it is permissible to use coercion against some individuals as long as those in power think they might thereby create a net utilitarian gain for more politically powerful (and usually much richer) interests.

Third, all that these economic development eminent domain takings can ever do is to redistribute where economic activity takes place. It cannot create any overall gain.

Let us suppose that the GM management was correct in forecasting an increase in demand for luxury cars. (It appears that they overestimated that demand, at least for their own vehicles, since the plant never employed nearly as many workers as they had said it would.) Free market competition to satisfy that demand would have led to increased output without Detroit confiscating land for a new GM plant.

If it hadn’t been able to resort to coercion to get the land, GM would probably have found other ways of increasing Cadillac production, but even if it couldn’t have done so, other auto-makers would have built more luxury cars. Auto jobs would have been created somewhere, and car buyers would have benefited without property owners losing.

Instead of proving that eminent domain can be a good economic development tool, the Poletown example is just another illustration of Bastiat’s broken window fallacy. Demolishing Poletown to build a new auto factory brought about visible benefits for some people, but only at the expense of benefits for others that would have otherwise occurred. 

No, not every eminent domain seizure for economic development purposes is as pointless and utterly destructive as Kelo, but we still ought to stick with this rule: Government should protect property rights, not violate them. The government should do those few order-keeping functions appropriate to it and leave the allocation of resources and planning of production to people who risk their own money and cannot take what isn’t theirs.

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