Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Metro and Eminent Domain

According to the Chronicle, Metro's light rail expansion plans are being threatened by a bill under consideration in Austin. The bill would limit Metro's ability to use eminent domain to obtain land needed for proposed routes. George Smalley, Metro’s vice president for communications and marketing, said:
It effectively kills the light rail program.

If you lose a line like the University Line because you lost the power of condemnation, then the whole thing is at grave risk.

Several legislators, including John Whitmire, D-Houston, vowed to fight any attempt to limit Metro's powers. Whitmire claimed that such limits “would prevent the common good.” Whitmire does not define "common good". Apparently, he assumes that we all know and agree to the meaning of that undefinable term. The controversy surrounding Metro's plans demonstrate otherwise.

Whitmire's position rests on the premise that some individuals must put aside their own selfish interests for the alleged betterment of the community. Those who refuse to do so voluntarily will be forced to comply.

Something is very wrong when an alleged good can only be achieved through the use of government force. The proponents of eminent domain (in any context) argue that the "common good" justifies the means. But noble ends cannot be achieved through ignoble means. When government must resort to the initiation of force against innocent citizens, neither its ends nor its means are justifiable, proper, or moral.

Government should not be in the transportation business. Having expanded beyond its legitimate function--the protection of individual rights, including property rights--government must invariably resort to force. Government must compel individuals to act as it decrees, regardless of their values, judgment, or rights.

State legislators should revoke Metro's eminent domain powers, just as they should revoke the similar powers of the Texas Medical Center. Indeed, they should revoke the eminent domain powers of every entity in the state, private or public. More importantly, they should question the ends that they are pursuing.

There is only one context in which the "common good" or the "public welfare" has any meaning--the recognition and protection of individual rights. This is the only "good" which all individuals share. The "common good" is individual liberty--the right of each individual to act according to his own judgment, so long as he respects the mutual rights of others. Until legislators recognize this fact, and act accordingly, they will continue destroy the lives of some Texans for the alleged benefit of others.

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