One of the most enduring myths about government in the United States is the idea that governmental behavior is more or less congruent with standards of individual morality. In other words, most Americans believe that government authority is shaped and ruled by the same moral standards which shape and rule the behavior of the average individual. Governmental behavior may have special leeway in a few instances, but for the most part it is constrained by the same principles which constrain the typical person on the street.
This idea, while not without foundation, falls well short of capturing the truth. What most people do not realize is that governmental morality is based on processes which are altogether different from those which form the basis for the morality of the individual. Individual morality is based on reciprocity, the classic notion of “give and take.” We refrain from damaging our neighbor’s property or stealing goods from our friends because we expect this same kind of treatment in return. Individual morality is an exchange, it stems from the basic idea that whatever action or inaction we take will be reciprocated by whoever is affected.
Instead of reciprocity, government behavior is based on reason, it derives from a wholly rational process involving the weighing of pros and cons and the careful analysis of possible outcomes.
Relatively few property owners are aware that the government has the constitutionally conferred power to confiscate private property, and that the exercise of this power is not limited strictly to times of war. Denuded of its lofty name, eminent domain is simply a forcible acquisition of property which would be punishable if committed by an individual person.
This does not speak to its propriety, but illustrates the fact that governmental behavior operates according to different rules. For instance, in the case of Hawaii Housing Authority v Midkiff (1984), there’s a clearer showcase of the contours of eminent domain.
Hawaii Housing Authority V Midkiff: The Case
On the island of Oahu, 22 landowners held 72.5 percent of the land titles. This oligopoly led to a distorted market which involved inflated prices and general social discontent. One landowner (the Bishop Estates) held an unusually large portion of land. The Hawaii Legislature passed a measure designed to redistribute the lots held by the Bishop Estates to their corresponding lessees. The legislature reasoned that this transfer of ownership was in the best interests of the entire community. The measure was brought before the Supreme Court of the United States in order to determine its constitutionality.
What’s the Law Say?
The doctrine of eminent domain arises from the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. According to the “public use doctrine,” the government has the ability to transfer title of ownership if such a transfer serves a legitimate public good.
Court Rules In Favor of Hawaii Housing Authority
In an 8-0 (unanimous) decision, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that the measure adopted by the Hawaii Legislature was constitutionally valid. The court’s decision of this case was significant because the legislature did not transfer the title of the land to the “public,” but to a larger share of private homeowners. However, though this was the case, the court determined that the legislature’s invocation of eminent domain was valid because the correction of the market conferred a substantial benefit to the general public.
In other words, in order for eminent domain to be invoked, private land does not have to be put specifically to public use; it only has to confer a clear benefit to the wider populace.
Of course, circumstances will rarely compel the typical homeowner to master the finer points of eminent domain; but it is still important for virtually every homeowner – and nearly every citizen, for that matter – to have at least a basic understanding of this concept.
Photo by iMattSmart