What does 'Expropriation' mean

Expropriation is the act of a government in taking privately owned property, ostensibly to be used for purposes designed to benefit the overall public. In the United States, what is referred to as "eminent domain" provides the legal foundation for expropriation. The Fifth Amendment to the Constitution states that private property cannot be expropriated "for public use without just compensation."

BREAKING DOWN 'Expropriation'

The primary debate regarding the concept of eminent domain in the United States is not about compensation, but about the fact the government can take possession of private property without the consent, and in fact directly against the wishes, of the property owner.

There is commonly accepted international agreement that private property owners should receive appropriate compensation for their property in an instance of government expropriation. The few exceptions to agreement on this notion are primarily in communist or socialist countries, where it is also sometimes the case the government expropriates not just land but domestic businesses or foreign businesses that have a presence in the country. For example, when the communist government of Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba in 1959, the government expropriated a number of oil refineries and other businesses owned by U.S. corporations. In the United States, a 1952 expropriation of 88 steel production facilities by President Truman, one of the few attempts by the U.S. government to expropriate a business operation, was eventually struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Rationale for Expropriation

The primary uses of private property expropriated by the exercise of eminent domain in the United States are for the construction of public utilities, highways, railroads, airports or other infrastructure projects. U.S. courts have accepted the doctrine of eminent domain as a power of the government by suggesting it is implied by the Fifth Amendment clause stating that private property cannot be taken without compensation. Stating that property cannot be taken without proper compensation implies that property can, in fact, be taken.

The other main justification for expropriation comes from the area of public health. It is generally recognized that events that threaten public health, such as toxic environmental contamination of an area, justify the government acting to relocate the affected population in the area, and part of that action may logically entail the government expropriating the property of the relocated residents.

Major Concerns Regarding Expropriation

Major concerns related to government expropriation are the rule of law, questions of due process and the issue of compensation. It is important that laws specifically delineate a government's rights to expropriate property and there are adequate due process channels available for citizens to appeal a proposed expropriation. In regard to compensation, there is debate on the question of whether property owners should be compensated not only for their property but for the inconvenience of being required to relocate. Expropriation actions initiated by regulatory agencies have led to increasing debate on limiting governmental powers of expropriation.

Trading Center