and the
Citizens Economic Research Foundation

Barbara's Column
June #6

Court's decision a cruel blow to the American dream
by Barbara Anderson

The Salem News
Wednesday, June 29, 2005

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 (Connecticut).

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, reacted quickly.

The Wall Street Journal wrote that the court had "now ruled that there are effectively no limits on the predations of local governments against private property."

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 succeed."

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.