How to Violate Everyone’s Rights: Build a Stadium

Soccer star David Beckham is seeking to bring professional soccer back to the Miami, FL area by building a stadium for his team in the city’s downtown. In any such large-scale development, the rights of property owners are among the first casualties, regardless of whether the property owner is in favor or opposed to the development or even if they are not involved in the development at all.

If they are in favor of the development, they can be prevented from using their property as they see fit, i.e., selling it or developing it, by the permitting process. In the case of Beckham’s soccer stadium, this process includes environmental permits, approval by county and city planning commissions and finally a voter referendum. Failure at any step of the process results in the loss of the owner’s property rights. In Vermont, Act 250 imposes similar restrictions on development which can be halted if the planning board is convinced that the development would harm existing businesses or simply because the development doesn’t fit the aesthetics they desire for the community, among a multitude of other reasons.

If the property owner is opposed to the development, well, there is always eminent domain. Eminent domain is the practice of seizing private property, sometimes, although not always, with just compensation, for public use. There is no clear definition of what public use means however, and it has come to mean whatever those in power decides it means. So if the government decides that taking your home would result in a “benefit” to the community, whatever that means, then your desire to keep your home is irrelevant. In general, the courts have sided with the government against the property rights of the individual as long as the government makes a semi-plausible claim for some such benefit. One need only read about the Kelo decision to see how badly this turns out.

In both cases, whether for or against the development, the rights of the property owner are subject to the whim of his neighbors, which in essence means he has no property rights at all as a right which is not inalienable is not a right at all.

Another aspect of stadium development is the tax breaks these projects often receive to incentivize them. In Florida, sports stadiums can apply for a rebate of sales taxes paid on goods sold in the stadium for a period of 30 years with the size of the development determining the amount of the rebate they may receive, with larger developments qualifying for larger rebates. Other types of businesses, smaller developments, or individuals do not qualify for such favorable treatment – though other businesses may have their own deals – and so bear an unequal share of the tax burden.

Such practices are not unique to Florida. You need only watch the local news here in Vermont to be bombarded with commercials touting New York state’s economic development zones where new or expanding businesses can operate tax-free (with lots of restrictions and regulations) for 10 years, which discriminates against existing businesses and those that for whatever reason cannot expand. (And never mind what might happen to the businesses that do expand or move to these areas once the 10 year period is up.) Nor are they limited to development, as a glance at the list of tax credits available to individuals – buying a hybrid or electric vehicle, installing solar panels, making mortgage payments, and etc – clearly shows.

I should make clear here that my comments should not be taken as support of coercive taxation of any kind, which I believe is an immoral use of force, but rather to illustrate that the current system is a violation of the one type of equality that we can legitimately insist on, and must insist on, from the government: equality before the law. In the current system, whether or not you pay taxes, or how much you pay, is often determined by the whim of government officials and your, and your group’s, pull with them (see David Beckham’s lobbying the Florida legislature to get professional soccer added to the list of sports which can apply for the tax subsidy) rather than by objective principles, or even the financial needs of the government.

So whether or not building a soccer stadium in Miami will result in any economic benefit to the citizens of the city, it likely will not, one thing is abundantly clear: The rights of all the citizens will be violated in the process of building it. In a proper society, this would not be the case. Developers would only choose projects that would actually pay for themselves, rather than counting on subsidies to make the project profitable; property owners would be free to use or dispose of their property as they see fit, providing such use does not violate the actual rights of others, and those not involved would not be forced to subsidize the project.