WHEN most Americans think of Hawaii, they picture a visual paradise - lush growth, lovely beaches, and ocean splendor. Feudalism is probably the last thought that would enter their heads.
But it was a vestige of the Polynesian colonizing in Hawaii's feudal past - land ownership by a very few - that occasioned a hard look at a controversial Hawaiian state law by the US Supreme Court. The court now has upheld that law, which lets the state take by eminent domain large tracts of land and sell portions of them to individuals who now must rent lots for their homes.
It is constitutional, the court unanimously held, for private property thus to be taken from one owner and provided to another for private use, if it advances public policy. The court held that in this case it does, as it breaks up the concentration of land ownership. The court decision is a welcome advance toward an otherwise unobtainable equity for Hawaii's middle class.
Together, governments at all levels and the wealthy few own more than 90 percent of the state's land. Hawaii argued eminent-domain proceedings are required for its residents to have a reasonable opportunity to own land.
This kind of land distribution problem is foreign to the 48 mainland states, inasmuch as they have no history of feudalism. But it is an issue that many third-world states such as El Salvador understand well due to their similar ownership of much of the land by relatively few wealthy citizens. The position of the United States is to support land reform there: Jose Napoleon Duarte, who is to assume office today as Salvadorean President, has promised to press land-reform efforts.
One cautionary note to sound on the Supreme Court's decision: It should be used only with great care as a precedent. Any state efforts to legislate redistribution of other scarce resources - recreational land, or services - should be viewed with the greatest of caution.