The Folly of Eminent Domain

In an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal, Professor John E. Mogk challenges critics of eminent domain to defend their position in cases even when it appears that government expropriating private property had a net benefit to everyone affected. He cites the case in Poletown as an example of eminent domain being beneficial to the people whose property was seized and thus concludes that eminent domain is justifiable in some cases.

He challenges critics, such as myself, to defend their position against eminent domain in light of the economic benefits it can produce.

In his praise of eminent domain being used in Poletown, Mogk makes the grave mistake no economist should ever make, but so often do. He looks at what is seen and completely ignores the unseen.

What Mogk sees is the positive economic effects that came from the use of eminent domain. He writes, “It has provided 3,000 jobs in the community and 15,000 additional allied jobs in parts and service industries for more than three decades, and generated hundreds of millions of dollars of property and income-tax revenue, more than accomplishing its economic purpose.”

However, to fairly judge whether or not the use of eminent domain was just we must also look at the unseen. What numbers do not show is police coming to homes of people who refused to leave their property and forcibly removing them from their land.

Mogk does not see the state inflicting threats of force against families, removing them from a place they once called home. If the residents of Poletown were fairly compensated and given a good deal from the state, as Mogk asserts, then they would have voluntarily agreed to the deal.

It would have never been fought in the Michigan Supreme Court and the state would have never had to use violence to enforce it.

In the case of Poletown, eminent domain was used for GM to build factories, which is why it economically benefited the community. However, let us look again, at what is unseen.

If the Michigan Supreme Court would have ruled against the use of eminent domain, it can be safe to assume GM would have simply built a factory somewhere else. What is not seen is that factory still being built and jobs still being created. The only difference is the state would not have forcibly removed people from their homes to benefit a corporation.

Even if the use of eminent domain has an undeniable net economic benefit, that does not make it justifiable. Slaves built the pyramids, but I doubt anyone would justify slavery because it produced great things such as pyramids and contributed to GDP growth.

We must look at the means as well as the end and be able to morally justify any policy. The means of eminent domain requires the use of force and seizure of an individual’s property. This can never be morally defended and is why eminent domain is not justifiable.


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