CXXVIII – Uppity in Central Park

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Property
is the most fundamental and complex of social
facts, and the most important of human interests;
it is, therefore, the hardest to understand,
the most delicate to meddle with, and the easiest
to dogmatize about.

~
William Graham Sumner

There
is no better example of the fraudulent nature
of political systems than is to be found in
the concept of u201Ceminent domain.u201D The lies that
have long been taught to gullible people about
how government exists in order to protect the
lives and property of individuals, are revealed
in the practice that allows the state to forcibly
take property from its owners. If one bothers
to examine the literal meaning of eminent domain,
one discovers — as one dictionary informs us
— the underlying premise of u201Cthe superior dominion
of the sovereign power over all lands within
its jurisdiction.u201D

The
stark contradiction between the idea that the
state was created to protect private property
rights, and that the state has u201Csuperior dominionu201D
over all such property, has been conflated into
the common belief that individual rights come
from the state; that u201Cpropertyu201D is a state-created
concept. This notion has been no more forcibly
confronted than it was by the 19th century philosopher,
Thomas Hodgskin, who observed that, in order
to accept it

we
must believe that men had naturally no right
to pick up cockles on the beach, or gather berries
from the hedge — no right to cultivate the earth,
to invent and make comfortable clothing, to
use instruments to provide more easily for their
enjoyments — no right to improve and adorn their
habitations — nay, no right to have habitations
— no right to buy or sell, or move from place
to place — till the benevolent and wise law-giver
conferred all these rights on them. If the principle
be true in one case it must be universally true;
and, according to it, parents had no right to
the love and respect of their offspring, and
infants no right to draw nourishment from the
breasts of their mothers, until the legislator
— foreseeing, forecalculating the immense advantages
to the human race of establishing the long list
of rights and duties which grow out of their
affections, and constitute our happiness — had
established them by his decree.

The
malignant nature of eminent domain has so metastasized
itself throughout America that even some members
of the news media are taking note of its dangerous
implications. The U.S. Supreme Court's Kelo
case declared a state's use of such authority
to forcibly take private homes from their owners
and transfer ownership to commercial developers
was not violative of the Fifth Amendment. Such
powers have long been used to confiscate private
property on behalf of politically-influential
business interests desirous of building sports
stadia, factories, industrial parks, or shopping
centers. American Indian tribes were, perhaps,
the earliest victims of such wholesale thievery,
their men and women forever emblazoned, in Hollywood
films, as u201Csavagesu201D for forcibly resisting being
plundered and slaughtered by the 18th and 19th
century corporate-state interests who rationalized
their marauding as u201Cmanifest destiny.u201D

I
have always regarded it as a distinction without
meaning to allow the state to exercise eminent
domain powers in furtherance of its demands
for government roads, schools, parks, military
bases, and the like, but not to benefit private
commercial interests. It is the state's forcible
taking of private property for any purpose
that should be condemned. The state has
tried to justify such powers on a number of
grounds, the more prevalent being the u201Ctransaction
costsu201D associated with having to negotiate with
a multitude of property owners in order to put
together a project. Such arguments are often
made by those who regard significant transaction
costs as sufficient grounds for violating the
will of an owner; a purely materialistic, mechanistic
contention that fails to account for the psychic
costs that accompany the victimization of individuals.

In
a free society – grounded in respect for
the inviolability of the individual and his
or her property interests — the incurring of
transaction costs in dealing with others would
be a way of confirming such respect. It is
because my neighbors and I might not be
enthusiastic about your planned use of our lands
— and, indeed, might have our own alternative
purposes in mind — that you would be expected
to negotiate with us. By offering additional
inducements, you might persuade us to alter
our preferences and sell to you. This is such
a fundamental tenet of a market-based economic
system, that it is surprising so many otherwise
intelligent men and women blank out when the
state is the interested buyer. If you
and I are expected to purchase our homes on
the market without the use of governmental powers
to force a seller to meet our demands, why should
the state — which has hundreds of billions of
looted dollars at its disposal — not be required
to do likewise?

While
the practice continues — with both the state
and corporate interests as beneficiaries — there
has been, in recent years, a greatly increased
popular resentment of such powers. Growing numbers
of farmers have become resentful of government
regulations of their lands — a practice whose
roots are tied to the same premise as eminent
domain. In the name of u201Cenvironmentalism,u201D or
the u201Cprotection of endangered species,u201D the
state has made it increasingly difficult for
farmers to profitably engage in their trade.
Response to the Kelo decision seems
to represent a bifurcation point that may –
like Cindy Sheehan's stance against the Iraq
war, or Rosa Parks' refusal to move to the back
of a bus — unleash a lot of pent-up, energized
resentment against governmental theft of property.

