Public Good: Where to Draw the Line

October 9, 2011

Political Theory


On Saturday, I took a walk through Nichols Arboretum, enjoying both the sunshine and the slightly brisk air because it reminded me of a public park near my own home.  I often tend to take walks through public parks when I have a lot of work to do, mostly to reduce the amount of stress that is building up in my system or to simply take my mind off of things for a little while.  These public parks have offered a lot to me – freedom from stress, the ability to enjoy nature, and even a form of recreational activity.

The great thing about public parks is that they are a public good, which is something that all people in a society can enjoy and is not limited to any group.  Thus, everyone can enjoy what is being provided.  While public parks, clean air, and even national defense can be classified as public goods, there are certain things that the government has recently tried to push as a public use to become a public good in order to “better society.” In essence, the issue of eminent domain is in question.

I am sure everyone remembers the debates over eminent domain, most notably with the famous “Little Pink House” in Connecticut.  The issue in question was whether the government could argue for the betterment of society by taking away the homes in an entire neighborhood in order to open land for redevelopment in an economic way, providing new job opportunities, and most importantly, generating higher taxes for the community.  These increased taxes would in turn lead to the betterment of other societal goods.  The details of the Kelo vs. New London case can be viewed here.    Ultimately, the Supreme Court decided on behalf of the  town of New London, allowing for them to take control of the lands at a much lower price than it was actually worth.  Ironically, the company that had wanted to develop in the town found a better area and left the area fought over in the case barren.

This case leads us to ask: what exactly classifies something as for public use?  Are there certain aspects of society that should not be allowed to be used as a means for taking away the private property, such as economically based motives as the case presented?  Or should the American people be willing to give up their private land for the state in order to help society?  Under Toqueville’s ideas, he noted that the American people were more willing to give up their time and property to the state (Toqueville, Book 2 Chapter 8 Par 6).  He describes Americans as having an enlightened self-interest, or acting in a way to help the rest of society that also helps themselves (Toqueville, Book 2 Chapter 8 Par 6).  The previous question could be tied to enlightened self-interest, as by giving away their land, they better the community  through the new public good, which increases land prices across the community, giving their new home, land, or business a higher price.  Yet, it does not seem that most people willingly give up their land.  In this regard, what allows eminent domain to be sustained in society?

It stands to question whether the government should even be allowed to take private property from others.  If so, what should these properties guarantee to society?  Or should the government respect the private property of those in the country with the notion that the individuals may have worked hard for the lands that they hold?  Where do you think the line should be drawn, or do you think that the line should not exist?

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About amgille

Graduate of The University of Michigan. Lover of cats, wine, cheese, and bagels.

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5 Comments on “Public Good: Where to Draw the Line”

  1. Brian Robinson Says:

    This issue has no correct answer because there is more than a small area of gray between what can be classified as “for the betterment of society”. I believe that the government should never take away private land for public use unless the private use of the land is harmful for society. Conversely, I think it is the duty and sole right of the government to maintain, provide, and own public land for all citizens to use. Something should be classified as “for public use” if it is owned by the government and is open to all members of society willing to comply to the rules and regulations set forth for the land itself. Toqueville was correct, in my view, by assessing Americans as more willing to give up their time and effort to help society but NOT their land. Private land ownership is one of the many things that separates our society from others less privileged and although public land is vital, it is not important enough to wrongfully seize privately owned land.

    This issue can somewhat be tied to Mill and his analysis of citizens rights. A question that came to mind while reading this is should there be limitations on what the public can do in the public land? It is my contention that in order to maintain the public land, it is also the governments job to enact rules and regulations that will keep the land usable and safe for all. This goes beyond simply outlawing activities in the parks and other public places but at times, it may be necessary to restrict certain access to people who posses careless attitudes about their activities in public places.

  2. sgbraid Says:

    You pose an excellent question and this is a debate that is happening all over america as we speak. This happened in Brooklyn, New York roughly two years ago when the government started kicking tenants out of their buildings in order to knock down the buildings and then allow the New Jersey Nets to build a basketball arena in the heart of Brooklyn. To some, the government acted cruelly and irresponsibly in kicking tenants out, and to others, the basketball arena was seen as a source of economic stimulus — it provided lots of new jobs and open the area to all sorts of new businesses.

    There’s no real answer to this question, as there are many factors that go into deciding whether a new public institution is good for the public or not. Many times, how deep the new public institution’s impact is, will not be seen until at least 20 or 30 years in the future.

