Sunday, May 4, 2008

The Public Good

Advocates of land use restrictions use many different justifications for their plans. One of the most common is the “public good” or the “common welfare”. On the surface such arguments might seem plausible, but a deeper examination reveals the real meaning of such bromides.

There is no such entity as “the public”. The public consists of everyone, that is, all individuals. The “public good” then, would be that which is good for all individuals.

Individuals have a wide range of values and interests. There is a wide range of things that we, as individuals, regard as good. Some value baseball, others value the ballet. Some value picnics in the park, others value a back yard cook out. Some value gardening, others value lazy weekends.

In a free society individuals can pursue their values without interference from others, so long as they respect the mutual rights of others. Each of us can choose our own “good” and seek to achieve it. Freedom is the only “public good”. That is, the right of each individual to pursue his own values is the only good that applies to all individuals in a political context.

But this is not the meaning intended by those who speak of the “public good”. They are not promoting individual freedom, but its opposite.

The “public good” is always raised to justify a government proposal. Since there is never unanimous support for any proposal, this means that the “good” of some individuals will usurp that of other individuals. Which means, some individuals may impose their values upon others.

This is not mere hyperbole. Government is the only agent with a legal monopoly on the use of force. Those who disobey government edicts are met with force—they are arrested or their property is seized. When some individuals use government to enact their values into law, they are using force against their fellow citizens.

The number of individuals supporting a proposal does not change this principle. No individual, and no group of individuals, has a moral right to initiate force against another individual.

In 2009 Houstonians will be asked to reject this truth. Houstonians will be asked to endorse more restrictive land use controls. Much more is at stake than dirt or steel. Our values, as individuals and as a city, will be tested. Our answer will determine whether we continue to respect individual freedom.

© J. Brian Phillips 2008

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