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P. The Right of Eminent Domain

In contrast to the franchise, which may be made general and nonexclusive (as long as the central organization of force continues to own the streets), the right of eminent domain could not easily be made general. If it were, then chaos would truly ensue. For when the government confers a privilege of eminent domain (as it has done on railroads and many other businesses), it has virtually granted a license for theft. If everyone had the right of eminent domain, every man would be legally empowered to compel the sale of property that he wanted to buy. If A were compelled to sell property to B at the latter's will, and vice versa, then neither could be called the owner of his own property. The entire system of private property would then be scrapped in favor of a society of mutual plunder. Saving and accumulation of property for oneself and one's heirs would be severely discouraged, and rampant plunder would cut ever more sharply into whatever property remained. Civilization would soon revert to barbarism, and the standards of living of the barbarian would prevail.

The government itself is the original holder of the “right of eminent domain,” and the fact that the government can despoil any property holder at will is evidence that, in current society, the right to private property is only flimsily established. Certainly no one can say that the inviolability of private property is protected by the government. And when the government confers this power on a particular business, it is conferring upon it the special privilege of taking property by force.

Evidently, the use of this privilege greatly distorts the structure of production. Instead of being determined by voluntary exchange, self-ownership, and efficient satisfaction of consumer wants, prices and the allocation of productive resources are now determined by brute force and government favor. The result is an overextension of resources (a malinvestment) in the privileged firm or industry and an underinvestment in other firms and industries. At any given time, as we have stressed, there is a limited amount of capital—a limited supply of all resources—that can be devoted to investment. Compulsory increase in investment in one field can be achieved only by an arbitrary decline in investment in other fields.72

Many advocates of eminent domain contend that “society,” in the last analysis, has the right to use any land for “its” purposes. Without knowing it, they have thus conceded the validity of a major Henry Georgist plank: that every person, by virtue of his birth, has a right to his aliquot share of God-given land.73 Actually, however, since “society” does not exist as an entity, it is impossible for each individual to translate his theoretical aliquot right into real ownership.74 Therefore, the ownership of the property devolves, not on “everybody,” but on the government, or on those individuals whom it specially privileges.

  • 72. Inevitably, someone will point to the plight of the railroad or highway company that must pay “extortionate rates” to the man who “merely” owns the property along the way. Yet these same people do not complain (and properly so) of the fact that property values have enormously increased in downtown areas of cities, thus benefiting someone who “merely” happens to own them. The fact is that all property is available to everyone who finds or buys it; if the property owner in these cases is penalized because of his speculation, then all entrepreneurs must be penalized for their correct forecasting of future events. Furthermore, economic progress imputes gains to original factors—land and labor. To render land artificially cheap is to lead to its overuse, and the government is then actually imposing a maximum price on the land in question.
  • 73. Except that the eminent-domain thesis is on even shakier ground, since the Georgists at least exempt or try to exempt from the social claim the improvements that the owner has made.
  • 74. See below on the myth of public ownership. As Benjamin R. Tucker pointed out years ago, the Georgist “equal rights” thesis (or eminent domain) leads logically, not to a Single Tax, but to each individual's right to appropriate his theoretical share of the value of everybody else's land. The State's appropriation of this value then becomes sheer robbery of the other individual claims rather than of just the claim of the landowner. See Benjamin R. Tucker, Individual Liberty (New York: Vanguard Press, 1926), pp. 241–42.