Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Eminent domain debate recap

As promised, here is my report on The Objective Standard’s debate on eminent domain between Jeffrey Finkle, president of the International Economic Development Council (arguing to preserve eminent domain), and Yaron Brook, president of the Ayn Rand Institute (arguing to abolish it).

On one level, one has to admire Jeffrey Finkle for chutzpah. Given the massive backlash against the Kelo decision that enshrined the use of takings for private economic development, one would think that here is an issue where one would wish to tread softly, if only out of fear of being tarred and feathered by angry homeowners. Not so with Finkle; for him, eminent domain is a failing community’s tool of choice so it can provide the needy with services such as Meals on Wheels.

I’m not kidding. Meals on Wheels was among the central moral justifications for taking of property—and I use the term “property” loosely. When I asked him for an explicit definition of what he thought the word meant, Finkle outright evaded a question. And in a statement that would make Mussolini proud, Finkle argued that he would not sacrifice the needs of an entire community to some obstinate property holder. At root, Finkle believes that need is virtue.

It was intriguing to see how Finkle arrived at his position. Individuals acting out of self-interests are usurious slugs; as an example, Finkle argued that grocery stores avoid the inner-city while simultaneously overcharge their inner city customers. Yet put those same people into groups and give them power over other people’s lives and they become omni-benevolent. At root here, Finkle believes that selflessness is a virtue.

And all the while, Finkle battered the audience with package deals. Houston is a disaster because it doesn’t have zoning; families are forced to live next to chemical factories. New Orleans could never be redeveloped without eminent domain; abandoned property would remain titled to its last owner forever. No highway would exist without eminent domain; a minority of one could squelch every new avenue and no alternatives save for the takings power exist.

In contrast, Yaron Brook simply argued that individual rights matter. The right to property is a corollary of the right to life and no less important. People should deal with one another though persuasion and voluntary exchange; not to is to enshrine force as a means to an end and threaten all rights accordingly. The desire for growth is not license to usurp the rights of others. Brook’s arguments were clear, they flowed logically, and they explicitly addressed the fundamentals of the debate.

And in the debate’s most telling moment, Brook expanded Finkle’s claim that he supported a Quaker’s right not to serve in the military (don’t ask me what made Finkle mention this; it seemingly fell out of nowhere) to the right of a property holder not to give his property to others. Where Finkle disintegrated, Brook integrated. That’s what Objectivists do.

So in the end, score one for the Objectivists and the debate host The Objective Standard (and its editor Craig Biddle). In my view, The Objective Standard is proving to be everything an Objectivist publication should be and more and I look forward to more events of this caliber.

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