Eminent Domain: Comma or Smudge?

Eminent domain is when a government seizes private property for “public use”. It compensates the original owner of that property with an estimated “fair market value”.

A common example of eminent domain is the state demolition your house and building a railroad, highway, or public utility through the land on which it stood. The “fair market value” in this case is the price you would get if you tried to sell the house under normal conditions.

Of course, the problem is that (especially with people’s homes) the “fair market value” can be a drastically lower number than the real value to the owner.

This is a good example to me of government trampling over individual rights, but is something that is necessary from a practical standpoint. There was an interesting debate on this subject when the Constitution was being written between Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Jefferson was for “allodial ownership“, which means that you own your house no matter what and no one can take it away without your permission. Madison, on the other hand, pushed for the idea that the people transfer their rights partially to the government under specific restrictions. If you property is taken away, you have to be compensated fairly, and it has to be for “public use”. Not for “public interest” or “public good”. Sounds like a distinction without a difference. Not if you are a constitutional lawyer.

What I’m learning more and more these days is that political and social leaders like to be real sticklers for the finer semantics of language from sources such as the Constitution or the Bible. Whatever your viewpoint, you find the language in there to defend it. And with that in mind, it’s especially interesting that there is a debate about a comma or smudge in the Constitution in the crucial sentence describing eminent domain.

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