Saturday, July 12, 2008

Winning the Battle but Losing the War

The following talk was delivered by J. Brian Phillips at a luncheon hosted by the Houston Property Rights Association on May 14, 1993. The warning was not heeded.

During the debate over zoning, its proponents have made many claims about
zoning: it will encourage economic growth, it will improve our “quality of life”, it will prevent “undesirable” land uses, etc. Underlying all of their arguments are three unspoken premises which have remained unidentified and unchallenged.

Exposing and refuting those premises would be devastating to the zoning movement, as well as many other movements. However, if we do not identify and thoroughly reject those premises, we may win the battle against zoning, but ultimately lose the war. This is the subject of my talk today.

In today’s intellectual atmosphere, few concepts have been more perverted than the concepts of rights. Everywhere we turn, we hear demands about a “right to a job,” a “right to medical care,” a “right to education,” “rights” for animals, fetuses and trees, etc. Just as inflation of the money supply erodes the value of the dollar, inflation of rights erodes legitimate rights—i.e., individual rights.

If we are to defend the right to property, we must begin by understanding what the concept of “rights” means, and upon what it depends.

A right is a moral principle which defines and sanctions an individual’s freedom of action in a social setting. Rights establish the boundaries within which an individual may act. Rights allow individuals to act independently, rather than by permission. For example, one acts by right if one selects one’s profession; one acts by permission if one’s profession is chosen by the State.

You should note that my definition of rights recognizes freedom of action, but does not guarantee that one’s actions will be successful, nor does it grant one a claim to the actions of others. This may seem like a petty distinction, but our ancestors fought the Civil War over it. At that time, Southern cotton farmers held that their “right” to cotton, and the quality of life it provided, justified a claim on the labor of others, namely, Negro slaves. This perversion of “rights” by the Confederacy was absurd, and it is no less absurd for zoning advocates to claim that they are protecting the property rights of homeowners by destroying them for everyone else.

Rights simply provide the proper social environment in which values can be pursued, attained, and kept. Consequently, there is no such thing as a “right” to a job, or a “right” to medical care, or a “right” to free education, or a “right” to a voice in how our neighbor uses his property. To claim that one has a right to the products of another’s labor is to claim that one has a right to enslave others.

We must also realize that there is only one way in which rights can be violated—by physical compulsion. When physical force is used to compel or prohibit certain behavior, an individual is prevented from acting in a virtuous manner, i.e. according to his own rational, independent judgment.

The virtue of independence is not a mandate to do anything one wishes. Nor is it a directive to be different for the sake of being different. Independence means thinking and acting according to one’s own rational judgment. It means placing the facts above one’s desires or wishes. It means placing reality above fantasy. It means being rational and objective, and acting accordingly.

By implication, the successful businessman knows this. But unfortunately, many do not know it in explicit terms.

We are all familiar with stories of men who have conceived of a product which others called crazy. In fact, most of us probably arrived here today in one such product—the automobile. Yet, when people laughed at Henry Ford’s horseless carriage, he did not abandon the truth he saw simply because others failed to see it. Their ignorance did not change the facts; their blindness did not alter reality.

Because he lived in a society which recognized his rights—i.e., his right to think and act without the permission of others—Henry Ford went on to produce an affordable means of transportation which revolutionized our society.

And Henry Ford is not an isolated example. Thousands, probably hundreds of thousands of men and women have pursued their own visions, on whatever scale, despite the condemnations and ridicule of others. And, I imagine it is safe to say that there are many such people here today. Rational decision making is necessary in every human endeavor, including the development and maintenance of real estate.

Zoning will prevent the rational, innovative thought which has made Houston so prosperous and America so economically powerful.

Under zoning, all land use is determined by zoning officials. They may zone a parcel of land for any use they choose, or completely prohibit development of that land. They may attach any conditions they choose to a building permit. Not only may they zone an area for a particular use, such as single-family homes, they also have the power to define what constitutes that use. Zoning officials thus have complete reign over the use of land within a community.

This kind of power is a magnet for special interest groups, each pleading for its own pet cause. One may demand Spanish architecture, while another wants to limit a building’s size. One group may insist on the inclusion of public sculpture, while another wants to cancel the project entirely.

Through all of this, a developer must helplessly sit while others debate
his future, while others determine what happens to his dreams, his property, his
life. He becomes a hostage to the desires, decrees, and demands of others. He
may act, not by his own independent judgment, but by the permission of zoning
officials. No matter how rational and consistent with the facts his judgment is,
it is swept aside by the decrees of the zoning board. No matter how proper and
beneficial his decisions are, they can be voided by the fiat of others.

Zoning officials thus become more than simply masters over a property owner’s actions; they become paralyzers of his mind. They make his decisions and conclusions irrelevant, for he cannot act on them.

This is the most crucial issue of our time and not only in regard to zoning.

While I have identified the role of the mind in the development of property, this same principle also applies to all property owners, large and small, as well as the
consumers who are served by them. Zoning negates not only the judgments of developers, but also home owners, convenience store customers, and every other
consumer in a community, which means, everyone.

