Thursday, July 14, 2005

Hyman v. The Public I

Apologies for the delay in responding to the latest series of Hyman commentaries on the Kelo v. New London case. When it became clear that Hyman was cobbling together a series of “Points” into one extended riff, I thought I’d wait until he finished and respond to the entirety in one go.

After the most recent installment, however, I think we need to look at this from two different perspectives and focus on each of these in turn.

In this post, let’s take a look at the smaller of the two issues: the case itself and the Supreme Court’s decision. In the following post, we’ll look at the “meta” issue of how Hyman makes his argument.

From the outset, I want to make clear that I don’t necessarily disagree with Hyman’s claim that the Supreme Court ruling was in error and might infringe on the property rights of some individuals. Indeed, a number of progressive and liberal voices have decried the Supreme Court’s decision for precisely the reason Hyman claims he does: it will target homeowners who are disproportionately poor.

But while there’s certainly an argument to be made that the Supreme Court’s decision is in error, there’s also a reasonable argument to be made that it is the right decision. Hyman (and others who disagree with the court) frame the issue by putting their audience in the place of the homeowners who are told they have to move out of their house to make way for a large company to build a store, factory, etc. That’s fine, but to understand the issue fully, you have to consider the other side as well.

Imagine that you are living in one of the many towns and small cities (particularly in New England) that have fallen on economic hard times. Built around industries that have taken major hits in the last twenty years, such as textiles and steel manufacturing, these once vibrant communities are now empty husks, with major sections of their downtown areas abandoned or dilapidated.

Now, let’s say that Pfizer or some other company comes knocking and wants to invest in your town by building a brand new facility in the heart of your city. This promises to provide desperately needed jobs, as well as bringing money to the downtown area. The influx of cash, both from the additional jobs and the tax revenues, holds out the promise of a revitalized town center. The company wants to come. The local government, made up of members of this community, have examined the plan and concluded that it will bring new life to the community.

The problem is that one or two dozen people live in the area where the new facility will be built. They must be relocated for the deal to go through, but they (understandably) aren’t anxious to move. So the question is this: should this small group of citizens be allowed to stand in the way of a project that has been vetted by the representative government of their community and which will improve the lives of the town as a whole, or do the rights of individuals always trump those of the collective community?

In framing the question this way, I don’t mean to suggest that the Supreme Court was necessarily correct in its ruling. I simply point out that there’s a reasonable argument on the other side. Hyman claims the benefits of the civic improvement plan involved in this case will go only to big corporations and “government bureaucrats” ( you know—all those filthy rich city council members you see walking around the average American town). He also says that the court will help large corporations at the expense of small businesses (never mind that Hyman routinely supports Wal-Mart, a huge corporation that has an entire business model based on driving out Mom-and-Pop stores).

But one of the draws of such deals between towns and companies is precisely the fact that it will inject money into the poorest sections of town, bring job opportunities for the unemployed, and improve the livability of towns as a whole. While those who suffer displacement will likely be working class or poor, so will those who will get many of the benefits.

Balancing the rights of the individual with those of the community is a tricky business in a democracy. Even Hyman would agree that there should be some restrictions on the rights of private property owners. Unless he’s comfortable with the idea of his neighbor setting up a hog processing plant next door or with an entrepreneur opening an adult book shop across the street from his kids’ school, Hyman would grant that there must be reasonable limitations on what an individual can do with property in order to make the larger community a more livable place.

Of course, actually taking away someone’s house and forcing them to move is a far cry from simply not allowing them to slaughter livestock in their backyard. Even if such forcible evictions are ruled legal, it must be with the caveat that the property owners be paid a fair market price for their property, along with expenses to cover moving and inconvenience. Often, this doesn’t happen.

But to pretend that the issue is not complex is to do a disservice to the public debate. Hyman shrilly claims that this is a case of the “government taking away your property” without acknowledging the rights of a community to come to decisions through democratic government that it feels will be a boon to everyone who lives there.

In this case, a good argument can be made that the Supreme Court erred too far on the side of communal rights vs. individual rights, but Hyman doesn’t make it. He ignores the subtlety of the issue in order to stroke his own ego (e.g., his claim that he’s been the only national commentator to cover this issue) and to demagogue it for political purposes. In doing so, Hyman abuses his access to the public forum.

More on that in the following post.

And that’s The Counterpoint


At 2:32 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Ted, you forgot the "Hyman Index" !


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