Sunday, August 31, 2008

Galt’s Gulch

In the novel Atlas Shrugged, each summer the heroes of the story retreat to a secluded valley. This valley, called Galt’s Gulch, is a bastion of individual freedom, rational thinking, and respect for the rights of each individual. It provides the heroes with a respite from the increasing controls on individual freedom being enacted by the government.

While Galt’s Gulch is fictional, the principles embraced by the community are not. Those principles are eloquently captured in the oath taken by each individual entering the community:
I swear, by my life and my love of it, that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.
The extent to which a community understands, accepts, and practices this principle is the extent to which that community thrives economically. The extent to which a community recognizes the moral foundation for individual freedom is the extent to which the individuals in that community prosper.

In the Declaration of Independence our Founding Fathers recognized the essence of this principle when they stated that each individual has a right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The Founders recognized the fact that each individual has a moral right to his own life, that his life is not a commodity to be disposed of by society. They recognized the fact that each individual has a moral right to be free to pursue his own happiness, so long as he respects the mutual right of others.

In many ways Houston has embraced this principle. Houston has largely embraced the right of individuals to use their property in the pursuit of their values. But the principle has remained unnamed and implicit, and thus Houstonians have accepted numerous restrictions on personal liberty—the sign ordinance, the landscaping ordinance, and regulations on sexually oriented businesses to name a few.

The economic benefits of Houston’s freedom have been widely publicized during 2008. While many areas of the nation suffer from a collapsing housing market and a loss of jobs, Houstonians have continued to enjoy economic growth and prosperity. Our robust economy is the effect; freedom is the cause.

Because the principle has remained unnamed, Houstonians are vulnerable to continued assaults on their personal liberty. Those who seek greater control over our lives systematically target seemingly isolated issues, proposing new restrictions to control some “undesirable” land use, such as the Ashby High Rise, Magnolia Glen, or development around airports.

However, these are not isolated issues. In each instance the proposed restrictions require some individuals to sacrifice their values for the alleged benefit of the community. In each instance some individuals are forced to live for the sake of others.

So long as the principle remains unnamed Houstonians will continue to accept restrictions on personal liberty as “practical”. They will continue to advocate personal freedom while simultaneously accepting its infringement.

It is time for the principle to be declared openly, proudly, and without equivocation. Each individual has a moral right to the freedom necessary to sustain and enjoy his life. No individual has a moral right to force others to provide for his sustenance or enjoyment. And it is the responsibility of our government to protect this right.

Throughout the economic turmoil of 2008 Houston has set a shining example to the world. Houston has prospered because it has rejected the restrictive policies of other cities.

If we wish to continue and expand our prosperity, we must become a real-life Galt’s Gulch. We must refuse to live for the sake of others. We must refuse to force others to live for our sake. When we can do that, completely and consistently, our future will be secure. The glory of human freedom will be ours.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Walter Williams and Property Rights

Walter Williams is one of my favorite economists. He is principled, often humorous, and very good at concretizing complex ideas. Below are a few excerpts from articles he has written, followed by a few comments from me.

Failure to recognize the effect of different property rights structures on outcomes leads to faulty analysis. Think about several questions. Which lake will yield larger, more mature fish -- a publicly owned or a privately owned lake? Why is it that herds of cows flourished and buffalos did not? Who will care for a house better -- a renter or owner? Entire article here

Privately owned resources are always used more efficiently than “publicly” owned resources. When resources are publicly owned, no single individual has an incentive to maximize the long-term use of that resource. If he doesn’t use the resource today, someone else likely will. Consequently, his interests (like everyone else) lead him to deplete the resource. This is known as the “tragedy of the commons”.

Creating false distinctions between human rights and property rights plays into the hands of Democrat and Republican party socialists who seek to control our lives. If we buy into the notion that somehow property rights are less important, or are in conflict with, human or civil rights, we give the socialists a freer hand to attack our property. Entire article here

Obfuscation is a common ploy among politicians and political activists. They fail to define their terms and play on emotion in an attempt to win votes. They can win much greater political support by decrying the plight of the poor than by championing the rights of the rich (which are the same rights all individuals possess). They can maintain their positions of power by encroaching on the rights of some to the benefit of others.

This is what politics has become in America. Despite the rhetoric, few (if any) politicians can define rights, let alone defend them. It is much easier to promise everyone roast on Sunday than tell them to go earn the money to pay for it. It is much easier to pass a law to prohibit the Ashby High Rise than defend the rights of the developers. Playing to the mob is always more politically expedient.

I disagree with the ways some people "unwisely" use their property. Many drink and smoke too much, wear gaudy attire, become couch potatoes, and don't buckle up when they drive. But the true test of one's commitment to liberty and private property rights doesn't come when we permit people to be free to do those voluntary things with which we agree. The true test comes when we permit people to be free to do those voluntary things with which we disagree.

