Opinion: Daily Journal

How Governments Abuse Their Power

RALEIGH – The North Carolina General Assembly passed several landmark pieces of legislation during its 2011 session, dealing with key issues as regulation, civil litigation, criminal justice, education reform, and annexation. But state lawmakers left two important matters on the table: eminent domain reform and eugenics compensation.

Both deserve action during the 2012, and for a similar reason – they involve the state abusing its power over defenseless citizens in a misguided attempt to advance “the common good.”

Some may bristle at the comparison. And certainly the intrusiveness of government taking your property differs in degree from the intrusiveness of government subjecting you to sterilization. But there is a parallel to be found in government’s rationalization of each policy – a parallel that may help explain why so many people who think they are doing good can end up doing evil.

In both cases, the exercise of government power is advocated as a logical extension of a prior, less-controversial government action. In the case of eminent domain, most people accept as legitimate the power of states and localities to take property for public use (such as a highway) or public safety (such as a decrepit building that poses a risk of fire or collapse), as long as just compensation is paid.

But what if the intended use of the property isn’t strictly a public use but, say, the supposed public purpose of economic development or revenue maximization? And what if the potential harm to neighboring property owners isn’t structural but, say, that a building’s unsightliness might reduce property values? Over the years, public officials came to see fuzzy lines where there were once bright ones. They argued themselves to a point where seizing land from one private party to convey to another private party seemed like a reasonable use of power, rather than an outrageous one.

In the case of forced sterilization, North Carolina had for decades provided cash and other public assistance to individuals who gave birth to or fathered children they had difficulty caring for due to insufficient financial, family, or mental resources. If you go back and read the statements of government officials during the 1950s and 1960s, you see them citing spillover effects – the cost of services for abandoned or neglected children, for example – as a justification for going beyond voluntary measures to coercive ones.

In other words, if taxpayers were inevitably going to be responsible for the children produced by private sexual behavior, should that behavior really be thought of as private? Throw in the then-fashionable “science” of eugenics, which essentially treated human beings like pets or flocks to be bred for “desirable traits,” and you have the makings of a horrific abuse of government power against individuals who lacked the capacity to defend themselves – and in some cases had no idea what was being done to them.

Any government program involves socializing the cost of some private behavior. If you set up a local government to police offenses against law and order, you will end up spending lots of tax dollars on people with poor impulse control, be it for violence or intoxicants. If you set up a state government to fund education programs, you will end up spending lots of tax dollars on children of poor parents or poor parenting. If you set up a federal government to fund health care, you will end up spending lots of tax dollars on people who smoke, drink, or eat excessively, or are promiscuous.

Using public cost as an excuse for intruding on the rights of private individuals is a common temptation. It must be resisted. In the case of past abuses, government has a responsibility to compensate its victims. And in the case of current or future abuses, government has a responsibility to change its laws.

During the 2012 session, then, the state legislature should authorize the payment of cash and other compensation to the 1,500 to 3,000 sterilization victims who may still be alive. And it should submit for voter approval a constitutional amendment to protect against eminent-domain abuse.

We’ve fallen pretty far down the slippery slope of abusive government. Let’s start climbing.

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.