Not the champagne, Bollinger, but Lee. That would be the oleaginous president of Columbia University, the chap who never met a politically correct cause he didn’t embrace, who acquiesced in entertaining the preposterous Iranian dictator Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at Columbia, then “bravely” denounced him publicly. (I wrote about that discreditable episode in a column called “The Poverty of Liberalism.”) [Update: a friend writes to remind me that in Decline and Fall, Evelyn Waugh called the club of upper-class Oxford student drunks and hooligans the Bollinger Club. “Why not,” he asked, “Why not rename Columbia University the Bollinger Club?” A sound suggested I recommend to all and sundry.]
Lee Bollinger is the very model of a modern major bureaucrat. His leading characteristic, apart from ideologically pliability, is contempt for people who disagree with him. Perhaps he will wind up in Congress. Like so many members of that bastion of privilege, he displays an inveterate disregard for the rights of others. Bollinger’s latest assault is on the property rights of a couple of small-time Harlem businessmen. Gurnam Singh and Parminder Kaur own—or perhaps I should say “own”—a self-storage business and a gas station in West Harlem. Bollinger wants the land they occupy to full his “vision” of Columbia University’s hegemony on the Upper West Side. So he is going to take it. [UPDATE: The same friend tells me that “Parminder Kaur is probably in fact Gurnam Singh’s wife. The wife of a Singh is called Mrs Kaur.” I am glad to know that.]
According to a column on the episode by Glenn Reynolds in The New York Post, the last legal hurdle—review by the Supreme Court—to Columbia’s seizing the property vanished last week. “Traditionally,” Reynolds points out:
“[T]he ‘public-domain’ power was used to acquire property needed for things like roads and bridges. It’s still often defended in those terms, but the ‘public use’ required for such takings has now been interpreted by courts to include pretty much anything the government wants to do with the property—including handing it over to someone else who just happens to be wealthier or better-connected than the original property holder.”
So to bad for the Indian schmucks who probably don’t have Ph.D.s and certainly do not preside over a multi-billion dollar elite concession in Manhattan. What just happened in Manhattan is part of an ominous pattern of disregard for property rights. “Part of the American Dream,” Reynolds observes “was the expectation that if you started a business, you might go broke but you didn’t have to worry about the government seizing your business on behalf of those with more political juice. That sort of thing was for Third World countries, corrupt kleptocracies where connections mattered more than capability.”
That was then. Nowadays the game has changed. As far as the Lee Bollingers of the world are concerned, it’s “private property rights for me but not for thee.” This latest depredation reminds us of Hayek’s argument in The Road to Serfdom about the close link between private property and liberty. Trespass on the former and you undermine the latter. That is why anyone concerned with political freedom has to take a very dim view of Columbia University’s cavalier disregard of the property rights of other citizens. “What our generation has forgotten,” Hayek observed, “is that the system of private property is the most important guaranty of freedom, not only for those who own property, but scarcely less for those who do not.”
It was not so long ago that the courts were there to protect people like Messrs. Singh and Kaur. Increasingly, they find themselves at the mercy not only of the government but also well-connected bureaucrats like Lee Bollinger who extend the logic of eminent domain to include any property that enhances their “vision.” What we’ve learned in the age of Obama is that only little people pay taxes. For titans like Timothy Geithner, the laws that apply to you and me don’t signal. It’s the same with private property. You never hear that someone like Lee Bollinger has his house condemned. He’s too well connected. “The courts,” Reynolds writes, “are supposed to be there to protect the rest: The people without the connections, the ones who depend on the rule of law to keep the predators away. That protection has never been perfect, of course, but in the area of eminent domain it’s become a sick joke. The message sent is that your property belongs to you—until somebody with more clout wants it for something else, be it a ‘vision,’ or a moneymaking scheme.” First they came for the small-time gas station and storage facility owners . . .