    For the most part, though, the government should respect the private property of its citizens. Even though there are lots of institutions that have been built, or are being built, that are for the betterment of society, are they necessary? Does the government need to build these parks and these common areas for the public? If building a public institution is detrimental to a couple of citizens, then it shouldn’t been built. The government shouldn’t sacrifice the happiness of its citizens in order to build a monument or another park.

  3. brianfrankel Says:

    I think this is a very interesting topic, especially when you take the ARB here at the university into question. The ARB, a public place for the public good, is loved and used by most students and members of the Ann Arbror/University of Michigan community. It is both unique and important. However, I do feel that the ARB’s classification as a public place is an interesting one. At the University of Michigan, there are two campuses that are almost completely separate. North Campus, feared by most freshman and never visited by most others, is split from the University because of lack of space. The ARB’s expansive ground, if constructed on, would provide tons of space for student housing and university buildings that is currently more than 15 minutes away from central campus. To me, most questions of public good aren’t between what is and what is not public. Instead, the question is in which ways does a public good provide a benefit and which way provides more of a benefit. To the students who read my comment, I want to know what they think about the ARB and North Campus. In which way is the ARB’s area serving a better public good? As the ARB? Or as a location for university buildings and housing?

  4. adamstillman2011 Says:

    I think that this could be considered an issue of utilitarianism. In some cases when the government takes private land, while it may be a burden to the family who loses the land, it ultimately benefits a greater good. For example, My dad’s office building used to be located along a highway, the city decided that it wanted to expand the highway, and add an extra lane. The office building was knocked down. This was a nuisance for my dad, who had to relocate; however, many more people benefited from the new expanded highway because traffic congestion was reduced and people could make it from point A to B much faster than they did before. In this situation I believe that the government does have the right to obtain private land, if it is going to benefit a greater good, and the original land owner is appropriately compensated.

  5. roshray Says:

    I agree with the previous posters in the idea that it is extremely difficult to decide if a “public good” is worth seizing private property over. I think the issue goes back to utilitarianism, something we learned about with Mill, which states that the government should act in a way that would provide the “greatest good for the greatest number.” Doing this is obviously not easy, and in the case of the Brooklyn basketball stadium, the validity of the seizures is certainly up for debate. It should be noted that the government does compensate people for their property – it is the amount that a buyer would willingly pay if it were for sale (the Pink House incident seems to be an exception to that rule). Therefore, if the land could be used to provide jobs and economic activity at a time where it is so crucial, I would think that compensating residents for their homes is fair and reasonable. The residents do have to give up the sentimental qualities of their property and will likely be displaced into other neighborhoods, but the benefit that a public good such as a stadium can bring is definitely bringing the greatest good for the greatest number. More people will benefit from the value of the entertainment in the stadium, wages paid, and profits earned at the stadium than would people who used the space as residential area. Due to the importance of location in keeping businesses running, seizure of commercial property is probably more costly to society as a whole than is seizure of residential property, but such costs could be at least estimated using economic analysis.

    Not all seizure of land is unjust. Sometimes it is nonsensical for property to remain in private hands. I imagine the opening scenes in Up (yes, the Disney-Pixar movie), when Carl Fredrickson’s tiny house is in the middle of a metropolis. Applying Mill’s theory, this is an immense waste of resources, as the situation only benefits one person and only provides a sense of history. While I understand that the history of the house to the character is important, I also see Mill’s utilitarian arguments applying here; Carl would be compensated for the land and it would be used for something that would provide much more benefit to many more people.

    I don’t agree with the first comment’s argument that it is impossible to overcome the gray area of what is socially beneficial. I think that Mill’s utilitarian concepts do a good job at this type of analysis. I also don’t agree that eminent domain takes away a person’s ability to own land. With the compensation they receive, the person should be able to purchase a very similar piece of property, assuming the government holds its end of the bargain. Like Tocqueville argued, America is a enormous country and even within cities, there are always plenty of opportunities for land ownership.

    Eminent domain is necessary for the government to have, because otherwise, public goods would not be able to come into fruition. Especially in metropolitan areas, there is no more open land that a person or the government can just claim. Additionally, when building something like a stadium becomes necessary, the chances that everybody in the area affected would agree to displacement. This makes sense, because displacement doesn’t really translate into self-interest as having to start over or move around is usually harder than staying put. For public goods to exist, sometimes self interest needs to be checked by government authority, or else the existence of anything “public” wouldn’t even be possible.

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