Author Archives: Doug Mataconis

Thoughts On The Libertarian/Conservative “Alliance”

Over at Liberty Pundits, Melissa Clouthier argues that libertarians and conservatives are natural allies:

Libertarians want the government to bug out. Conservatives want the individual to empower himself. Libertarians believe in rational self-interest. Conservatives believe help and charity come from a giving heart–not from the government’s pointed gun.

Their motivations might be different, but their desired outcomes are the same. When Big Government Republicans talked about compassionate conservatism, they implied that conservatism is mean and harsh. They believed that they cared because they wanted to give people something for nothing.

They cared with other people’s money. I can be very generous when I’m writing checks off of someone else’s checking account. And boy do they all feel generous. But we are all paying the bill. And maybe some of us would pay for some of these things anyway. Americans are a very generous people. But many things are useless or worse, actively harmful and the government has no business being in that arena.

Conservatives and libertarians have much in common. Libertarians need to get over their God issue and actually see their friends in the conservative movement. They need to see the Restoring Honor rally for what it is: a call for personal responsibility and living free as an individual (which means being free to live with consequences and not expect someone else to bail them out).

And conservatives need to ignore the libertarian drug and sex obsession and see the small government, fiscally responsible desires in the libertarian movement.


The small government strains coming from these two groups naturally work together. Both true conservatives and libertarians distrust big government in all its forms whether the party is Republican or Democrat.

While I don’t doubt Melissa’s sincerity, I think what she misses here are the facts which seem to establish that that the conservative/libertarian “alliance” is really just a marriage of temporary convenience.

For better or worse, victory for conservatives means victory for Republicans. You can make distinctions between small-government fiscal conservatives and “Big Government Republicans” all you want, but the truth of the matter is that conservatives cannot succeed unless the Republican Party as a whole succeeds, and that means allying with and often voting with “Big Government Republicans.” Now, personally, that doesn’t bother me on some level. I”m willing to take an Olympia Snowe or a Mike Castle if it means Rand Paul is part of a Senate Majority. However, if you look at the history of the GOP as a whole, it’s hard to find any example from recent where the party was truly responsible for a reduction in the size, scope, and power of the Federal Government. It happened during the Reagan Administration, but even those modest gains have been reversed over the past decade, thanks mostly to a Republican President and Congress. So, on some level, libertarians and conservatives who hitch their star to the GOP are selling their souls and accepting the reality of short-term, temporary gains rather than long-term change.

More importantly, though, there are fundamental differences between libertarians and conservatives that make any kind of an alliance one of mere convenience rather than anything permanent. The great Frederich von Hayek outlined some of those differences in his 1960 essay Why I Am Not A Conservative (note that when Hayek uses the word “liberal” he is referring to it in it’s classical, principally British, sense of a belief in free markets and individual liberty, not the modern sense):

Let me now state what seems to me the decisive objection to any conservatism which deserves to be called such. It is that by its very nature it cannot offer an alternative to the direction in which we are moving. It may succeed by its resistance to current tendencies in slowing down undesirable developments, but, since it does not indicate another direction, it cannot prevent their continuance. It has, for this reason, invariably been the fate of conservatism to be dragged along a path not of its own choosing. The tug of war between conservatives and progressives can only affect the speed, not the direction, of contemporary developments. But, though there is a need for a “brake on the vehicle of progress,”[3] I personally cannot be content with simply helping to apply the brake. What the liberal must ask, first of all, is not how fast or how far we should move, but where we should move. In fact, he differs much more from the collectivist radical of today than does the conservative. While the last generally holds merely a mild and moderate version of the prejudices of his time, the liberal today must more positively oppose some of the basic conceptions which most conservatives share with the socialists.