The very nature of zoning demands that the rights of individuals be violated. By preventing individuals, as consumers and producers, from acting according to their own independent judgments, zoning prevents individuals from practicing the virtue of rationality.

Given the fact that zoning is such a blatant violation of individual’s rights, why have its advocates been so successful? Why is zoning on the brink of being adopted by City Council? And given zoning’s institutionalization of force and negation of rational judgment, how have zoning advocates been able to use the term “planning” in a manner which portrays them as advocates of the good?

Zoning has been presented as a cure to many of Houston’s ills. We have been told that it will protect our neighborhoods from greedy developers, that it will “empower the people”; that it will allow for a “common vision” to guide Houston’s future growth. Zoning advocates have even claimed that zoning will bring “rational planning” to Houston’s development. Underlying all of these claims are two unspoken premises—premises which many, if not most, of zoning’s opponents also accept.

Zoning advocates believe that the good of the community supersedes the good of any particular individual. They believe that we must all make certain sacrifices for the welfare of our community. They believe that those who do not make such sacrifices “voluntarily” should be forced to do so.

On the other hand, many zoning opponents agree that the welfare of the community does require some sacrifice on the part of each of us. And they agree that some “selfish” people will refuse to do their “fair share” and must be “prodded” into participating. They object when such “prodding” goes too far. They don’t object to sacrifice, or prodding, only to taking it to “extremes”. They don’t object to abrogations of property rights, except when they occur in a comprehensive fashion. The best example of this are those who oppose zoning but do not oppose other infringements of property rights, e.g., restrictions on billboards, ordinances controlling sexually-oriented businesses, etc.

These so-called “opponents” of zoning share the same fundamental premises as zoning advocates, premises which justify zoning and many other injustices: They believe that the sacrifice of values is moral, and the unit of significance is the group rather than the individual. These two concepts—sacrifice and collectivism—dominate the debate over zoning.

To the collectivist, individuals are insignificant—each of us is here only to serve the group, whether it is the community, or our nation, or our race, or our economic class. The individual is to be subservient to the group, which many demand anything and everything from him. If he refuses, he is labeled as selfish, greedy, a “rugged individualist,” out of touch with the times, etc. And in the end, the individual is forced to sacrifice his values for the alleged benefit of others.

If the opponents of zoning agree with zoning advocates that sacrifice is good and the public welfare is something other than the well-being of individuals, then opponents to zoning will have surrendered the moral high ground and zoning advocates may lose the battle, but win the war.

Even if our referendum [opposing zoning on the November ballot] is successful, the principles accepted by both sides demand that the elements of zoning will be ushered in, one by one. Over the past decade, we have already seen this, as City Council has enacted ordinance after ordinance that, in other cities, are part of comprehensive zoning, e.g., controls on sexually oriented businesses, a landscaping ordinance, sign and billboard restrictions, heliport and parking controls, etc.

Instead of defending their right to earn a profit, to grow rich, to pursue their own values, Houston’s businessmen have usually meekly complained that such controls were too excessive, and then sought to compromise with their destroyers. Today, the destroyers are knocking on the door, demanding the final compromise.

Zoning demands sacrifice, subservience to the group, and uses force to insure compliance. The only alternative to zoning is capitalism, and it can only be defended on its intellectual and moral base, i.e., self-interest, individualism, and reason.

Faced with this alternative, what is one to do? Should one abandon the realm of ideas, declaring it impractical and impotent, and raise a million dollars to run a series of television ads? Or should one confront those who seek to enslave him, and make them justify their actions? Should one surrender one’s values, or should one fight for them?

If you choose to fight for your values, you can only do it by identifying and defending your right to those values. There are essentially two things you can do to defend your rights.

First, familiarize yourself with the moral and intellectual foundation of capitalism. Toward this end, I am offering free copies of Ayn Rand’s book The Virtue of Selfishness to those who are interested. In this book, Miss Rand explains the relationship between the mind and rights more thoroughly than my time here permits. Those who are interested in the ideas I have expressed today are encouraged to pick up a copy of this book.

Secondly, when engaged in discussions, or writing letters to the editor, etc. regarding zoning, be certain to identify the distinction between zoning and a system based on property rights. Zoning is a system which demands the sacrifice of values, which demands that one cut one’s own throat, or cut the throat of others. As the philosopher Leonard Peikoff has said, capitalism is a system which opposes throat cutting as a matter of principle. You should point out that zoning uses force to compel or prohibit certain behavior, while capitalism is a system which allows individuals to engage in peaceful, voluntary relationships. There is a fundamental difference between zoning and capitalism, not only in regard to politics, but also in regard to how human beings are viewed.

Opponents of zoning know that zoning is a giant land grab. Advocates of freedom need to have the courage to challenge not only this injustice but the previous wholesale theft which made it possible—that of ideas and morality.

© J. Brian Phillips 2008

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