Before people come out and bash me for writing this, understand that I have tried to deal fairly with Donald Trump. There are many things that he says that I believe are right on, but the question is always in the back of my mind, what is the strategy he will use to uphold those statements? Is it lawful and is it moral? Thus, we come to the issue of eminent domain, which Trump claims is a “wonderful thing” for government and corporations.
This past Tuesday, Trump appeared on FOX News’ Special Report and gave his support for the use of eminent domain by a private citizen to a private corporation.
“Nobody knows this better than I do,” Trump said.
Host Bret Baier asked Trump for an explanation of his support of the Supreme Court ruling in Kelo v. City of New London, which twisted the Fifth Amendment’s provision of taking “private property for public use, without just compensation.”
“Well, I think eminent domain is wonderful, if you’re building a highway, and you need to build, as an example, a highway, and you’re going to be blocked by a hold-out, or, in some cases, it’s a hold-out, just so you understand, nobody knows this better than I do, because I built a lot of buildings in Manhattan, and you’ll have 12 sites and you’ll get 11 and you’ll have the one hold-out and you end up building around them and everything else, okay? So, I know it better than anybody. But when you’re building a road, when you’re building a highway, when you’re building something, you can’t have a hold out. You know? You have to make our country work. So eminent domain for that is good,” said Trump, commenting on the use of eminent domain for public works projects.
He then expressed his support of eminent domain to transfer property between a private citizen who does not want to sell and a corporation, “I think eminent domain for massive projects, for instance, you’re going to create thousands of jobs, and you have somebody that’s in the way, and you pay that person far more — don’t forget, eminent domain, they get a lot of money, and you need a house in a certain location, because you’re going to build this massive development that’s going to employ thousands of people, or you’re going to build a factory, that without this little house, you can’t build the factory. I think eminent domain is fine.”
In responding to socialist Democrat presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, who said the results of the Kelo v. City of New London would be “working families and poor people will see their property turned over to corporate interests and wealthy developers,” Trump replied, “It’s not right. It’s not right. Look, the way they talk, people would say, ‘oh, it’s turned over.’ It’s turned over for four, five, six, ten times sometimes what it’s worth. People pay them a fortune. But sometimes you have people that want to hold out just for the — most of the time, I will say, I’ve done a lot of outparcels, I call them outparcels. Most of the time, they just want money, okay? It’s very rarely that they say ‘I love my house. I love my house. It’s the greatest thing there.’ Because these people can go buy a house now that’s five times bigger, in a better location, so eminent domain, when it comes to jobs, roads, the public good, I think it’s a wonderful thing, I’ll be honest with you, and remember, you’re not taking property, you know, the way you asked the question, the way other people — you’re paying a fortune for that property. Those people can move two blocks away into a much nicer house.”
OK, first, let’s cite the Fifth Amendment:
“No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”
Take note that this entire amendment is about crime and punishment, not building roads or creating jobs. In fact, James Madison spoke out against such abuses and warned in his essay Property, “Where an excess of power prevails, property of no sort is duly respected. No man is safe in his opinions, his person, his faculties, or his possessions.”
The Father of the Constitution stated in 1792,
A man has a property in his opinions and the free communication of them. He has a property of peculiar value in his religious opinions, and in the profession and practice dictated by them. He has a property very dear to him in the safety and liberty of his person. He has an equal property in the free use of his faculties and free choice of the objects on which to employ them. In a word, as a man is said to have right to his property, he may be equally said to have a property in his rights. Where an excess of power prevails, property of no sort is duly respected. No man is safe in his opinions, his person, his faculties, or his possessions.
Madison was not alone. John Locke wrote in his Two Treatises of Government, “Man being born . . . with a title to perfect freedom, and an uncontrolled enjoyment of all the rights and privileges of the law of nature, equally with any other man . . . hath by nature a power, not only to preserve his property, that is, his life, liberty and estate, against the injuries and attempts of other men; but to judge of, and punish the breaches of that law in others.”
Other founding fathers also side with the rights of the property owner against Trump and the Supreme Court.
Property is surely a right of mankind as real as liberty. — John Adams, Dissertation on the Canon and the Feudal Law, 1765
Property must be secured, or liberty cannot exist. — John Adams, A Balanced Government (1790) in Discourses on Davila (1805), reprinted in 6 Works of John Adams (1851 ed.)