The position which can be rightly described as conservative at any time depends, therefore, on the direction of existing tendencies. Since the development during the last decades has been generally in a socialist direction, it may seem that both conservatives and liberals have been mainly intent on retarding that movement. But the main point about liberalism is that it wants to go elsewhere, not to stand still. Though today the contrary impression may sometimes be caused by the fact that there was a time when liberalism was more widely accepted and some of its objectives closer to being achieved, it has never been a backward-looking doctrine. There has never been a time when liberal ideals were fully realized and when liberalism did not look forward to further improvement of institutions. Liberalism is not averse to evolution and change; and where spontaneous change has been smothered by government control, it wants a great deal of change of policy. So far as much of current governmental action is concerned, there is in the present world very little reason for the liberal to wish to preserve things as they are. It would seem to the liberal, indeed, that what is most urgently needed in most parts of the world is a thorough sweeping away of the obstacles to free growth.

This difference between liberalism and conservatism must not be obscured by the fact that in the United States it is still possible to defend individual liberty by defending long-established institutions. To the liberal they are valuable not mainly because they are long established or because they are American but because they correspond to the ideals which he cherishes.

The truth of Hayek’s observation can, I think, be found in the history that has passed since he wrote those passages fifty years ago. Except on the margin’s the march of the state has continued unabated regardless of which party was in power and regardless of whether the President was a (modern) liberal or a conservative. Ronald Reagan, as I noted, did little to reverse either the New Deal or the Great Society and Republicans, who campaigned on eliminating the Department of Education in 1980, turned around made it even more powerful when they finally achieved long-sought-after goal of a Republican President and Republican Congress.

Moreover, when it comes to certain aspects of government, conservatives have proved themselves as willing to increase the power of the state as their liberal opponents. The National Security State is largely a creature created by Republicans, and the PATRIOT Act, passed without even being read in the panic that ensued after the September 11th attacks, is now being used by law enforcement to go after people who have no connection to terrorism at all. Privacy from government surveillance and intelligence gathering is fast becoming a myth, and neither conservatives nor liberals seem willing to do anything about it.

And then there’s the issue of the social conservatism aspect of modern American conservatism. Whether it’s same-sex marriage, sexual privacy, or individual automony there are fundamental philosophical differences between libertarians and conservatives that become more apparent once you look past the agreements on fiscal policy.

So, yes, on a temporary basis, libertarians and conservatives have common ground at the moment. But it’s very small common ground and I don’t expect any “alliance” to last very long given past history.

Counterpoint: Civil Disobedience Or Not, Nullification Is Unconstitutional

In his post that started this debate, Brad Warbiany makes this point about the idea that the individual states have the power, or at least the right, to make declarations as to the Constitutionality of Federal laws:

Nullification is the civil disobedience of Federalism. Is it legal? No. After all, the Supremacy Clause and judicial review see to that. But it wasn’t legal for Rosa Parks to sit at the front of the bus, or for black students to sit at a “Whites-only” counter at Woolworth’s. Sometimes, the law is a ass. Sometimes, you need to disobey to make a point.


Viewed this way, nullification is less about disobedience as it is about changing policy. Nullification is a tactic in a wider strategy. It is a way to register unhappiness with federal dictates without necessarily going full-bore and threatening secession. Further, it is a way to demonstrate, by direct example, that changes in policy are preferable to the way Washington demands.

Taking this view of nullification, I don’t necessarily disagree with Brad on the value of state’s, and their citizens, weighing in on what they believe to be a usurpation of Federal power. After all, this is something that has a long and noble history in America. When President John Adams persuaded Congress to pass The Alien and Sedition Acts, Thomas Jefferson, who at that point was serving as Adams’s Vice-President, and James Madison worked together to draft and ensure the passage of the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, which were resolutions passed by the state legislatures of Virginia and Kentucky to condemn laws which Adams’s opponents viewed as both unconstitutional and near-dictatorial.