There
is currently unfolding, in the city of Riviera
Beach, Florida, an effort to use the powers
of eminent domain to take as many as 2,000 homes
in order to allow for the private development
of a billion-dollar yachting, high-income housing,
and commercial facility. The rationale for this
project is, of course, the same that has underlain
previous efforts throughout America, namely,
to u201Crevitalizeu201D or u201Crenewu201D a community. The
assumption – that ought to have been laid
to rest by the failures of politically directed
economies — is that government coercion and
planning ought to be substituted for marketplace
influences that are more responsive to latent
economic preferences within a community.

Most
of the affected residents of Riviera Beach are
black, which brings to mind an interesting historical
event of which I just recently became aware.
Two weeks ago, Tom DiLorenzo, my daughter Bretigne,
and I attended a very interesting exhibit at
the New York Historical Society in New York
City. Titled u201CSlavery in New York,u201D the exhibition
helps to deflate the statist fantasy that the
American Civil War was energized by northern
hostility to the practice of slavery. As the
exhibit book states:

For nearly three hundred years, slavery was
an intimate part of the lives of all New Yorkers,
black and white, insinuating itself into every
nook and cranny of New York's history. For
portions of the seventeenth and eighteenth
centuries, New York City housed the largest
urban slave population in mainland North America,
with more slaves than any other city on the
continent.

Over
25% of the New York City work force — and upwards
of 50% of that in areas outside the city — consisted
of slaves. Toward the mid-eighteenth century,
some 40% of New York City households had at
least one slave. While the State of New York
passed antislavery legislation in 1827, the
practice was not made illegal in New Jersey
until 1865, with the passage of the Thirteenth
Amendment.

While
at this exhibit — which continues to March 26th
— I learned of the experiences of some former
slaves who had managed to become free in antebellum
New York City. A number of them formed a community
in an area extending from present-day 81st
to 89th Streets, between 7th
and 8th Avenues, known as u201CSeneca
Village.u201D Churches and a school were established
in this village which, in time, also welcomed
Irish and German immigrants.

The
exhibit book informs us that, by the early 1850s,
many whites in New York City became concerned
with how well Seneca Village was doing. u201CThat
the Village occupied land that was increasingly
valuable as the settlement of Manhattan marched
north was not lost on them.u201D The Democratic
Mayor of New York City, Fernando Wood, employed
the powers of eminent domain, in 1855, to remove
these black property owners and create a city
park.

For
two years, the Villagers resisted the city's
orders to leave, as well as the efforts of the
police who had been directed to remove them.
In the words of one New York newspaper, u201C[t]he
policemen find it difficult to persuade them
out of the idea which has possessed their simple
minds, that the sole object of the authorities
in making the Park is to procure their expulsion
from the homes which they occupy.u201D Seneca Village
was thus destroyed and, in the words of another
newspaper u201Cthe supremacy of the law was upheld
by the policemen's bludgeons.u201D Some 1,600 persons
— who had the audacity to believe that they
were entitled to live as free men and women
in a city that had earlier enslaved them –
were forcibly evicted from their homes. The
lands were then cleared to become a part of
Central Park.

Central
Park's website informs us that, following the
government's destruction of Seneca Village,
its erstwhile residents u201Cdid not reestablish
their long-standing community in another location.u201D
Nor should this surprise us. The history of
eminent domain — whether practiced under the
banner of u201Cmanifest destiny,u201D u201Curban renewal,u201D
u201Cland use planning,u201D u201Durban redevelopment,u201D
or efforts to u201Crevitalizeu201D a city — is replete
with examples of the unintended destruction
of once vibrant and orderly neighborhoods, communities,
and cultures. Those who doubt this are invited
to compare the present condition of most American
Indians with that of their ancestors; or to
contemplate how the urban renewal destruction
of traditional ethnic neighborhoods also destroyed
the informal systems of order that prevailed
therein, leaving in their wake the brutality
of street-corner gangs and drug-wars.

It
will be interesting to watch the playing out
of events in Riviera Beach to discover whether,
one-hundred fifty years later, the black residents
of this community will fare any better than
the Seneca Villagers as they confront those
in power upon whom the fact is u201Cnot lostu201D that
others occupy land that is u201Cincreasingly valuableu201D
for the purposes of non-owners.

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