For the Greater Good (of the University)

My university, Ball State University (BSU) in Muncie, Indiana, wants to build a $25 million hotel, conference center, restaurant, dormitory complex. The proposed building site includes university-adjacent property that houses a privately owned printing/copying/apartment enterprise. The owner of that business has refused the university’s cash offers. So in early September the university’s board of trustees approved exercising eminent domain power to seize it. In other words, BSU is going to ask a court (that is, the government) to force the owner to give up the site of his business (which is actually owned by a trust) without compensation that he considers acceptable, the rationale being that it will all be for the “greater good.”       

BSU, a public university, is not the first university to invoke eminent domain, nor will it be the last. Two years ago, Columbia University prevailed in what had been a long eminent domain struggle when the Supreme Court refused to hear the affected property owners’ appeal. 

The BSU eminent domain saga has disturbing parallels with the account of “Naboth’s Vineyard” in the Bible (1 Kings 21). Naboth lived in Israel during the reign of Ahab and Jezebel, king and queen of Israel. Naboth owned a vineyard that Ahab coveted. It was a good vineyard, but more importantly it was close to the king’s palace. So the king offered to trade one of his other vineyards for Naboth’s.  “No deal,” said Naboth. The king next offered to buy Naboth’s vineyard for a price Ahab deemed fair. Naboth turned down this offer also.     

The refusals distressed Ahab. So much so that he was bedridden and unable to eat. Enter the infamous Jezebel, who after upbraiding her husband for being spineless, told him not to worry. She would get the vineyard for him. Acting in the name of Ahab, Jezebel convened a kangaroo court, where Naboth was falsely accused and convicted, after which he was stoned to death. Ahab got the vineyard. 

Was Ahab and Jezebel’s seizure of the vineyard legal? Well, if you’re the king and queen, you get to write the laws.  So, yes, it was legal. What about calling it legalized theft?  That Ahab and Jezebel each suffered a gruesome death introduces a measure of justice, but the vineyard was never restored to Naboth’s heirs.

Mr. Hiatt, the Muncie businessman whose , is obviously the counterpart to Naboth in the Ball State saga.  I’m not holding my breath waiting for BSU administrators to declare “I’m the Ahab” or “I’m the Jezebel.” Not surprising.  Neither Ahab nor Jezebel enjoys much positive name recognition despite the passage of more than 2,500 years. Some might think BSU’s board of trustees is collectively playing the Ahab/Jezebel roles. Not likely.  Boards of trustees everywhere are regarded as little more than rubber stamps for university administrators. It’s more likely that board members are like the flatterers who surrounded Ahab and Jezebel.    

While BSU’s board members may be rubber stamps, that doesn’t stop them from saying downright silly things. For example, following BSU’s eminent domain approval, one board member was quoted as saying, “…I see this as an economic engine that will drive revitalization” in the university neighborhood. But since when did confiscating private property encourage others to sink capital in adjoining (yet-to-be-confiscated?) property? Wealth confiscation is not a prescription for wealth growth. Never has been, never will be. Maybe that’s why two of the Ten Commandments forbid stealing and coveting (commandments 8 and 10).     

A variant of this trustee’s nonsense is that Ball State’s expenditure of $25 million on the venture will have “multiplier” effects on the surrounding community’s income. The idea is that as the carpenters, plumbers, and everyone else involved in the project are paid for their efforts, they will spend it and thereby generate income for those from whom they are buying. The process supposedly  repeats and repeats, so that income rises by more than $25 million. 

Advocates of public sector spending boondoggles often invoke this “multiplier” notion. Nevertheless, it’s bogus. The problem is that the $25 million does not materialize out of thin air. To return to biblical analogies, the $25 million doesn’t miraculously appear in the community like manna. It comes from somewhere else. There will be a reduction in spending somewhere else by $25 million, meaning the same multiplier process will be going in reverse somewhere else.   

Regardless of dollars and cents calculations, however, I submit that something else is more significant. The requirement that buyers and sellers obtain the consent of their counterparts is foundational to the freedoms we enjoy as Americans. This is especially true for so-called “little guys”—the Mr. Hiatts of communities across the nation. These are the people who are most susceptible to the encroachments of bullies acting under the aegis of government. We ignore the mutual consent requirement at great risk, and it doesn’t matter a whit if it’s the capped and gowned set doing the bullying.