The resolutions — which you can read here, here, and here — are interesting in themselves because they contain one of the first post-ratifications statements by American leaders of what they believe the Constitution to mean, as this excerpt from the Kentucky Resolution of 1798 shows wonderfully:

2. Resolved, That the Constitution of the United States having delegated to Congress a power to punish treason, counterfeiting the securities and current coin of the United States, piracies and felonies committed on the high seas, and offences against the laws of nations, and no other crimes, whatsoever; and it being true, as a general principle, and one of the amendments to the Constitution having also declared, that “the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people,”—therefore, also, the same act of Congress, passed on the 14th day of July, 1798, and entitled “An Act in Addition to the Act entitled ‘An Act for the Punishment of certain Crimes against the United States;’” as also the act passed by them on the 27th day of June, 1798, entitled “An Act to punish Frauds committed on the Bank of the United States,” (and all other their acts which assume to create, define, or punish crimes other than those so enumerated in the Constitution,) are altogether void, and of no force; and that the power to create, define, and punish, such other crimes is reserved, and of right appertains, solely and exclusively, to the respective states, each within its own territory.

3. Resolved, That it is true, as a general principle, and is also expressly declared by one of the amendments to the Constitution, that “the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people;” and that, no power over the freedom of religion, freedom of speech, or freedom of the press, being delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, all lawful powers respecting the same did of right remain, and were reserved to the states, or the people; that thus was manifested their determination to retain to themselves the right of judging how far the licentiousness of speech, and of the press, may be abridged without lessening their useful freedom, and how far those abuses which cannot be separated from their use, should be tolerated rather than the use be destroyed; and thus also they guarded against all abridgment, by the United States, of the freedom of religious principles and exercises, and retained to themselves the right of protecting the same, as this, stated by a law passed on the general demand of its citizens, had already protected them from all human restraint or interference; and that, in addition to this general principle and express declaration, another and more special provision has been made by one of the amendments to the Constitution, which expressly declares, that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press,” thereby guarding, in the same sentence, and under the same words, the freedom of religion, of speech, and of the press, insomuch that whatever violated either throws down the sanctuary which covers the others,—and that libels, falsehood, and defamation, equally with heresy and false religion, are withheld from the cognizance of federal tribunals. That therefore the act of Congress of the United States, passed on the 14th of July, 1798, entitled “An Act in Addition to the Act entitled ‘An Act for the Punishment of certain Crimes against the United States,'” which does abridge the freedom of the press, is not law, but is altogether void, and of no force.

That’s mighty strong language. Stronger, some would say, than the laws that a few states have passed since March challenging the Federal Government’s authority to require Americans to purchase health insurance. However, it’s worth noting what Madison and Jefferson were not doing, because as Madison acknowledged in his defense of the resolutions, there is no Constitutional authority granted to the states that would allow them to nullify a Federal law:

Nor can the declarations of either [the citizens or the legislature of Virginia], whether affirming or denying the constitutionality of measures of the Federal Government, or whether made before or after judicial decisions thereon, be deemed, in any point of view, an assumption of the office of the judge. The declarations, in such cases, are expressions of opinion, unaccompanied with any other effect than what they may produce on opinion, by exciting reflection. The expositions of the judiciary, on the other hand, are carried into immediate effect by force. The former may lead to a change in the legislative expression of the general will; possibly to a change in the opinion of the judiciary; the latter enforces the general will, whilst that will and that opinion continue unchanged.

And if there be no impropriety in declaring the unconstitutionality of proceedings in the Federal Government, where can be the impropriety of communicating the declaration to other states, and inviting their concurrence in a like declaration? What is allowable for one, must be allowable for all; and a free communication among the states, where the Constitution imposes no restraint, is as allowable among the state governments as among other public bodies or private citizens. This consideration derives a weight, that cannot be denied to it, from the relation of the state legislatures to the federal legislature, as the immediate constituents of one of its branches. . . .

Considering that this was written by a man who was both one of the principle authors of the Constitution and one of the authors of the Resolutions, it seems to me that it is fairly persuasive evidence that, whatever else the Tenth Amendment might mean, the Founders never intended to give the individual states the power to nullify state laws.

So, basically, that leaves “nullification” (and personally I don’t like the word because of it’s historical associations with secessionists and segregationists) in the category that Brad would put it; a method by which the citizens can, through their state legislatures and the Courts if necessary, petition Congress for a redress of grievances.

