Eminent Domain Decision Makes Economic Sense
Dave reported that the Missouri Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of property owners regarding the misuse of eminent domain. In addition to setting a much needed precedent, this ruling will have important economic consequences. Specifically, it promotes a slightly more equitable and efficient compensation procedure that, in turn, creates new disincentives for some unnecessary designations of blight.
Clearly, this ruling defends blight victims’ rights to just compensation. The owners of blighted properties are now armed to potentially claim
damages caused over time by the negative designation on their homes and
businesses. We can easily sympathize with businesses and homeowners who suffer for years from decreased revenues and property values because of the uncertainties inherent in owning "blight." Hopefully, deserving home and business owners will follow the Gladstone
Plaza Shopping Center’s lead by keeping the thorough financial records necessary to sue for damages. Although the court’s decision will by no means deliver fully the promises of the Fifth Amendment, it is a step in the right direction for a select group of property owners.
I contend that a move toward compensation at market value will permit greater economic efficiency as well. Simply put, if a development will be more beneficial to society than the current inhabitants of a parcel of land, its investors should be able to buy out this inferior market competition. Half-baked arguments about positive externalities and the failure of markets to deliver public goods should not suffice to construct legal barriers for a class of private conflicts that can usually be resolved by supply and demand. Even if the unavoidable difficulty of providing for public goods can theoretically be used as a justification for eminent domain, Missouri authorities have surely crossed the line from beneficial to harmful.
For the most part, current legal hurdles exist solely to favor developers (socially beneficial and otherwise) by allowing them to force away competition for property at inefficiently low prices. If those prices become less hampered by interference, society will better allocate its scarce resources into the most efficient avenues (see the Coase Theorem). Nonetheless, there are certainly cases in which eminent domain can be used for greater social efficiency, regardless of its moral ramifications. Because of these exceptions, I cannot provide a wholesale endorsement of the due criticism leveled at eminent domain abuses based solely on economic efficiency grounds. Even so, marginal decreases in the use of eminent domain would undoubtedly benefit society economically. A move toward market forces, then, is not only ethically right but economically sound. In a limited capacity, the recent court ruling represents such a move.
Additionally, this decision will cause some developers to think twice before seeking government assistance in dealing with resistant property owners. Faced with the threat of lawsuits, those developers who don’t intend to proceed quickly with their projects will be less willing to stake claims on other people’s property. Unfortunately, this specific case in Gladstone offers little promise to owners of property that is condemned so quickly that its initial blight designation causes no quantifiable harm. Nonetheless, the Supreme Court has offered a partial solution to one group of victims individuals whose possessions hang in the uncertain limbo of pre-condemnation blight. This empowerment should at least deter future encroachments on property rights that won’t produce results within a somewhat reasonable time frame.
The recent court ruling is by no means a sufficient fix to Missouri’s struggle with eminent domain abuse. Because of its limited applicability, the decision will probably only benefit a handful of vigilant property owners. Nevertheless, those individuals will receive unprecedented relief that may establish a positive trend.