On Wednesday, June 22, the U.S. House of
Representatives approved a constitutional amendment that would allow
Congress to outlaw American flag-burning as a form of political protest.
The following day, June 23, in an unrelated protest, the American flag
set itself afire on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court.
During the standard debates on flag-burning, an assumption is made that
the flag stands for something of great value that must be respected. But
the debate has been going on for so long that I wonder if anyone has
checked recently to see if the flag still stands for the same values it
stood for when the debate began.
The flag that painfully fluttered itself, carrying a can of gasoline, to
the Supreme Court steps, was flushed with embarrassment, its red stripes
bleeding into the white, its stars shining with unshed tears.
Self-immolation seemed the only way to express its shame at the decision
of five of the nine justices in the case of Kelo v. New London
Susette Kelo was one of nine property owners who did not want to give up
their homes and small businesses so that Pfizer Inc. could build a
research facility and the city could turn their neighborhood into an
economic development area. The Supreme Court's liberal justices —
Stevens, Ginsburg, Souter and Breyer — joined with moderate Anthony
Kennedy in support of government use of eminent domain to give private
corporations and developers the property of other private citizens.
This is far removed from the use of eminent domain for public use, like
the construction of roads or communications networks. As dissenting
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor warned, "the government now has license to
transfer property from those with fewer resources to those with more."
The American flag lit its little match.
Fortunately, someone rushed out with a fire extinguisher in the form of
news that ordinary citizens across the nation were also protesting the
decision. Conservatives, who had been watching the Kelo case as it moved
through the courts, expecting a favorable decision on property rights,
The Wall Street Journal wrote that the court had "now ruled that there
are effectively no limits on the predations of local governments against
The Heritage Foundation, the libertarian Cato Institute, Americans for
Tax Reform and Citizens for Limited Taxation, deplored the decision as
did the National Taxpayers Union.
"By giving governments a green light to bulldoze citizens' homes in the
name of development schemes that supposedly promise higher revenues, the
Supreme Court is also granting politicians a license to trample on
overburdened taxpayers," said the NTU. "Property rights have always been
inseparable from taxpayer rights, which is why this ruling is one of the
most shocking setbacks for economic freedom and limited government in a
decade. ... From shopping malls to sports stadiums, the Court has
unjustly given its blessing to many crony-capitalist projects that
depend more heavily on public funding than free-market principles to
Organizations and activists on the left are responding as well.
Dissenting Justice Clarence Thomas' reminder that urban renewal in past
decades had come to be known as "Negro removal," resonated with black
leaders. Indeed, the NAACP had submitted a brief to the court in support
of Kelo as did the AARP. Environmentalists and anti-development
activists should react as my son did, embarrassed that the liberal
justices want to take people's homes and give them to developers.
Over the years, I have come to see my son's point of view about
environmental issues, though my natural regard for property rights
superseded my distaste for suburban sprawl and the McMansion epidemic. I
have wondered, however, as some conservatives touted the benefits of
"growth", exactly where that growth was supposed to lead. Now, the
Supreme Court having ruled that there is no such thing as property
rights, I'm ready to coalesce with people who want to give the country
back to the Indians.
Of all possible dissenters, my favorites are the cynics, who are getting
it right the first time as they call radio talk shows predicting that
developers will bribe politicians to take our homes. This is not just
grass-roots paranoia, since Justice O'Connor said the same thing in her
dissent: "The fallout from this decision will not be random" she wrote.
"The beneficiaries are likely to be those citizens with disproportionate
influence and power in the political process, including large
corporations and development firms."
I expect organizations involved in campaign finance reform to be jumping
on the property rights bandwagon, too. It's one thing when special
interests give money to politicians to buy favors; it's much worse when
they give money to politicians to take our homes!
A classic confrontation is about to occupy center stage in the political
arena: Big Government and Big Business, the worst possible combination,
against the flag and the rest of us. I fear that Big Labor leaders will
join the other two giant institutions, wanting the temporary jobs that
the development projects can provide. But I predict that most working
people, who value their property rights, will break ranks.
Next week, I'll write about some of the actions that can be taken to
fight back and restore the American dream.
Barbara Anderson is executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation. Her syndicated columns appear weekly in the Salem
News, Newburyport Times, Gloucester Times, (Lawrence) Eagle-Tribune, and Lowell Sun; bi-weekly in the Tinytown Gazette; and occasionally in the Providence
Journal and other newspapers.