However, when nullification is discussed today, it isn’t the “civil disobedience” variety that Brad favors that’s being advocated. In his new book, Nullification: How to Resist Federal Tyranny in the 21st Century Thomas Woods essentially argues for a full-throated right on the part of the states to ignore Federal laws if they choose to do so:

Nullification is Thomas Jefferson’s idea, articulated most clearly in his Kentucky Resolutions of 1798, that if the federal government passes a law that reaches beyond the powers delegated by the states, the states should refuse to enforce it. Jefferson believed that if the federal government is allowed to hold a monopoly on determining what its powers are, we have no right to be surprised when it keeps discovering new ones. If they violate the Constitution, we are “duty bound to resist,” to quote James Madison’s Virginia Resolutions of 1798.

Now this is a vast simplification of the argument that Woods makes, you can get a better idea of what he means in this interview:

I have yet to read Woods’ book, and still want to, but it’s fairly clear that his argument suffers from the fact that there just isn’t any historical support for his idea that the Constitution grants states the right to essentially break Federal law by ignoring it if they believe that it is unconstitutional. Any reliance on the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, for example, is easily rebutted by Madison’s own admission that the Resolutions were expressions of opinion rather than something that had the force of law.

History after the Resolutions doesn’t really provide any support for Woods’ argument either. The most notable example came during the Nullification Crisis of 1832, when South Carolina purported to declare a Federal import tariff unconstitutional and took steps to prevent Federal agents from collecting tariffs on goods entering through the Port of Charleston. Though the matter was resolved, it set the nation down a road toward secession that resulted in the bloodiest war in American history. After the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, ten Southern states used the doctrine of nullification, and the related concept of interposition, to attempt to resist efforts desegregate school and refuse to enforce the Court’s decision. In Cooper v. Aaron, the Supreme Court held that such efforts were unconstitutional:

Article VI of the Constitution makes the Constitution the “supreme Law of the Land.” In 1803, Chief Justice Marshall, speaking for a unanimous Court, referring to the Constitution as “the fundamental and paramount law of the nation,” declared in the notable case of Marbury v. Madison, 1 Cranch 137, 177, that “It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is.” This decision declared the basic principle that the federal judiciary is supreme in the exposition of the law of the Constitution, and that principle has ever since been respected by this Court and the Country as a permanent and indispensable feature of our constitutional system. It follows that the interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment enunciated by this Court in the Brown case is the supreme law of the land, and Art. VI of the Constitution makes it of binding effect on the States “any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.” Every state legislator and executive and judicial officer is solemnly committed by oath taken pursuant to Art. VI, cl. 3, “to support this Constitution.” Chief Justice Taney, speaking for a unanimous Court in 1859, said that this requirement reflected the framers’ “anxiety to preserve it [the Constitution] in full force, in all its powers, and to guard against resistance to or evasion of its authority, on the part of a State . . . .” Ableman v. Booth, 21 How. 506, 524.

No state legislator or executive or judicial officer can war against the Constitution without violating his undertaking to support it. Chief Justice Marshall spoke for a unanimous Court in saying that: “If the legislatures of the several states may, at will, annul the judgments of the courts of the United States, and destroy the rights acquired under those judgments, the constitution itself becomes a solemn mockery . . . .” United States v. Peters, 5 Cranch 115, 136. A Governor who asserts a [358 U.S. 1, 19] power to nullify a federal court order is similarly restrained. If he had such power, said Chief Justice Hughes, in 1932, also for a unanimous Court, “it is manifest that the fiat of a state Governor, and not the Constitution of the United States, would be the supreme law of the land; that the restrictions of the Federal Constitution upon the exercise of state power would be but impotent phrases . . . .” Sterling v. Constantin, 287 U.S. 378, 397 -398.

In other words, if nullification of the type Woods advances actually existed, we would no longer live in a Federal system, but in something more closely resembling the Articles of Confederation. Since the Constitution was written to replace the Articles, it’s clear that the Founders never intended to give the states the power to decide for themselves what the Constitution means and to randomly choose to ignore Federal laws based on that interpretation. Therefore, Woods’ nullification is little more than a professorial fantasy.

