Most people would agree that taking someone’s property against his will is immoral. Forcing your neighbor to sell his house, for instance — regardless of the amount offered — would be morally repugnant. After all, the essence of a fair transaction — a trade — is the consent of both buyer and seller. Since your neighbor’s house belongs to him, taking his property against his will is clearly an act of theft.
Yet, according to the UW Board of Regents, this type of coercion is perfectly acceptable. The university is planning on using their right to “eminent domain” to condemn the property of Brothers Bar & Grill in order to build a School of Music performance hall.
Regent Jeffrey Bartell defends his actions as follows: “Our job is to be good stewards of the public’s money. We can’t justify paying public funds substantially in excess of fair market value.”
In other words, “the owners are asking too much, so we’ve decided to take their property from them.” Consider the oddity of Bartell extolling the virtues of fiscal responsibility yet feeling no need to justify taking someone’s property by force. Why is this?
If it is morally unacceptable for an individual to take someone’s property without his or her consent, what could possibly transform vice into virtue just because a university does it? These magic words — the words behind all forms of government — sponsor coercion against its citizens: “the public interest.” When someone is deprived of his property, prevented from broadcasting his views or investing his money as he sees fit, the alleged justification is usually that it serves “the public interest.”
But only individuals possess interests, and the public is nothing more than the sum of individuals living in a given region. In this sense, there is no such thing as “the public interest” as distinct from the interests of individuals.
If “public interest” is to have any meaning at all, it can only mean that which is in the interest of all individuals. And this can only mean one thing: freedom. Freedom, of which property rights are an essential part, is what allows “the public” (i.e., each individual) to pursue their interests while respecting the rights of others to do the same.
Placing the alleged interest of some reified “public” above the interests of its members is nonsensical and destructive. What happens to the interests of the owners and patrons of Brothers, for example, and the community of people who value this establishment? Aren’t they part of “the public?”
In practice “the public interest” is a meaningless phrase used to justify the imposition of one group’s preferences on another group or individual. Whether used by the UW to expand its facilities, The New York Times to build new offices, or the city of New London to take homes from their owners and give them to a favored business, the result is always the same: one group’s interests are sacrificed to another.
To do what is good for the public means to do what is good for individuals, which means protecting their ability to pursue their individual interests (the only kind that exist) free of coercion from others.
UW may be within its legal rights to seize Brothers, but does it have a moral right? And what message do UW’s actions send to students and alumni? Do they encourage students to pursue their own interests with passion, knowing that their accomplishments (maybe owning and running a tavern) will be respected? Or do they teach them that their individual interests can be trampled and plans uprooted by any group (the university perhaps) claiming to represent “the public interest?”
The UW could refuse to engage in the coercive acts the government has granted it, as others have done (BB&T Corporation, for instance, has refused to lend money to eminent domain projects). It could attempt to acquire property by voluntary means. This might require additional funding and may even result in the university’s interests and development plan being frustrated for a while. But in doing so, UW will have made the inestimable moral decision to stand up for the actual interest of each and every member of the public — the right to pursue one’s own life and happiness free of coercion. This is what it truly means to represent “the public interest.”
Jim Allard ([email protected]) is a graduate student in the biological sciences.