Chesterton was a defender of both hearth and home. He and his wife Frances had built their splendid house called Top Meadow west of London in the small town of Beaconsfield. After one of his speaking tours, they hurried joyfully back to their warm house and garden, their slice of Heaven on Earth. As he wrote in What’s Wrong With The World:
"Making the landlord and the tenant the same person has certain advantages, as that the tenant pays no rent, while the landlord does a little work."
Thanks to a US Supreme Court ruling of June 23rd of this year, home ownership as we know it is in peril.
The Pfizer Corporation, makers of Viagra and Listerine, made a deal in 1998 with a private development corporation and New London, Connecticut to build a new research facility. Hotels, office buildings and condominiums would also be built on the land. The main obstacle to this was a group of families and their homes on the proposed site. The city condemned their houses under “eminent domain,” and then transferred the land to another private developer who would build the facility as planned. Both Pfizer and New London would benefit from the increase of both jobs and revenue. But the homeowners would be out of luck.
The homeowners, led by Susette Kelo, refused to be mowed down by the city‘s actions. Ms. Kelo and the others contacted the Washington, DC-based Institute for Justice for legal help. At the end of 2000, the Institute filed a suit against both the private developer and New London to stop their attempt to seize the homes. The suit wound its way through the courts until in early 2004, Connecticut’s Supreme Court ruled 4-3 against Kelo et al. In July of that year, the Institute appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. One year later, the Court sided in a 5-4 decision with the Connecticut court. On July 18th, The Institute filed for a rehearing of the case.
While writing this column, a word came into my mind that sounded like Kelo, and that was “keelhaul”. And that word describes exactly what has been done to Ms. Kelo, her neighbors and ourselves. So please permit a momentary digression.
In the early days of sailing ships, this often fatal punishment was used especially by the English and Dutch navies. The convicted sailor, hands and feet tied and heavy weights attached to him, was thrown overboard. He then would be slowly dragged under the keel of the ship and hauled up the other side. He would be thrown over the other side and hauled again, until either he was drowned or cut to pieces by the barnacles on the hull.
In the case of the co-defendants in New London, and all of us now as a result of their loss, property ownership has been itself both half-drowned and cut to pieces. To quote the retiring Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who dissented:
“The specter of condemnation hangs over all property. Nothing is to prevent the State from replacing any Motel 6 with a Ritz-Carlton, any home with a shopping mall, or any farm with a factory.”
As was noted by the Institute for Justice, the nation's only libertarian public interest law firm, private property can only be taken for “public use,” such as a road or a public building. That limitation was written in both the U.S. Constitution and every state constitution. But with the Kelo decision, following an earlier Connecticut Supreme Court ruling, a home, small business or farm can now be seized under the eminent domain rule and given to a private developer. Even if there is nothing wrong with the home, business or farm, it can still be stolen from the rightful owner if the local or state government believes some big developer can create greater tax revenue for their coffers.
Dana Berliner of the Institute wrote, “Government is using force to replace middle-income citizens with richer ones and small businesses with larger ones.” In just five years, the government filed or threatened condemnation of more than 10,000 properties for private parties, according to the Institute. That is all types of properties, even churches! And to throw salt in the wounds from this judicial keelhauling, just hours after the Kelo decision, Freeport, Texas officials condemned two family-owned seafood businesses in order to build a privately owned marina project.
In one of his best known works, The Napoleon of Notting Hill, Chesterton writes of a man leading the defense of a borough against a proposed highway that would cut it apart. He always had a love for the small shops, the comfortable homes and lively neighborhoods that made human society humane in spite of its sins and misery. Even in his day in the early 20th Century, he knew that both big government and big business had their eyes on such neighborhoods and hamlets. Those places needed a champion. And so Chesterton said, "I drew my sword in defense of Notting Hill."
The Institute has joined with other groups to form the Castle Coalition. Their “Hands Off My Home” campaign aims to change Federal and state laws to stop cold the abuse of “eminent domain” for private gain. Protecting the home from both big government and big business is a tenet of Distributism. So let’s all back this campaign to the hilt.
Let Chesterton, writing in The Coloured Lands, have the last word:
"It is the main earthly business of a human being to make his home, and the immediate surroundings of his home, as symbolic and significant to his own imagination as he can."
Reprinted by Permission