In closing, I don’t necessarily object to the kind of “civil disobedience” nullification that Brad favors. Let’s just not pretend it has the force of law.

Christopher Hitchens On The Campaign Against The “Ground Zero” Mosque

Christopher Hitchens may be battling cancer, but he hasn’t lost his talent for saying exactly the right thing in exactly the right way. Take, for example, his new Slate column regarding the ongoing and seemingly endless controversy over the “Ground Zero” mosque:

Take, for example, the widely publicized opinion of Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. Supporting those relatives of the 9/11 victims who have opposed Cordoba House, he drew a crass analogy with the Final Solution and said that, like Holocaust survivors, “their anguish entitles them to positions that others would categorize as irrational or bigoted.” This cracked tune has been taken up by Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin, who additionally claim to be ventriloquizing the emotions of millions of Americans who did not suffer bereavement. It has also infected the editorial pages of the normally tougher-minded Weekly Standard, which called on President Obama to denounce the Cordoba House on the grounds that a 3-to-1 majority of Americans allegedly find it “offensive.”

Where to start with this part-pathetic and part-sinister appeal to demagogy? To begin with, it borrows straight from the playbook of Muslim cultural blackmail. Claim that something is “offensive,” and it is as if the assertion itself has automatically become an argument. You are even allowed to admit, as does Foxman, that the ground for taking offense is “irrational and bigoted.” But, hey—why think when you can just feel? The supposed “feelings” of the 9/11 relatives have already deprived us all of the opportunity to see the real-time footage of the attacks—a huge concession to the general dulling of what ought to be a sober and continuous memory of genuine outrage. Now extra privileges have to be awarded to an instant opinion-poll majority. Not only that, the president is urged to use his high office to decide questions of religious architecture!

Nothing could be more foreign to the spirit and letter of the First Amendment or the principle of the “wall of separation.

Although he doesn’t come right out and say it, Hitchens hints that he’s not at all happy about the idea of this mosque being located so close to the site of the September 11th attacks. Unlike Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, and all the others who have taken up the anti-mosque banner in this matter, though, Hitchens recognizes demagoguery when he sees it and, for an Englishman, has more respect for our First Amendment than many Americans do.

Hitchens ends up in about the same position that I am in this fight. I don’t necessarily favor the project, but these people own the building, they’ve complied with all applicable laws, and there doesn’t appear to be any legal means remaining to stop them. Those who want to use government force to stop them are nothing more than thieves motivated by religious bigotry rather than financial gain. The rest ? Well, they seem to think that having “feelings” and are “offended” means they have some special right to be heard. It’s really all rather sad and pathetic.

Wayne Allyn Root: Religious Freedom And Property Rights ? Not For Them Muslims !


I’ve written before about the questionable libertarian allegiances of Wayne Allyn Root, the LP’s 2008 Vice-President nominee and currently an At-Large member of the Libertarian National Committee. Now, Root is out with a blog post about the so-called “Ground Zero” Mosque that is anything but libertarian in it’s sentiments and it’s conclusions, and it should be of concern to anyone who thinks that Root represents the direction the Libertarian Party should take in the future.

Root starts out with the same sort of milquetoast paeans toward religious liberty and property rights that we saw in his book, but he quickly goes off in a direction that makes it clear that, on this issue, he is more in line with Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich than any Libertarian (or libertarian):

This proposed building of a mosque on hallowed ground is an ATROSITY towards America. To build a celebration of Islam within steps of 9/11 does nothing to increase religious freedom…it inspires hatred, divides our cultures, and increases the odds of violence and hate crimes. Common sense suggests this mosque, being built in this specific location, is NOT being built as a sign of friendship between Muslims and Americans…but rather as a sign of the lack of respect…a belief in our weakness…and an attempt to embarrass and belittle us. The financial district of Manhattan is not a residential area with a large number of Muslim residents for the mosque to serve. Therefore common sense suggests that the only possible reason to build it there (rather than in Brooklyn or Queens where there are large Muslim populations) is to show Muslim contempt for Americans by building a monument to Islam in the shadow of the site of their greatest triumph over America.

