Saturday, April 26, 2008

The Government versus Freedom, Part 4

This pamphlet was written in the aftermath of the zoning debate that took place in Houston in the early 1990’s. The ideas remain relevant today. References are listed at the end of part 7.

Undefined Bromides
During the debate over zoning in the early 1990's, and in the time since the referendum in 1993, zoning proponents have made many claims about zoning. They have claimed that zoning will "empower the people"9, that it will be founded on a consensus. They have claimed that we will avoid the corruption and divisiveness experienced in other cities with a "unique, Houston-style"10 form of zoning, that zoning will improve our "quality of life".11

In cities with zoning, in an attempt to be "democratic", zoning officials regularly hold hearings for citizens to express their views regarding land use. These hearings become a magnet for special interest groups eager to push their own particular cause. The result is a steady parade of noisy gangs, each declaring that it represents "the public" and demanding that its views be implemented. One might insist on Spanish architecture, while another wants to limit the size of buildings. One might want more park space, while another wants the project canceled entirely. While each group differs on what or how they wish to control the use of another's property, they agree that they should have a voice in how that property is used.

But we do not need to rely solely on the experiences of other cities to see what occurs under zoning.

During the debate over zoning, Houston's city officials held dozens of hearings to solicit input from citizens. They sought to be "democratic", to develop a consensus-- i.e., "common vision"-- as the zoning maps were developed. However, as the details of those maps became known, residents and business owners in Southgate, Afton Oaks, Montrose, and other neighborhoods routinely made headlines as they protested zoning designations. 12

While zoning advocates promised a consensus, what resulted was the divisiveness inherent in zoning. Neighbors fought neighbors over the use of land which neither, or only one, owned. This is what "empowering the people" means: It grants non-owners of a parcel of property a voice in its use. At the same time, the rightful owner is a hostage to the demands, desires, and decisions of others. He is forced to conform to the demands of the group; he is forced to sacrifice his values to others.

Further, on three separate occasions voters have rejected zoning. Yet, zoning proponents refuse to accept these results, each time returning with a new proposal to violate property rights. If zoning advocates truly wish to empower the people, why do they continue to refuse to accept the outcome of the electoral process?

True empowerment comes from freedom, not political influence. True empowerment comes from the right to pursue one's own values, not the power to impose those values upon others.

Zoning advocates have claimed that zoning will improve our "quality of life", but they have not told us what they mean by that term. They assume that we know, and agree to, its meaning.

"Quality of life" is a matter of individual values. Each of us has different goals and different aspirations, we seek different things in life. Some Houstonians prefer a picnic in the park; others prefer dining in elegant restaurants. Some Houstonians enjoy attending movies; others enjoy shopping. These preferences are based on an individual's values.

Similarly, in land use, our individual values determine the type of use we choose for our property, the style of architecture, etc. Under zoning, an individual's values are to be subservient to the group. Under zoning, individuals are no longer permitted to make such decisions, but are forced to obey the demands of the group.

Under zoning, all individuals are compelled to accept the "quality of life" dictated by zoning officials.

If city officials are truly concerned about improving our quality of life, they should be protecting our freedom, i.e., our property rights. They should allow the free market to raise the standard of living, by removing the arbitrary restrictions of land use controls. The result will be greater variety and lower costs in housing. 13

Zoning advocates have argued that Houston's neighborhoods are in danger, that a lack of zoning will result in "unstable" land uses. But they have not told us whose view of stability will prevail. Nor have they explained why the desires of the non-owners of property should take precedence over the desires of the property's owner.

Zoning advocates have argued that the actions of one property owner often have an adverse affect on neighboring property owners. Zoning will help to bring stability to land use.14 It should be remembered that the purchase of property, including a home, is at least partially an investment.

As with all investments, the actions of others can have an effect on the value of that investment, for better or for worse. Anyone who has tried to sell a house near neighbors with trashy front yards or unconventional paint colors knows the effect it has on his investment. While it is natural that people want to protect their investment, a civilized person will do so by agreement and contract. An uncivilized person, who does not care about the difference between persuasion and coercion, might try to do so by force or government regulation. Those who seek to use zoning to protect the values of their investment are seeking to gain economic security in exchange for economic liberty, which will ultimately result in neither.

© J. Brian Phillips and Warren S. Ross 2008

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