The Moral Economy of Democracy: The Case of the Landownership Ethic

Saturday, June 25, 2016: 10:45 AM-12:15 PM
166 Barrows (Barrows Hall)
Loka Ashwood, Auburn University, Auburn, AL
What price is enough for property that is forcibly acquired from its owner? The Fifth Amendment requires “just compensation” when the state uses eminent domain to take private property in service of the public.  Simultaneously, the constitution treats private property as a sacrosanct individual right. I study the intersection of private property as an individual right with the public authority to take through a case study of a private utility’s acquisition of land. Drawing on case-study work, I find that individual private property rights underpin democratic legitimacy and the operations of markets, forming a moral economy of democracy. The forcible taking of private property by a private utility through public policy violates what I call the moral economy of democracy.

I base my findings on a study of Burke County, Georgia, home to the first two nuclear reactors constructed in the United States in over thirty years and the site of two existing nuclear reactors. Georgia Power and Southern Nuclear, subsidiaries of the Fortune 500 Southern Company, partially own and operate the plant, respectively. Georgia Power first acquired land in the 1970s, when the Vogtle Reactors 1&2 were built. Today, land acquisition continues. In total, 42.6% of the land around the plant is owned by Southern Company or the state of Georgia. Locals largely view the capacity of a private firm to take private property through public policy as unjust. They base their understanding of ownership on a Lockian notion of private property rights and democratic legitimacy – what I call the landownership ethic. Whether male or female, black or white, persistent is the belief that the possession of land is a sacrosanct right achieved through self-toil or family heredity to ensure independence and sustenance in the face of scarcity. Residents, unable to gain any hearing for their lost land rights, view the state and the corporation as corrupt entities violating their fundamental democratic rights.