It is an offense to build a mosque in that location- an offense to all Americans (including Muslim Americans), all Christians and Jews, all relatives of 3000 dead heroes at the World Trade Center.

First of all, Root is just completely wrong on the facts here. The Cordoba House isn’t at all what he and the project’s critics have represented it to be:

The building’s planners, the American Society for Muslim Advancement and the Cordoba Initiative, have said it’s modeled on religious and community centers such as the YMCA, and that the 13-story, $100 million building would also include an arts center, gym and a swimming pool, as well as a mosque. It would be two blocks away from Ground Zero.

Two blocks away and nowhere within line of sight of the area where the attacks actually occurred.

The attempt by Root, Palin, Gingrich, and other opponents of this project to call this a “Ground Zero” mosque are therefore a complete misrepresentation of the location of the project. A misrepresentation obviously intended to lead people to think that a mosque is being built on the location of the World Trade Center rather than being constructed inside an already-existing decades old building as part of a larger project that would be open to the public as a whole. For that reason alone, Root’s appeals to emotionalism and the supposed “atrocity” that this project represents should be rejected as silly and, quite frankly, dishonest.

Root goes on:

Yes, private individuals and organizations have the right to build houses of worship with their own funds. But one has to wonder where the money is coming from to build a 15-story building on some of the most expensive real estate in the country. We Americans believe in the separation of Church and State. If it turns out that this project is sponsored by a foreign government — either directly or through a state-sponsored organization that engages in terrorism — than the idea of this being an issue of religious freedom is a sham and an argument can be made that our Constitution would actually prohibit this mosque from being built.

Except, of course, for the fact that there is no evidence that this is the case. More importantly, there is no connection between the organization that wants to establish the center and anyone associated with the September 11th attacks.

In the end, Root falls into the same anti-Muslim hole that Palin, Gingrich, and others have. All he’s really saying is that we can’t let them scary Muslims build what they want to in a building they own. While he doesn’t go as far as Gingrich and Palin in calling for government action to stop the project, he adopts the same attitude of religious intolerance and, for any libertarian, that’s just unacceptable.

Let’s contrast Root’s paean to fear-of-Muslims with something published this past weekend by Libertarian National Committee Interns Marissa Giannotta and Josh Roll:

The attacks on 9/11 and its victims should not be ignored, however, we cannot lay blame on the entire Islamic community for the terrible acts that occurred on that day. The Islamic cultural center would be a great way for others to learn about Islam and ultimately build bridges between the United States and the Muslim World. Islam by principle is not an extremist religion and not all Muslims should be portrayed in such way.

More importantly, those who have ownership of the site should have the freedom and the right to build what they wish. Property rights should be respected as a right for all citizens, not just a few. Our platform clearly states, “The owners of property have the full right to control, use, dispose of, or in any manner enjoy, their property without interference, until and unless the exercise of their control infringes the valid rights of others.” The Islamic cultural center does not infringe on the rights of others.

As Steven Chapman describes in his article at Reason, “Palin is not a slave to intellectual consistency. Change the church to a mosque, and put it a couple of blocks from the site of the World Trade Center, and she suddenly loses all patience with the rights of religious believers.”

Libertarian Party candidate for New York State Governor, Warren Redlich, also weighed in on the issue stating, “…I have asked some people if they would object if it was a synagogue, church, Jewish community center, or YMCA. All of them say that wouldn’t bother them. So the reason for opposing this facility is because it’s associated with the Muslim religion. That violates freedom of religion under the First Amendment.”

As Thomas Knapp notes, this is a litmus test for all libertarians (Big-L, or small-l):

If you don’t support private property rights and freedom of religion, you aren’t a libertarian.


Cordoba House, the project being fraudulently referred to as a “mosque” by those attempting to prevent its construction, is planned for construction on private property and with private funds.

The opponents of Cordoba House are attempting to stop its construction by persuading a government board to declare the building currenly standing at the project’s prospective location “historic” so that the owners can be forced to “preserve” it and forbidden to demolish it and build a structure more to their liking there.

