In Law, what is Expropriation?

Charity Delich
Charity Delich
Woman with hand on her hip
Woman with hand on her hip

Expropriation involves taking or depriving a property owner of his or her legal rights to a piece of real estate or some other type of property. Generally, expropriation occurs when a government confiscates a person’s land for use by the general public. For example, if the government is building a highway system that runs through a person’s land, the government may decide to confiscate the land in order to complete the highway. In most countries, the government would give the property owner a reasonable fee for taking the land. In modern times, many countries use the term expropriation interchangeably with eminent domain, compulsory purchase, and compulsory acquisition.

The concept of expropriation stems from Marxism, which espouses the idea that the government should be responsible for major industries and large properties. The thought process behind taking privately-owned land was to promote a society with members of equal social status by preventing a few individuals from owning all of the land. Under traditional Marxist theories, expropriation was to occur without paying property owners for confiscated land.

Even in current times, some governments do not pay private citizens anything for expropriated property. Most governments, however, provide a property owner with reasonable compensation for taking the owner’s land. For instance, in the United States, Canada, and France, laws require the government to pay fair compensation when expropriating property. England, Germany, and Australia also mandate the payment of just compensation for expropriated land.

An expropriation payment is intended to make the owner whole, despite the loss of his or her land. In some countries, the property owner has the right to ask for additional compensation for the land if he or she feels the government did not pay a fair settlement. An administrative committee, negotiation board, or court typically resolves disputes relating to land payments. As a general rule, countries are limited to confiscating property that lies within their borders.

In addition to building roads, government authorities often confiscate land to build schools, public utilities, railroads, or public buildings. While real property expropriation is one of the most common types of expropriation, government authorities may also confiscate other things. For instance, a government may decide to confiscate a franchise agreement. Governments may also take land that is a public hazard in order to ensure public safety is maintained. A government may use confiscated land for itself or permit a third party to use it in order to further a public use.

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Discussion Comments


Can the government practice expropriation on those historical places?


@miriam98 - While I share your dislike for taxation, I wouldn’t redefine the term expropriation in that way. What you are describing is the typical flight of people from a high tax location to a place with lower taxes.

The government never really owns the property in that case; it’s just taxing it to the hilt. Expropriation is seizure of property, plain and simple.


@Mammmood - Yes, I’m on the side of the free market on this one. However, I believe that the expropriate definition needs to be expanded to include actions that aren’t so obvious.

For example, maybe the government isn’t taking your property away in an overt manner, but what about when local governments raise property taxes sky high, to the point that you can’t afford the place you live in anymore? That’s expropriation, more loosely perhaps, in my opinion.


@Charred - I wouldn’t go so far as to equate Marxism with the legal definition of eminent domain, even if it has some historical tie-ins with Marxism. That’s like saying entitlement programs are Marxist because in a socialist society government-run welfare is a driving force for taking care of the people. That doesn't make a capitalist society Marxist for trying to take care of its own.

Eminent domain is controversial, yes, but I believe in the United States the government does go to great lengths to ensure that the homeowner gets fair compensation for the property.

Honestly, no one lives in a house forever nowadays, so I find the argument that some people can’t just let go of their property to be a little disingenuous.

Sometimes the only way to build a decent highway that will benefit the majority of people is to plow through an old subdivision. You can always relocate elsewhere.


Eminent domain has become one of the most contentious and controversial expressions of government control over private property, in my opinion. I was shocked to read that it has its roots in Marxism, but now that I know that, I don’t doubt it.

My personal belief is that private property ownership is an inalienable right. No home owner should be compelled to abandon his property so that the government can build roads or whatever, even if the government offers money to do so. I’ve heard that these monetary amounts are not always up to market value, anyway, so it’s rarely a fair exchange.

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