Five Supreme Court justices ruled that the seizure of private property from several residents of New London, Connecticut to make way for a new site owned by pharmaceutical manufacturer Pfizer met the test of “public use” for eminent domain. A decade after New London took homes away from its citizens to sell the land to a private corporation, Pfizer has decided it doesn’t want the facility after all, adding a fitting coda to a chapter of governmental abuse:
The private homes New London, Conn., took through eminent domain from Suzette Kelo and others, are torn down now, but Pfizer has just announced that it closing up shop at the research facility that led to the condemnation.
Leading drugmakers Pfizer and Wyeth have merged, and as a result, are trimming some jobs. That includes axing the 1,400 jobs at their sparkling new research & development facility in New London, and moving some across the river to Groton.
To lure those jobs to New London a decade ago, the local government promised to demolish the older residential neighborhood adjacent to the land Pfizer was buying for next-to-nothing. Suzette Kelo fought the taking to the Supreme Court, and lost, as five justices said this redvelopment met the constitutional hurdle of “public use.”
Ms. Kelo and many others lost their home, but the land is still undeveloped. Now Pfizer is abandoning the city altogether.
What are the lessons from this debacle? First, the American system should protect private property from the reach of government as a starting point. The Kelo decision — which was not a radical departure by any means, but the nadir of a slow trend of hostility towards private property — assumed that the decision about the best use of private property by private entities was better off being made by the government. That insulted the entire notion of private property and put individual liberty in jeopardy. Essentially, the Supreme Court endorsed the idea that using eminent domain to transfer property from one private entity to another was entirely legitimate as long as the government in question liked one owner over another.
Think of it as an early endorsement of Barack Obama’s response to Joe the Plumber on redistributionism, only in this case, Kelo and New London stole from the poor and gave to the rich.
And guess what? New London chose poorly anyway. Instead of having homeowners on that property, paying taxes and providing stability, the city now has an empty lot and a ton of political baggage. The biggest lesson is that private owners should have the benefit of deciding for themselves the best private use of their land — primarily to bolster the rule of law and the concept of private property that lies at the heart of our personal liberty, but also because government is a lot more likely to muck it up.