The Lancaster Patriot’s Michael Yoder reported last week that all three Lancaster County Commissioners voted for the use of eminent domain for the construction of a prison facility. Commissioners Parsons, D’Agostino, and Trescot all expressed concern with utilizing eminent domain, but concluded that in this case it was the right course of action.
The property in view was a relatively small tract of land owned by the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), which the FOP was willing to sell to the county. However, a third party filed a lawsuit claiming they have the first right to buy the land. That claim is based on the 1968 sale of the land to the FOP.
In other words, the FOP wanted to sell the land to the county, but litigation is getting in the way.
Instead of letting the court case play out, the county commissioners decided to use eminent domain. The main reason given is that the prison project is of utmost importance and must move forward, sooner rather than later.
What is eminent domain? It is “the right of a government or its agent to expropriate private property for public use, with payment of compensation.” The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution grants the use of the practice: “No person shall be…deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”
So, yes, eminent domain has a history in the United States of America and is even enshrined in our founding document.
But it goes back much further than 1787. Kings, emperors, and czars have often claimed sovereignty over the land, reserving the right to “take back” what is “theirs,” should the need arise.
The legitimacy of the practice has been largely assumed by most Americans. After all, if the state has the right to tax our property, force us to pay for the education of other people’s kids, and charge us money to own and use vehicles, why wouldn’t they also have the right to claim our land if they “need it for the public good”?
As Michael Yoder’s reporting made clear, and I have reemphasized, the Lancaster County Commissioners did not use eminent domain, in this case, to seize property against the will of the landowner. That fact should be clear for the sake of honesty.
However, my concern remains: using eminent domain, for any reason, grants the practice legitimacy. And the practice, being a violation of Christ’s plan for the nations, is illegitimate.
The state does not have the reserved right to all land. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof” (Psalm 24:1). God alone exercises sovereignty over the land, and he has tasked the family, not the state, with taking dominion. God’s Law-Word forbids the moving of landmarks (Deut. 19:14) and consistently condemns the principles underlying eminent domain (cf. 1 Samuel 8:14; 1 Kings 21).
The state’s role is to punish evildoers (Romans 13:3) – a very limited, but important, role. (And let it be noted that a prison system is not included in that role. Prison sentences are not a biblical solution to crime – mercy, restitution, or execution are.)
A Bad Example to Follow
While I grant the recent use of eminent domain could essentially be considered a formality, my concern hinges on two things. (1) The use of the practice grants the practice legitimacy. And (2) the more we use an illegitimate option, the harder it is for future generations to abandon it.
Eminent domain is built on a pagan, humanist foundation. Though it predates Marxism, eminent domain is perfectly aligned with the statist, Marxist doctrine that the state is the rightful sovereign over all aspects of society, down to the very ground (and underneath it – you’ll find that out fairly quickly if you ever discover costly minerals on your land).
Republican commissioners can remonstrate against my comparison, but they have no philosophical grounds to deny it: eminent domain assumes the government truly owns all the land. (As do forced property taxes – those are also illegitimate because they are based on the same statist premise that you do not really own your land.)
But this is the bane of “conservative” politics – it is built on statist principles and then tries to resist when those principles are carried to their logical conclusion.
For example, forced taxation to fund K-12 education is built on the socialistic premises that the state owns the land (and thus can force you to pay property taxes) and that the state has the right to educate the citizenry. “Conservatives” are fully on-board here.
And yet when their statist principles are followed consistently – namely, in the proposal that the state should also fund four years of college – they loudly reject such proposals, labelling them “socialistic.”
Boy, talk about the pot calling the kettle black.
Here’s a better idea: follow Christ’s plan for the state.
Precedent means nothing when the practice violates God’s Law-Word. When man’s law goes against God’s, even in the form of historical precedent or the flawed Fifth Amendment, our duty is to God rather than man. Christ has all authority in heaven and on earth, legal theorists and county commissioners do not.
By using eminent domain, our county commissioners are legitimizing the practice. True, they might never do it again themselves, but they make it that much harder for our children’s generation to get rid of statism and all its loathsome accoutrements. Our children can look forward to facing this rejoinder from their county commissioners: “Parsons, D’Agostino, and Trescot did it. Why can’t we?”
And all this in the name of another illegitimate practice: locking people in prisons. This is truly a 2-for-1 deal. Not only do our civil leaders affirm eminent domain, ratcheting us down a little tighter in the vise grip of statism, but they also plan to use the practice to build a massive prison facility, making it that much harder for us to abandon the ungodly and useless practice of locking people in cells and calling it “justice.” (For more on that, read next week’s editorial.)