EYE ON THE PIE: How much do property rights matter?

Rep. Roberta Righteous won reelection to the Indiana House again this year without opposition. We met for coffee and cinnamon rolls at a quiet spot near the Statehouse.

“What’s going to be this year’s hot topic in the Legislature?” I asked.

“Not prayer,” she said. “Not abortion, not education, not even jobs. The issue will be protecting property rights.”

“Are property rights being threatened?” I asked, licking the frosting from my fingers.

“No more than usual,” she responded with a glitter in her eyes. “It’s just that we need something to divert public attention from the more serious issues, and property rights make a swell hot button.”

“What’s at issue specifically?” I asked.

“The scare words are ’eminent domain,’ but the issue is really responsible private behavior,” Roberta replied. “Folks have been needlessly alarmed by one court case into believing that government is going to seize their land. But the real threat is that government will stand by and let green spaces and wetlands be developed today without doing anything to preserve them for tomorrow.

“All over the state, we have vacant or decayed properties being neglected while previously undeveloped properties are transferred to owners who want to build on them. Some projects in the suburbs and rural areas we call sprawl. Some within the city we call economic development. Too rarely are we reusing land that has been developed in the past.”

“So what’s the problem?” I asked.

“If you oppose inappropriate new development and support land reuse,” she answered, “you are said to be denying property owners their rights to do with their land what they wish to do; you’re un-American. You might be labeled a proponent of aggressive eminent domain.”

I looked about to see if anyone had heard her last words.

“Shush,” I shushed. “It’s best not to talk about that in public.”

“The idea that government is taking rights away from land owners is phony,” Roberta continued. “Property owners never had the right to harm others by the use of their own lands. What constitutes harm has changed over time.

“Today, what you do and where you do it is much more important than in the 18th century. Building a mammoth retail store on a golf course (as in Hammond) is one egregious example of doing harm. There were three other corners to the intersection of Indianapolis Boulevard and interstates 80/94 that could have been reused for that purpose.

“Instead, we will have a loss of green space and monumental spending for infrastructure to benefit one out-of-state retailer and the private parties who owned the golf course. No eminent domain was used there. Yet there was a government subsidy justified by the argument that the project will bring jobs and higher tax revenue.

“Across from the Indianapolis Museum of Art there is a proposal to take green space that is owned by a private cemetery and build housing and retail space on it. Again, it would be an exchange between private parties; no eminent domain. But what about the interest of the public? There are so many other places in Indianapolis that such a development might take place. But there are few comparable green areas to be preserved for the future.”

“Are you in favor of public intervention in these cases?” I asked quietly.

“Absolutely,” Roberta replied. “Every time we bow our heads to the so-called rights of private property, we close our eyes to the public interest.

I stood to leave.

“Those are good thoughts,” I said most softly, “but how do you get re-elected? Next time, let’s meet where the lights are not so bright; I wouldn’t want to show up on a list of subversives.”

Marcus taught economics more than 30 years at Indiana University and is the former director of IU’s Business Research Center. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, send e-mail to mortonjmarcus@yahoo.com.

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