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.
Over the past fifteen years, Houstonians have witnessed nearly constant attempts to place controls on the use of private property. These efforts have taken many forms -- restrictions on billboards, prohibitions on indoor smoking, the landscaping ordinance, and zoning, to name a few -- and have been led by many different people.
Each of these efforts has been presented as a benevolent means of improving our city. We have been told that our "quality of life" will improve, that our neighborhoods will be protected, that our economy will benefit, that people will be "empowered".
Considered out of context, some of these goals may be desirable. But we cannot consider goals out of context-- we must also consider the cost and the means of obtaining those goals. We must ask whose idea of "quality" will serve as the standard, and what does "empowerment" mean. And will the means advocated attain the desired ends?
As we will see, these movements are united by more than just the desire to place controls on property use. They are based on common principles, principles which are ultimately destructive to all Houstonians.
The Right to Property
A right is a moral principle which defines and sanctions an individual's freedom of action in a social setting.
Rights place boundaries on the actions of others, thereby allowing an individual to act without interference from others. The mutual rights of others prevent him from interfering with their actions.
It is important to understand that rights pertain only to freedom of action. They do not guarantee that one's actions will be successful, nor do they grant one a claim to the results of others actions. Such a claim would in fact violate the rights of those forced to provide those results, and thus negate all rights. Consequently, there is no such thing as the "right" to an education, or health care, or haircuts. There is only the right to be free to earn such values.
(In this regard, consider the precision of the language of the Declaration of Independence. That document states that we have the right to the pursuit of happiness, not a guarantee to happiness, nor a right to demand that others make us happy. The Declaration states that we have the right to be free to act.)
The right to property is the right to earn, use, and dispose of material values. In logic, the right to use and dispose of property, e.g., land, means that the owner may use that property as he chooses, free from the dictates of his neighbors or the government. Ownership means control. However, as with all rights, he may not use his property to violate the mutual rights of others.
To "violate the rights of others" does not mean using your property in a manner which others find objectionable. If such were the case, anyone could claim that he finds your use of your property to be objectionable, and hence, are violating his rights. In such an atmosphere, virtually every Houstonian could make a claim against every other Houstonian. The result would be chaos and the destruction of all rights.
The only way to objectively violate another's rights is through the use of physical force against him and/ or his property. It is only through physical force, e.g., murder, kidnapping, or robbery, that an individual can be deprived of his life, his freedom, or his property, or be compelled to act (or not act) in a particular manner.
In a civilized society, the initiation of force is prohibited. In such a society, individuals are permitted to pursue their values, but may not impose those values upon others. All relationships (both personal and economic) are based on the voluntary consent of every individual involved.
(Retaliatory force, such as arresting suspected criminals, or imprisoning convicted murderers, kidnappers, and thieves, is proper. But such force is properly used only in retaliation, and only against those who initiate its use. Furthermore, law enforcement officials cannot arrest individuals merely on suspicion, but must have evidence to support such suspicion and must act in accordance with objectively defined rules.)
If you send poisonous fumes into your neighbor's back yard, you have violated his rights. If you conduct target practice in a residential neighborhood, you have violated your neighbor's rights. If you keep your neighbor awake by playing loud music all night, you have violated his rights. In each case, you have imposed physical harm (or a very real, and objective threat thereof) upon others.
However, if you open a commercial establishment, or plant certain kinds of trees (or none whatsoever), or erect gargoyle adorned columns in front of your house, you have not violated your neighbor's rights. It does not matter how psychologically offensive he may find such actions, physical harm has not been forced upon him.
An individual's rights do not preclude him from voluntarily agreeing to limit his actions. For example, employers generally establish certain conditions of employment, such as the hours one will work, the type of attire which is acceptable, passing a physical, etc.
In land use, individuals often find it beneficial to agree to certain restrictions on the use of their property. The most common means of doing this is through deed restrictions. Such restrictions are voluntary and contractual, i.e., they are a condition of purchasing a property. The popularity of deed restrictions demonstrates that individuals can work together voluntarily and cooperatively to accomplish mutually beneficial goals, while recognizing and respecting the rights of each individual.
© J. Brian Phillips and Warren S. Ross 2008