In 2006, the future of Solberg Airport was a hot item in Readington Township, New Jersey. On May 16 of that year, by a 56-44% margin, voters approved a bond referendum for $22 million toward purchase of land and development rights to Solberg Airport and surrounding lands. On September 16, 2006, Readington initiated its eminent domain action against Solberg on the pretext that preserving the existing airport and surrounding lands is in the “public interest,” because it would preclude airport expansion to accommodate small corporate jets or sale of the land to housing developers. The Solbergs fought back, and the battle has been tied up in the courts ever since.
The referendum itself did not specifically authorize, nor rule out, eminent domain. Most people understood, however, that approval of the referendum would likely lead to the eminent domain taking of Solberg land. Signs sprouted all over Readington; some saying “NO JETS”, and others saying “STOP EMINENT DOMAIN—IT IS UN-AMERICAN”.
Yes, eminent domain is un-American. To understand why, one need only examine the issue in the context of America’s founding ideals.
The referendum “does not change the Township's right of eminent domain one way or the other,” according to an FAQ document. A court brief on behalf of Readington spoke of the township’s “sovereign power of eminent domain.” In a recent campaign mailing, Julia Allen and Frank Gatti, the Readington Township Committee incumbents in the June 3 GOP primary election, cited the “will of the voters” as justification for the Solberg taking. [all emphasis added]
These statements beg certain questions: What are rights? Who is sovereign in the American system? What is the proper role of government?
The Declaration of Independence is the philosophic “blueprint” for this nation’s constitution and law. That blueprint states that every individual has “unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The government is established “to secure these rights.” The government, said Abe Lincoln, is “of, for, and by the people.” Government is the people's servant, not their master. The government has no rights, apart from the limited powers granted to it by the vote of the people.
But, the people’s power is also limited. Since rights are unalienable, the people cannot grant government the power to violate individual rights. The voting power of the people is limited to granting government only those powers related to fulfilling its only fundamental task of protecting individual rights. The people can not vote to kill, or enslave, or take the property of, or otherwise violate the rights of, any individual or minority group of individuals. In a democracy, where the group or collective is sovereign and individuals are rightless, the “will of the voters”—i.e., any electoral majority—would have absolute power. But America is not a democracy. America is a constitutionally limited republic based on unalienable individual rights.
Given these principles, it follows that the government is not “sovereign”—i.e., supreme over the people. The government is subordinate to the people in all of its functions. It is the people, qua individual, that is sovereign. This is crucial. The individual, and only the individual, is sovereign; over his life, liberty, and, by logical extension, his property. This means that the government can not violate the individual’s sovereignty—meaning, his rights—under any pretext, including majority vote. Rights, properly understood, are moral principles sanctioning the individual’s freedoms in a social context; i.e., to act on his own judgement, in pursuit of his own goals, values, and happiness, so long as his actions do not violate the same rights of others and he deals with others only by voluntary mutual agreement.
It’s true that America’s Founders were not fully consistent to the principles stated in the Declaration of Independence. The biggest inconsistency was, of course, the failure to eradicate slavery. But another is the acceptance of eminent domain into the constitution (although, to my knowledge, the term “eminent domain” does not actually appear in the constitution). Thankfully, slavery was abolished. But eminent domain survived and grew, trampling our rights with increasing frequency and ferocity.
That inconsistency aside, it’s clear that the Founders overarching purpose was to ensure individual rights by means of rights-protecting government. The sovereignty and liberty of the individual, not the state or the majority, is what they intended to ensure. The fact that governments have the power of eminent domain does not make it right, or a sovereign power, or consistent with American ideals. Only individuals have rights and sovereignty, and any rights-violating government actions—including those initially sanctioned by the Founders—are inherently un-American.
John Broten and Sam Tropello, who are challenging incumbents Julia Allen and Frank Gatti for Readington Township Committee seats in the June 3 Republican primary, oppose the eminent domain action against Solberg land on practical grounds—mainly on financial and tax grounds. The Solberg action may not make “fiscal sense,” as Tropello puts it. But that is not the essential issue. Nor is it a convincing argument. Those who support eminent domain will simply say that higher taxes are a worthwhile price to pay for keeping out corporate jets or a large housing development.
The main issue is that eminent domain, both in regard to Solberg land and on general principle, is immoral and un-American. Eminent domain should be abolished. Government should not have that power. But that is a long-term fight. The fact that Readington Township has the power does not make it government right. Nor does the township have to use it. Nor should it; against the Solbergs or any other township resident. Readington officials should end the township’s eminent domain assault on Solberg lands—not because it’s expensive, or because jets might start landing in Readington, or because houses might sprout on Solberg land. Eminent domain against Solberg should be ended because it’s the right thing to do.
Man's Rights and The Nature of Government—Ayn Rand