Eminent Domain: Ahab and Jezebel in Muncie?

October 15, 2012

by T. Norman Van Cott, Ph.D.

Once there was a king who coveted a vineyard owned by one of his subjects. It was a good vineyard, but more importantly it was close to the king’s palace. So the king offered to trade another of his vineyards.

“No deal,” said the owner of the coveted vineyard. The king next offered to buy the vineyard for a price he deemed fair. The vineyard owner turned this offer down also. The refusals distressed the king so much that he was bedridden and unable to eat.

Enter the queen, who after upbraiding her husband for being spineless told him not to worry because she would get the vineyard for him. Acting in the name of the king, she convened a kangaroo court where the vineyard owner was falsely accused, convicted and stoned to death.

Was the king and queen’s seizure of the vineyard legal?

Well, if you’re the king and queen, you get to write the laws. So yes it was legal. That the king and queen each suffered a gruesome death introduces a measure of justice in the story. Even so, the vineyard was never restored to its owner’s heirs.

Some probably recognize this story. It is drawn from the Bible’s account of Ahab, Jezebel and Naboth (1 Kings 21). Ahab, the king of Israel and Jezebel, the queen, stole a vineyard from a fellow named Naboth. And Hoosiers familiar with recent events at Ball State University (BSU) will see disturbing parallels: to wit, the university wants to build a $25-million hotel, conference center, restaurant and dormitory complex on a site owned by a local businessman bordering the campus.

The businessman operates a combination printing, copying and apartment business on the site. He has refused the university’s cash offers for the site, so in early September the university’s board of trustees approved exercising its eminent domain power. It’s a way for the university to “steal” the site legally, euphemistically called a “taking.”

The businessman is obviously “Naboth” in this university saga. No university administrator, however, has declared “I’m the Ahab” or “I’m the Jezebel.” That isn’t surprising, neither Ahab nor Jezebel has positive name recognition despite more than 2,500 years after the stoning of Naboth.

Some might think BSU’s board of trustees is collectively playing the Ahab-Jezebel roles. Not likely, though. Boards of trustees across the country are regarded as little more than rubber stamps for administrators. More likely is the idea that the members of the board are the flatterers who surely surrounded King Ahab and Queen Jezebel.

While the board may be a rubber stamp, that doesn’t stop its members from saying silly things. For example, following the announcement that BSU’s board had approved an eminent domain action, one member said, “. . . I see this as an economic engine that will drive revitalization” in the university neighborhood.

Alas. Since when did confiscating private property encourage others to sink capital in adjoining (yet to be confiscated?) property? Wealth confiscation is not a prescription for wealth growth — never has been, never will be. Maybe that’s why two of the Ten Commandments forbid stealing and coveting (numbers 8 and 10).

I submit that more is at stake in things like this than rote dollars and cents calculations about a hotel, conference center restaurant and dormitory complex vs. a copy, printing and apartment business. Requiring buyers and sellers to obtain the consent of their counterparts is a foundational freedom we enjoy as Americans. This is especially beneficial to marginalized people — the so-called “little guys” — who are particularly susceptible to the encroachments of bullies acting under the aegis of government.

In summary, we ignore the mutual consent requirement at great risk, and it doesn’t matter a whit if it’s the capped and gowned set doing the bullying.

Norman Van Cott, Ph.D., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, is a professor of economics at Ball State University. Contact him at director@inpolicy.org


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