Saturday, June 23, 2007

Oppressing The Poor in the Name of the Poor

The Old Testament commands for justice for the poor appear all the more urgent when there is the potential for governmental and political power being used to oppress the poor in favor of the wealthy. Today is the second anniversary of the Supreme Court's Kelo decision in which the court ruled that there was no federal constitutional prohibition against state and local governments using the power of eminent domain for what is essentially private economic development purposes. (In fairness to the U.S. Supreme Court, they did not rule that such takings had to occur, only that the primary protection was at the level of state and local political and constitutional process). In a dissent, Justice O'Connnor warned that such takings would lead to the use of government power to transfer property from those with fewer resources to those with more resources. Turn her rhetoric up a notch and you have an Old Testament-style warning about oppressing the poor in our court system.

The Wall Street Journal today and the Institute for Justice have discussions of the reforms that have been enacted (or not enacted) over the past two years. The Institute for Justice documents Justice O'Connor's warning....the takees in these property grabs are disproportionately poor and minority property owners.

The ironies in all of this are amazing. After all, the use of eminent domain to counteract "blight" is a holdover from the "urban renewal" crusades of American Progressives in the 1940s and 1950s, in which large parcels of American inner cities were bulldozed so that Stalinist architecture housing projects could be put in their place. We know how successful those were. As long ago as the 1970s, city bureaucrats in Pasadena promoted tearing down a large section of old businesses to build an underground parking garage topped by an above-ground shopping mall. Today Pasadena scrambles to promote what few actually old sections remain as historic, while the shopping mall has needed its own "urban renewal." The political coalition that unsuccessfully tried to stop the Pasadena mall was an unusual pairing of middle-class libertarian-leaning conservatives and historic preservation-leaning liberals. The same weird coalitions exist today as local governments try to use the power of governmental takings to end "blight" (in the form of property owned disproportionately by minorities and the poor). It would be an interesting study to go into these communities to see where the "social-justice" Christian pastors and the "limited government" big business interests stand. I wonder what Amos would have said?

"For I know how many are your offenses
and how great your sins.
For you oppress the righteous and take bribes
and you deprive the poor of justice in the courts."

Amos 5:12


Jeff said...

Nice post. 'Til now I've been a loyal and appreciative though silent reader from the outset. This topic brings forth memories, close and distant.

As a VISTA volunteer, I recall the evils of the notorious Pruitt-Igoe housing development in St. Louis. There I was struck in the head once while climbing stairs to the social workers' offices to visit my girl friend; just a casual swipe as a kid descended; only enough to let me know I wasn't in a safe place.

More recently as I research the life of a 17th c. mathematician, I've been reading about the imposition of excise taxes in place of taxes on property. At the time, the House of Commons recognized that the revenue burden was being shifted from the shoulders of the rich onto those of the poor. They made a half-hearted effort to mitigate the impact but only for a while. Though the main reason for imposing excise taxes was to establish a reliable revenue stream, the main result was an inequitable taxation of the unlanded many by the land-owning few. I'm not sure you could say the same today, but the current VAT rate of 17.5 percent in the UK just might suggest a continuity of policy.

Mark said...

I'd like to thank loyal reader Aaron who was able to locate the WSJ link after I originally posted this article without the link available. The link may have a limited life for non-subscribers.