Jewish World Review May 29, 2007
By Thomas Sowell
It has long been recognized that those on the political left are more articulate than their opponents. The words they choose for the things they are for or against make it easy to decide whether to be for or against those things.
Are you for or against “social justice”? A no-brainer. Who is going to be for injustice?
What about “a living wage”? Who wants people not to have enough money to live on?
Then there is “affordable housing” and “affordable health care.” Who would want people to be unable to afford to put a roof over their heads or unable to go to a doctor when they are sick?
In real life, the devil is in the details. But the whole point of political rhetoric is to make it unnecessary for you to have to go into the specifics before taking sides.
You don’t need to know any economics to be in favor of “a living wage” or “affordable housing.” In fact, the less economics you know, the more you can believe in such
Conservatives, on the other hand, have a gift for phrasing things in terms that are unlikely to arouse most people’s interest, much less their support.
Do words like “property rights,” “the market” or “judicial restraint” make your emotions surge and your heart beat faster?
There are serious reasons to be greatly concerned about all these things. But you have to have a lot more facts and more understanding of history, economics, and law before you see why.
An issue can be enormously important and well within most people’s understanding. Yet the way words are used can determine whether people are aroused or bored.
One of those issues is what legal scholars call “takings.” There is a masterful book with that title by Professor Richard Epstein of the University of Chicago Law School.
But if you are in a bookstore and see a book with the title “Takings” on its cover, are you more likely to stop in your tracks and eagerly snatch it off the shelf or to yawn and keep walking?
Takings are not a complex idea. But it needs explaining.
Let’s suppose you live in a $400,000 house.
If, on a Wednesday afternoon, the government announces that it is planning to “redevelop” the area where your home is located — that is, demolish the area so that something else can be built there — by Thursday morning, your $400,000 house could become a $200,000 house.
The market reacts very quickly in anticipation of future events.
Several years later, when the government actually gets around to demolishing the area, they may offer you $200,000 for your property — or perhaps $150,000, if they use an appraiser who knows that he is more likely to get more business from the government if his estimates are on the low side rather than the high side.
In either case, you are out at least a couple of hundred grand. Has the government “taken” that much from you, without paying you the full compensation for your property, as required by the Constitution of the United States?
Such theoretical questions were made vividly real, and people were vividly outraged, when the Supreme Court in 2005 declared that governments at all levels had the power to seize private property, not only for such government activities as building reservoirs or highways, but also for turning the property over to private developers to build shopping malls, casinos, or whatever.
The Constitution says that government can take private property for “public use” if it compensates the owner. The Supreme Court changed that to mean that the government could take private property just to turn over to others, so long as they called it a “public purpose” like “redevelopment.”
Politicians are experts at rhetoric, especially if that is all that is needed to justify seizing your home and turning it over to someone else who will build something that pays more taxes.
All hell broke out, once people now understood that the issue called “takings” was about politicians being able to seize their property, virtually at will, for someone else’s benefit. But it was a liberal court decision, not the words of conservatives, which created that understanding