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.
Attacks on Property Rights
In 1980 City Council passed an ordinance which, among other things, limited the size and location of outdoor signs and billboards.
Advocates of the ordinance referred to Houston's abundant sign population as "visual pollution" 1 and "a plague" 2 , thereby implying that the existence of these signs is a threat to one's health. Such an argument is clearly absurd-- Houston's medical facilities have yet to report a single case of billboard related illness or death.
The purpose of the ordinance was to reduce the number of-- and eventually eliminate-- billboards in Houston. The justification was not that the billboards violated anyone's rights, but that billboards "clutter" the landscape, i.e., they are "unpleasant" to look at.
In other words, some Houstonians, as well as a majority of City Council members, found billboards objectionable, and passed a law aimed at their abolition. Which means, the city initiated force against the owners of those signs, as well as the owners of the property upon which they are erected. Rather than protect the rights of its citizens, the city became a violator of those rights.
It should be noted that those who find billboards objectionable have legitimate means for implementing their values without infringing on the rights of others. For example, such individuals can choose a route for their travels which does not include billboards (such as the beltway); they can live in a planned community in which billboards are prohibited; or they can purchase the billboards from their owners and tear them down.
In the early 1990's City Council passed an ordinance which requires developers to plant a specific number and type of shrubs and trees in their projects. The purpose of the ordinance was to promote a better "quality of life". The justification was not that developers had violated anyone's rights by planting Chinese tallows, but that some Houstonians regarded such trees as "trash".3
In other words, some Houstonians, as well as the majority of City Council, found certain kinds of plants objectionable, and passed a law to compel developers to plant different species. Again, the city initiated force against its citizens.
More recently, City Council has debated an ordinance which would place restrictions on "historic buildings". The purpose of this law is to prohibit the demolition of older buildings. The justification for this ordinance was not that the owners of such buildings were violating the rights of any one, but the protection of our heritage.
The most controversial aspect of the proposed ordinance was not the fact that the city intended to violate the rights of property owners, but that the owners would have an opportunity to "opt out" of the "historic" designation.4 In other words, the controversy was not the violation of rights, but the fact that property owners would retain some control over their property.
Each of these ordinances is intended to place restrictions on the use of private property, either through proscription or through prescription. And each of these ordinances is intended to promote some "public good", such as a better "quality of life", or protect our "heritage", etc. (The same holds true of many other ordinances not addressed here, such as the sexually-oriented business ordinances and smoking ordinances). These similarities in practice are the result of the similarities in theory, i.e., the principles which underlie each of these assaults on property rights.
Underlying each of these ordinances are two principles -- collectivism and sacrifice.5
The proponents of each of these ordinances argued that the welfare of some group, such as the city or the community or our neighborhoods, required the proposed restrictions on the rights of individuals. In other words, the welfare of the group superseded the welfare of any individual. This is the doctrine of collectivism-- individuals are to be subservient to the group.
In practice, this means that the individual may act, not by right, but with the permission of the group. It means that he may use his property only in accordance with the dictates of the group. And since the concept "group" really means just a collection of individuals, subservience to the dictates of the group really means that some individuals may violate the rights of other individuals. To accomplish this, they need only assemble enough like-minded people who are willing to violate the rights of others and convince city officials to enact the appropriate laws.
While many may respond that this is the democratic way, it should be noted that our Founding Fathers did not establish a democracy, but rather a constitutional republic. The American Constitution restricts the powers of government, including the powers of any majority which happens to control the government, not the actions of individuals.
A literal democracy means unlimited majority rule-- that the majority may do as it pleases because it is the majority. In a democracy, individual rights are in principle as non-existent as in a dictatorship. Remember that Socrates was put to death at the hands of the majority of the citizens of ancient Athens, and Adolf Hitler came to power in a democratic Germany.
Morally, collectivism holds that the individual must place the welfare of others above his own. Each of us must do his "fair share" for the "common good". Those who refuse to do so "voluntarily" are regarded as "selfish", "rugged individualists", etc. and may properly be forced to sacrifice their values. These two principles-- collectivism and sacrifice-- serve as the justification for all of the attacks on property rights, past, present, and future. The particular form and emphasis of the arguments may change, but the principles which underlie them do not.
The same holds true of the most comprehensive attack on property rights-- zoning.
© J. Brian Phillips and Warren S. Ross 2008