The opponents of Cordoba House oppose private property rights. Their opposition to private property rights stems from their opposition to freedom of religion. They are, therefore, not libertarians.

That, Mr. Root, is libertarianism. Perhaps you’re in the wrong party.

Update: Jason Pye has weighed in with his own take:

Property rights and religious freedom are among the principles of a free society, basic liberties are supposed to be protected from the mob. To hear of anyone casting them aside is concerning. For a libertarian to do it is a betrayal of these core values that we are supposed to believe in.


Kelo, Five Years Later

It was five years ago today, that the Supreme Court issued it’s decision in Kelo v. City of New London

In 1998 the pharmaceutical company Pfizer announced plans to build a giant new research and development center in New London, Connecticut. As part of the deal, city officials agreed to clear out neighboring property owners via eminent domain, giving a private developer space to build a fancy new hotel, apartment buildings, and office towers to complement the corporate facility. Five years ago today, in Kelo v. City of New London, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld this seizure of private property because it was part of a “comprehensive redevelopment plan” that would provide “appreciable benefits to the community.”

Basically, the City of New London, Connecticut sought to redevelop an older neighborhood in hopes of increasing the city’s tax base. The City didid this by entering into a development deal with the politically powerful Pfizer Corporation for the expansion of Pfizer’s property in the city and the creation of a business conference center. Several property owners refused to sell to the city, one of them being Susette Kelo. As a result, the New London Development Corporation initiated condemnation proceedings against Kelo and the remaining property owners and the case made it’s way through the Court system and, of course, Susette Kelo ultimately lost her bid to protect her property. Then, the ultimate ironic injustice occurred this past November when Pfzier announced that they were abandoning the property that had been condemned, including the lot that had once contained Suzette Kelo’s house.

The reaction to the decision was swift and severe, with condemnations coming from both sides of the political aisle, and five years later the Kelo case has had the ironic benefit of spurring many states to limit the use of eminent domain:

• 43 states have passed either constitutional amendments or statutes that reformed their eminent domain laws to better protect private property rights. Although the quality and type of reform varies, the bottom line is that virtually all of the reforms amount to net increases in protections for property owners faced with eminent domain abuse. (For a state-by-state grading of all state eminent domain reforms, see:

• Nine state high courts restricted the use of eminent domain for private development while only one (New York) has so far refused to do so.

Kelo educated the public about eminent domain abuse, and polls consistently show that Americans are overwhelmingly opposed to Kelo and support efforts to change the law to better protect property rights. Among the most-recent surveys was one conducted by the Associated Press, which found 87 percent of respondents said government shouldn’t have the power of eminent domain for redevelopment, 75 percent opposed government taking private property and handing it over to a developer, and 88 percent of respondents said property rights are just as important as freedom of speech and religion.

• Citizen activists defeated at least 44 projects that sought to abuse eminent domain for private gain in the five-year period since Kelo.

As the Institute for Justice, a libertarian legal group that handled Susette Kelo’s defense, puts it:

“This significant public opposition to eminent domain abuse led to a complete change in the public’s view on this issue,” said Christina Walsh, IJ’s director of activism and coalitions. “Although public officials, planners and developers in the past could keep condemnations for private gain under the public’s radar screen and thus usually get away with the seizure of homes and small businesses, that is no longer the case.”

“One of the other reasons for this fundamental shift in eminent domain policy has been the response of state courts to Kelo,” said Dana Berliner, an IJ senior attorney and co-counsel in the Kelo case. “When the U.S. Supreme Court decided not to correctly interpret the U.S. Constitution, the state high courts began to fill that void. For example, the courts in Hawaii, Ohio, New Jersey and Pennsylvania—all states that used to regularly abuse eminent domain—each decided that, unlike the U.S. Supreme Court, they would closely scrutinize municipal takings and prevent unconstitutional abuses.”

So, in that sense, Kelo was arguably a good thing because of the unprecedented backlash that it generated. Nonetheless, it does teach us something that Thomas Jefferson is attributed with saying many years ago:

Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.


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