Is the Academy’s Reaction to Kelo a Part of a Larger Phenomenon?

The Supreme Court’s 2005 decision in Kelo v. New London turned out to be probably the most unpopular ruling in modern history, with negative popular reactions running consistently at a circa 90% level. Rightly so. For what Kelo approved was a process whereby local municipalities can simply take unoffending homes of unoffending owners, raze them, and turn over their sites gratis to mega-developers, the justification being an unenforceable municipal “plan” prophesying that by a trickle-down process the redevelopers’ economic success will increase local tax revenues and boost the local economy in general. Thus, the high point of the Kelo oral argument came when Justice O’Connor asked the city’s lawyer whether in his view the city could take a Motel 6 in order to replace it with a Ritz-Carlton hotel, and he answered in the affirmative. How that can be consistent with any notion of “public use” is indeed difficult to explain to a rational, English-speaking person.

What was legally significant about that case was that, unlike earlier cases, Kelo did not use slum or blight elimination as the rationale for the taking. It was all about money. In other words, in the other such cases, like Berman v. Parker or Hawaii Housing Authority v. Midkiff  the court deemed the process of acquisition itself to be the “public purpose” because once these properties were acquired, the adverse conditions, blight in Berman and the supposed oligopoly in Midkiff, were eliminated. Not so in Kelo — in it the acquisition and razing of the subject homes would accomplish nothing; it was the proposed future private, profitable redevelopment that promised an increased cash flow to the city. That was the “public purpose” endorsed by the Supreme Court, although what actually happened was that the project failed, and the subject property is now a vacant, weed-overgrown, trash-strewn 90-acre tract that cost the taxpayesrs over $100 million.

But to get back to the point of this post, no sooner did the ink dry on the Kelo opinions when the usual academic suspects started to rationalize it by arguing that it decided nothing new, that it was the same old, same old stuff, and that the public anger was inspired by — who else? — nefarious right-wingers seeking to . . . Actually, we were never clear as to why liberal academics would take that view, being that they profess to be on the side of the “little people,” fighting the good fight against greedy corporations that are out to feather their own already cushy nests at the expense of the public and of those below them on the socio-economic scale. So why would the bleeding-heart academics take the side of the bad, greedy guys and oppose the likes of Suzette Kelo, a single-mother nurse, minding her own business and trying to make her modest way in life, as opposed to the mega-buck Pfizer pharmaceutical company that was the manifest beneficiary of the Kelo taking?

Remember that this was hardly the first such case. Earlier redevelopment takings were undertaken for the direct benefit of the likes of General Motors, Chrysler, Nissan, Otis Elevators, the New York Stock Exchange, assorted professional sports team owners, retailing giants like Costco, Target and Best Buy, as well as mall developers, large automobile dealers, and even gambling casinos. Yet here were these self-identified champions of the “little people” cheering on a process overtly intended to enrich Pfizer, along with the other big-buck boys, at the expense of those selfsame “little people.” Is a puzzlement, as the king used to put it in Anna and the King of Siam.

Then again, maybe not. We have come across a fascinating article in the Washington Post of all places (Gerard Alexander, Why Are Liberals So Condescending?, February 7, 2010., see,  that sheds a penetrating light on the process whereby liberals, to a far greater extent than conservatives, tend to dismiss without examination views that don’t support their preconceived ideologocal vision of the world, and refuse to engage in reasoned debate of issues, clinging instead to an ad hominem strategy of insulting their opponents whose views they deem unworthy of consideration. Alexander makes a persuasive case (replete with examples) that American liberals, to a degree far surpassing conservatives, appear committed to the proposition that their views are self-evidently correct, and based on fact and reason, while conservative positions are not just wrong but purely ideological and unworthy of consideration. Alexander notes that American liberals appear committed to the proposition that conservative positions are not just wrong but illegitimate, and evil.

Bingo! That would explain the conduct of the largely liberal academics fawning over Kelo, in spite of the fact that it victimized the very people they generally deem to be worthy of their support in other contexts. It seems plausible that these worthies are so besotted with the notion of wealth redistribution — the idea of taking property away from its rightful owners — that they are willing to “throw under the bus” — as the currently fashionable expression puts it — those very “little people” whom they profess to love and whose unfortunate condition they are forever claiming to espouse.

Interesting idea. What do you think?