Rep. Maxine Waters (D., Calif.) probably won’t take her place among the great economists Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman as a conservative hero. Actually, she never will. But the famously fire-breathing left-wing congresswoman from Los Angeles has emerged in recent weeks as one of the nation’s most outspoken defenders of property rights. “Government should be in the business of protecting private property,” she told me in an interview, sounding every bit a member of the free-market group the Club for Growth. “Private property is precious in America.”
What has galvanized Waters and a surprising left-right coalition in defense of private property is the Supreme Court’s instantly notorious Kelo decision in June saying government can use its eminent-domain power to take property from one private owner and give it to another. The Constitution says eminent domain–used to force the sale of property–must be exercised in cases involving “a public use,” a phrase the court has stretched to encompass any private purpose that will produce more tax revenue. Almost immediately, Waters was on the House floor denouncing the decision, part of a backlash that has dozens of states considering tighter rules in how they use eminent domain.
Waters is a longtime scourge of eminent domain. A few years ago the L.A. Unified School District wanted to take a park and private homes in the community of South Park to build a new school (which at least is a legitimate public use). Waters made it clear that if eminent domain were used, the residents, many of them low-income, would appeal it property by property, holding up the process for years. “We backed them off,” she says. If anyone is trying to grab your home, you could do much worse than have Waters–whose public mood seemingly fluctuates between outraged and irate–on your side.
She is acting on a crucial insight–the right to property is the most important check on governmental power and abuse, especially for the poor and vulnerable. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People filed an amicus brief in the Kelo case arguing against expanding eminent domain and recalling that it was often used in 1960s “urban renewal” projects to dispossess black property owners–”‘urban renewal’ was often referred to as ‘Negro removal.’” Indeed, the naked logic of the Kelo decision is to take property from working- and middle-class people who aren’t in a position to build big-box stores, casinos or condos and give it to wealthier interests, who can create more tax revenue and inherently have more political influence. Poor property owners usually don’t have the wherewithal to fight back. “I think they’ll just be run over,” Waters says.
Alabama just adopted a law prohibiting the state and its localities from taking property for private development. Delaware has tightened its law, and even Connecticut–home to the dispute that spawned Kelo, when homes were to be taken for a Pfizer development–is suspending its use of eminent domain while it considers whether it has taken it too far (quick answer: “yes”). Congress is considering denying federal funds to support any projects that involve taking property for private use, and Waters is supporting two of the Republican-sponsored Kelo backlash bills. “I’m working with people I’ve never worked with before,” she says.
“It’s not a partisan issue at all,” explains Dana Berliner of the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Justice, which is leading the crusade against the abuse of eminent domain and maintains a website devoted to the cause. “Everyone either owns a home or hopes to own a home, and nobody likes the idea that their home could be taken away from them because someone wealthier wants it.” She says that the Court has done the property-rights cause an unintentional favor by highlighting takings for private use that have been going on for a long time without much public notice.
The Court has also got Maxine Waters’s back up, which is never advisable.
–Rich Lowry is author of Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years.
(c) 2004 King Features Syndicate