Although the U.S. Constitution set up the most successful republican government to date with a generally incredible respect for individual liberties, it is not without its faults. Yes, the American people improved upon (and sometimes detracted from) the original document as time went on, but one of the continual flaws in the Constitution existed at its inception: eminent domain.
At the time, governments routinely commandeered property from private citizens for any purpose they desired. The Founding Fathers, aware of that tradition, decided to limit it by requiring in the 5th Amendment that all takings relate to one of the enumerated duties of Congress (i.e. “for public use”) and that the owners be given “just compensation.” This does not make any taking moral since it is still done forcefully, but it was a step forward in human progress.
Unfortunately, in 1954, the Supreme Court took us two steps back by unanimously ruling in Berman v. Parker that the government could arbitrarily take unblighted property (“unblighted” because it had already been taking blighted property without justification) so long as it possessed some “public purpose” — in this case, making Washington, D.C. “beautiful as well as sanitary.”
Things have only gotten worse since then: Kelo v. City of New London (2005) permits the government to take property from one private citizen and give it to private businesses with purely speculative economic predictions which ultimately turned out to be false.
These types of takings have allowed partisan forces to exploit the resentment of lower class individuals, who are most often affected by eminent domain, toward middle and upperclass individuals, who are not. It also leads to misunderstandings about property rights in general since lower class individuals begin to think that they only apply to the privileged.
If property rights were properly recognized, however, then they would protect the poor as much as the rich, as I explain in another article:
…if there is one fundamental tenet of property rights that goes undispitued, it is this: if someone else takes your property without consent, it is theft. And, throughout history, governments have been the greatest theives of all. Whether conforming to the historical precedent of seizing property from the poor or following the more recent trend of seizing property from the wealthy [as in welfare programs], the government has continuously defied our property rights and breached its own contract. It is at this time that all people should begin to reassert their right to their own property and, at the same time, learn that they have to respect others’ rights to their property as well. Only then will the property of the poor be safe, only then will the property of the rich be secure, and only then will our property truly belong to us. — Brian Underwood