Saturday, December 18, 2010

Columbia U. vs. You

Here's a Glenn Reynolds piece that ran in the New York Post yesterday.  I started following this attempted theft in either Reason magazine or Liberty magazine a couple of years ago.  Can't remember which. 
What does this amount to? 
If someone or some organization has enough political clout, your stuff can become their stuff. 

We often hear politicians and pundits denounce property rights. Property rights, we're told, protect the fat cats against the needs of the public. They're a tool for keeping the little guy down.

Like a lot of what we hear from politicians and pundits, this is exactly the opposite of the truth. The fat cats don't need the protection of property rights, because they already control the political system. It's the little guy (or gal), the one without political juice, who needs strong property rights for protection from the fat cats and the politicians they control.

This was demonstrated again this week, as the last legal barrier (a possible US Supreme Court review) to Columbia University's efforts to condemn and seize two businesses -- Tuck-it-Away Self-Storage and a gas station owned by Gurnam Singh and Parminder Kaur in West Harlem -- vanished.

Columbia said the condemnation was necessary to support the university's "vision" for a new campus; school President Lee Bollinger called the victory "a very important moment in the history of the university."

The picture of fascist thief Lee Bollinger came from here

It was an important, if not especially proud, moment for Columbia -- but it was surely a bigger moment in the lives of those West Harlem business owners, as their property gets taken away to promote the "vision" of what is, in fact, a multibillion-dollar corporation servicing the daughters and sons of the wealthy, the powerful and the connected.

The picture of Cowboys Stadium, built on stolen property by the City of Arlington as a gift for Jerry Jones, came from here

Traditionally, the "public-domain" power was used to acquire property needed for things like roads and bridges. It's still often defended in those terms, but the "public use" required for such takings has now been interpreted by courts to include pretty much anything the government wants to do with the property -- including handing it over to someone else who just happens to be wealthier or better-connected than the original property holder.

The picture of the Ballpark in Arlington, built on stolen property as a gift to George W. Bush, came from here. 

In this case, the government lacks even the weak excuse that the change will boost tax revenues, since -- as Megan McArdle of The Atlantic Monthly pointed out -- the property is being transferred from taxpaying businesses to a largely non-taxpaying enterprise.

Part of the American Dream was the expectation that if you started a business, you might go broke but you didn't have to worry about the government seizing your business on behalf of those with more political juice. That sort of thing was for Third World countries, corrupt kleptocracies where connections mattered more than capability.

The picture of the Bush family taking their triumphant lap around their pile of plunder during the World Series came from here.  Those with plenty of time to kill can go to this earlier post to read about how George Jr. was able to turn an $86 million dollar investment, plus a $205 million dollar taxpayer subsidy, plus a land theft, into a profit of $164 million dollars.  Kinda reminds me of the Iraq war.  Sorry for the digression.  Back to Glenn Reynolds.   

Not anymore. In fact, some of those formerly corrupt Third World countries have started providing stronger protection for private property, as they've realized that the more power you give to politicians and their cronies, the less incentive people have to try to succeed through hard work. What's the point, if you're at the mercy of the cronies?

We, on the other hand, seem to be moving backward.

The fact is the powerful and connected -- the Bloombergs, the Bollingers, et al -- don't really need strong legal protections. Nobody's going to take their property anyway. (When's the last time you heard of a rich guy's home being condemned?) For those with juice, things seldom get as far as the courts.

The courts are supposed to be there to protect the rest: The people without the connections, the ones who depend on the rule of law to keep the predators away.

Speaking of predatory courts favoring predatory developers, this is the famous "little pink house" from the Kelo vs New London court case.  Go here to order a copy of "Little Pink House: A True Story Of Defiance And Courage", by Jeff Benedict.  And once again, the villain of the story is another academic fascist, Claire Gaudiani, the president of Connecticut College. 
That protection has never been perfect, of course, but in the area of eminent domain it's become a sick joke. The message sent is that your property belongs to you -- until somebody with more clout wants it for something else, be it a "vision," or a moneymaking scheme.

Of course, this whole rule-of-law thing works both ways. Those politicians and their cronies are quick to rely on legal protections when their own interests are threatened by people outside the political system. But by undermining the property rights of the unconnected, they weaken the social contract that protects their own positions.

As with our actual currency, our political class has debased the moral currency by which it governs, as well. May they have joy of the results.


Nick Rowe said...

John Stossel just had a wonderful segment of a multi-part show where he talked about the failures of "stimulus" buildings and events such as the G-20 conference in Pittsburgh, sports stadiums, and Olympic games. Some stadiums are rarely used. Others are used, at most 100 days a year for a few hours.

The benefits are always overstated and the costs are always understated. And it's not as if there were no precedents from which to learn by example.

Anonymous said...

The greed of lawyers in America is at an epic proportion, that greed facilitates the ‘definition’ of law which controls the ebb and flow of property rights in accordance to one’s financial status.

The Whited Sepulchre said...

I wouldn't call it greed. I would call it a rational response to a populace that tolerates theft in exchange for less bread and more circuses (to misquote one of the Caesars...)

Harper said...

I am living this right now. My town spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a consultant that told them they needed to move a road to promote commercial development. That's what they intend to do. Moving the road will cause at least 8 people to lose their homes and land. When I point out that it is illegal to use eminent domain for economic development, they switch to a line of reasoning based on 'moving the road improves safety'. We won the first round, but probably will get out-voted in the future.

The Whited Sepulchre said...

I look forward to hearing their argument that it is "for the children". Hide and watch.