Reliability Engineering for Property Rights
On May 24, the Springfield News-Leader published an editorial about eminent domain, highlighting the fact that Ozark, a town outlying Springfield to the south, ended up electing a new mayor because of the city’s use of eminent domain threats to buy up homes for private development. It’s a heartwarming tale of citizen action standing up against abuse of power by government officials but the News-Leader drew the wrong lesson. The editorial claims that because, in this case, local activism led to a change in policy, constitutional protection against eminent domain is not required. If officials abuse eminent domain, citizens will respond through electoral pressure, which is "how democracy works best." So why try to stave off that abuse beforehand, through constitutional law?
On Saturday, the News-Leader printed a response op-ed by Ron Calzone, chairman of Missouri Citizens for Property Rights, who handily dismantles the newspaper’s earlier arguments:
It was no small thing for citizens of Ozark to throw out an incumbent mayor in favor of a candidate who was pro-property rights. And a circuit court in Arnold, Mo., declaring unconstitutional the use of eminent domain for private redevelopment by non-chartered cities, was the most significant advancement for property rights in decades.
These victories were fought for and won on the local level, but that is no indication that the state should abdicate its responsibility to protect its citizens’ rights. Imagine if we made the same application to other types of crime. A homeowner thwarts a burglar with his 12 gauge shotgun. A little old lady’s screams scare off a purse snatcher. A mugger picks the wrong victim when he preys on the martial arts instructor. These are all "local" successes, but they do not mitigate the need for an able police force.
In fact, the very purpose of government is to protect its citizen’s property both their material property and also what James Madison referred to as that encompassed by the "larger and juster meaning" of "property". Our own state constitution is based on this principle.
I’m reminded of the time I attended the Foundation for Economic Education‘s Las Vegas conference in 2002. On my final day in town, I caught Penn & Teller‘s magic show and saw them perform their version of the infamous bullet catch illusion. Penn Jillette assured the audience (he did the assuring, since Teller doesn’t speak onstage) that the trick was completely safe they had several layers of redundant safety precautions built in to the routine. If any one, or even two, of those precautions failed during the actual performance, the others would still prevent either magician from coming to harm.
This is also known as reliability engineering. The idea is, you don’t want a critical system to have any single point of failure that can jeopardize the entire operation when only one thing goes wrong. If, like Penn & Teller, you build redundant safety mechanisms into your system, you’ll be much less likely to succumb to a crisis if any one part of the system fails.
What Calzone is arguing for here is a reliable system for protection against eminent domain. Sure, citizens can organize at local levels to protect themselves, but let’s face it everybody has their own lives to lead, and fighting city hall isn’t high on most people’s priority lists. If there were a safety point at the constitutional level as well, abuses would be far less likely to require local activism in the first place. Redundancy at multiple levels would protect more people from unjust property takings.