Now what liberty can there be where property is taken away without consent? — Samuel Adams, The Rights of the Colonists, The Report of the Committee of Correspondence to the Boston Town Meeting, November 20, 1772
Private property and freedom are inseparable. — George Washington
Even the great Frederic Bastiat, in his classic work The Law, acknowledged private property rights when he wrote:
Each of us has a natural right—from God—to defend his person, his liberty, and his property. These are the three basic requirements of life, and the preservation of any one of them is completely dependent upon the preservation of the other two. For what are our faculties but the extension of our individuality? And what is property but an extension of our faculties?
While it is good to cite founding fathers, one must ask where did they actually learn about private property rights? Most of them were students of the Bible, whether they were actual Christians or not. And the Bible is clear about property rights.
In Ezekiel 46:18 we read, “The prince shall not take any of the inheritance of the people, thrusting them out of their property. He shall give his sons their inheritance out of his own property, so that none of my people shall be scattered from his property.”
To see the attempts at oppressing property owners by a wicked government, just look at the story of Naboth and King Ahab in 1 Kings 21.
Now Naboth the Jezreelite had a vineyard in Jezreel, beside the palace of Ahab king of Samaria. And after this Ahab said to Naboth, “Give me your vineyard, that I may have it for a vegetable garden, because it is near my house, and I will give you a better vineyard for it; or, if it seems good to you, I will give you its value in money.” But Naboth said to Ahab, “TheLord forbid that I should give you the inheritance of my fathers.” And Ahab went into his house vexed and sullen because of what Naboth the Jezreelite had said to him, for he had said, “I will not give you the inheritance of my fathers.” And he lay down on his bed and turned away his face and would eat no food. But Jezebel his wife came to him and said to him, “Why is your spirit so vexed that you eat no food?” …
You shall not steal. -Exodus 20:15
You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor’s. -Exodus 20:17
In addressing this issue, Bojidar Marinov pointed to the outworking of the Protestant Reformation:
…the Protestant Reformation, in its return to the pure teachings of the Bible, exalted property rights to the level of a “divine right” for the individual. Contrary to what Mises and Rand believed, capitalism did not create property rights. It was the perfection of the legal concept of property rights by Protestant theologians that created capitalism, and therefore created the modern world. Capitalism did not create property; property created capitalism; and the Bible established property and built a defense perimeter around it, and sanctioned its ethical and economic advance.
He then went on to add how vital a Biblical foundation of property rights is:
Christianity as the only philosophical foundation to property is also the explanation for the decline of property rights in the 20th century. The more Christ is banned from the public discourse, the less His Law—the only foundation for property—has influence over the public actions of men and their political representatives. Modern society still has some notion of property because of its Christian past; in fact, Classical Liberals themselves wouldn’t be able to produce their great works if it wasn’t for the Christian roots of our civilization. They intuitively accept the logical conclusions of the Law of God – the importance of the private property rights—while intellectually rejecting its premises. But the removal of Christianity from society has taken its toll; and the decline of all rights, including property rights, is part of that toll. There is only one possible defense of property—ethical defense—and there is only one ideology that supplies both the epistemological foundations and the legal corpus for that defense. That ideology is based on the Biblical worldview. Remove that foundation, and property rights will follow.
Even though anti-theist Ayn Rand did not hold to Biblical principles, she clearly saw a problem with the invoking of eminent domain and how corporations use government to acquire private property from citizens in her classic work Atlas Shrugged.
Many people forget that the famous phrase from the Declaration of Independence “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” was originally written by John Locke as “life, liberty and property.”
Now, let’s go back to Trump’s argument. First, government has no authority to kick property owners off their land, even with “just compensation.” Even if they commit a crime, then they are to justly pay for that crime. That does not necessarily mean giving up private property.
While it is within the rights of men to inquire about purchasing property from another man (Genesis 23), to oppress others in order to obtain their property for any means is immoral and unlawful. Yes, Trump did speak of personal acquisition in which he said he paid five times as much the value for the property. If land owners agree to that, then that is perfectly acceptable, but oppressive measures in order to obtain private property via eminent domain is an attempt to steal the land, even if just compensation is awarded to an unwilling party. Yet, he also believes it is just fine for government to seize hold of property from an unwilling seller as long as they pay fair market value. The claim that there cannot be a “hold out” in the midst of his argument about roads, and creating jobs “for the common good” smacks of Marxism, not Capitalism and certainly not anything American or Christian.
In the final analysis, if Trump strikes deals with individuals for their home and land without oppression, that is fair game, but to say governments and states can’t function without eminent domain crosses the line of private property rights, which not only the founders envisioned, but also the foundation upon which our Republic rests, the Bible.