Rejecting pleas by homeowners fighting to keep their properties, the Supreme Court on Thursday said local governments could condemn a person’s home or business so the sites could be redeveloped for more lucrative uses.

In a 5-4 decision written by Justice John Paul Stevens, the court said the Constitution permits governments to condemn a person’s property, paying them a fair price for it, as part of a broader economic redevelopment plan to revitalize a distressed community.

The decision, one of the most anxiously awaited of the term, emphasized that governments have long relied on powers of eminent domain to condemn property for public uses, such as railways and utilities. The court has historically taken a “deferential approach to legislative judgments in this field,” the majority said.

The court recognized the “hardship” such condemnations may bring to property owners uprooted from homes and businesses in the name of economic development. But local governments should be given “broad latitude” to determine whether their citizens would be best served by condemning private property, especially where it is part of a broader scheme for redevelopment, the court said.

“Promoting economic development is a traditional and long-accepted function of government,” the court said, upholding efforts by the city of New London, Conn., to redevelop a parcel of land in a distressed part of town. ~Chicago Tribune

Kelo v. New London is a ruling that will enter the ranks of the most appalling, unjustifiable and unconstitutional Court rulings in history. Note the state capitalist claim for compelling government interest offered by Justice Stevens: economic development is a function of government. Sadly, in practice, Americans have allowed precedent after precedent to be set where the government is supposedly an agent for economic development, and from this state capitalist premise it would follow that property rights are only as secure as is most useful to the bottom line of the state and its corporate allies. This is to make our ownership of our own land entirely dependent on the pleasure of oligarchs and bureaucrats. Thomas Fleming has already laid out the consequences for property rights implied in this ruling in his excellent article this week.

To his incisive criticism I would also add that without secure property rights liberty simply becomes an empty word. If a man is not secure in his own possessions from the arbitrary attacks of state or private interests, he cannot be anything remotely like an independent citizen. He must inevitably become a lackey of either the government or a private master, forfeiting his personal legal, traditional rights as a citizen for the sake of economic or political protection. The road to serfdom has now effectively reached its end, and we have arrived at the destination by judicial fiat.

I would like to add a few notes from an historical parallel that occurred to me as I was working through my seemingly interminable reading list for oral exams. What the Court has allowed appears to me to be the full endorsement of the interests of what the Byzantine emperors generically termed dynatoi, the powerful, who were all those officials and landlords with sufficient influence and power in their local area to compel farmers to sell their land or be forced into dependent relationships with them. In the tenth century, as this new aristocracy of wealth began to emerge, a series of emperors attempted unsuccessfully to rein in the depredations of the dynatoi, both for the sake of moral justice (as the emperors themselves said at the time) and for the more obvious reasons of preserving the sources of state revenues and curtailing the political independence of the aristocracy. Those familiar with Byzantine history will know already that the efforts to curtail the dynatoi largely failed in the end, exacerbating structural instabilities, weaknesses and internal conflicts in the Byzantine state that hastened its collapse to the Crusaders in 1204, after which time the empire was never really in a position to recover or fend off even more aggressive invaders. The predatory habits and depredations of our modern dynatoi may not be having quite the same effects, but they are an acid dissolving the economic, political and social foundations of our country nonetheless.

We do not live in an agricultural society where small farms provide the tax base for the state, so small property owners do not provide the modern state with the same incentive to protect their property rights. Even if it is in the interest of the state to intervene, the state would not make decisions genuinely hostile to corporate interests. It is one of the ironies of living under a modern regime that the supposedly terrible autocracy of the Byzantines was more humane and just towards its poor and its small property owner than the supposedly democratic government of today.

Of course, we know the oligarchy that actually rules us has little interest in genuine self-rule and concentrates all power in its own hands, but there is still popular acquiescence and acceptance of the current order that would have greatly confused the Byzantines. Without formal outlets for their protest, at least Byzantines were capable of grandiose, sometimes successful riots to oppose a harmful policy or a usurper. Americans are made complacent by the illusion of political control of “their” government. They would be more jealous of their rights if they understood how quickly and permanently they could be stolen away, elections or not. Byzantines may have prostrated themselves before an emperor, but they were less servile than we are today.