Undoubtedly, my position is offensive to many, and mankind's history is on their side. Private property rights and self-determination has always received a hostile reception. People have always had what they consider to be good reasons for restricting the liberties of others. Entire article here

Freedom means the right to pursue one’s values without intervention from others, so long as you respect their mutual right to do so. The world is full of mother hens who cannot stand the idea that someone might actually be enjoying something that the mother hen finds abhorrent. And rather than accept the fact that others might have different values, the mother hen seeks to impose hers upon all of society.

We see this in virtually every infringement of property rights. Some group does not like the way a property owner is using, or proposes to use, his property. They descend upon City Hall demanding that somebody do something. And politicians, every wary of their next election, appease the angry mob.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008


“Not in my back yard” (NIMBY), is a song that we hear frequently, with a number of variations. The residents of Southampton and Boulevard Oaks sang that tune in regard to the Ashy High Rise. The residents of Eastwood sang a refrain in regard to Magnolia Glen.

It’s a song with lyrics that tug at the heartstrings of many. An “evil” developer or corporation seeks to construct a building or project that local home owners do not like. The project will attract derelicts, or impose on their view, or create some other situation—real or imagined—that they do not like.

And that is what NIMBY really comes down to—they don’t like it. They raise all kinds of objections—too much traffic, pollution, noise, etc. On occasion these objections are legitimate, but they often get lost in the hysterical refrain of “not in my back yard.”

The real issue is how to resolve such issues. More and more often, the home owners run to government and seek some law that will prohibit the proposed project. They reject the concept of property rights and seek to impose their values upon the rightful property owner. They reject voluntary, consensual interactions between individuals and seek to substitute the coercive power of government.

I don’t agree with everything in this article, but it illustrates how NIMBY often works:

Now that I'm retired and have a little time on my hands, I decided to experiment with fighting a particular example of NIMBY-ism. Junipero Serra Blvd. is an arterial road just to the west of Stanford Campus. It has a 35-mile-per hour speed limit next to the campus, just as it does as it winds north, eventually becoming Alameda de las Pulgas through Menlo Park and other towns to the north. There are 18 houses that front on the street, and the residents decided to band together and complain to the county that the road was "unsafe" at 35 MPH.

I should comment that 35 is a very normal and appropriate speed for a road that is there to transport people long distances. We're not talking about a residential street whose sole purpose is to get people from their houses to major arteries like Serra Blvd. However, the traffic makes noise, which would be reduced if cars were, say, forced to go 25 MPH instead of 35, and apparently the residents of the 18 houses find it hard to get out of their driveways and into traffic. So it would benefit them if everyone else in the world had to slow down going past their houses.

I found out about a "public meeting" to discuss the proposed changes, and, being a retired dude with nothing to do, I decide to show up. The first thing I notice is that I am the only one at the meeting who was neither a county official nor a resident of one of the 18 houses whose owners stand to benefit (we had to mark our homes on a map). Coincidence? I don't think so. The 18 NIMBY's stand to gain a property-value windfall of $100K, at least. The county guys have to be there; it's their job (which also depends on there being enough projects in Santa Clara County to justify their existence). But what's the economic advantage to the residents of the other 700 or so houses on the campus? If they drive on the affected road once a week, and they are slowed down by 30 seconds, it would be decades before they recover the time wasted attending one of these meetings. That's why the NIMBY's always win. They steal a little from large numbers of people --- sufficiently little that it is in no one's individual advantage to fight back, although collectively the theft is huge.

I have previously written about how democracy is nothing but gang warfare, and this article illustrates that point. A small number of home owners ganged together to pressure county officials to do their bidding. Those who would suffer because of this were either uninformed of the proposal, and did not regard it worth their time. So a small number of individuals imposed their values upon the entire community.

Often, the gang of home owners goes against a developer. In those cases the developer is vastly outnumbered. The democratic thing to do is side with the majority, so the developer finds himself being forced to abide by the values of the majority.

NIMBY songs may “empower the people” and be democratic. But they are destructive to property rights, and that makes for a very ugly song.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Smoking Bans

Smoking bans have become increasingly popular across the nation. Typically, when such bans are proposed the debate centers on the rights of smokers versus non-smokers. The rights of the impacted business owners are generally a secondary issue.

The truth is, in this context the only rights that are relevant are those of the business owners. They have a right to offer the type of environment they choose. If they wish to allow smoking or ban it, that is a choice that they should be permitted to make without interference from the government.

Patrons—both smokers and non-smokers—will not have their rights infringed in either case. Rights are a sanction to act without interference from others, so long as the mutual rights of others are respected. Rights pertain to freedom of action, not a guarantee that one’s action will provide the desired results.

In the case of smoking, patrons are free to choose which establishments they will visit. If smoking offends them, they can choose those places which prohibit smoking. Smokers remain free to visit places that permit smoking. All parties retain their rights.

While this story comes from West Virginia, it contains some interesting comments on smoking bans.

Nobody's going to tell Kerry "Paco" Ellison's customers they can't smoke at his bar. The Black Hawk Saloon is Ellison's bar, and he'll run it as he sees fit.

"If I don't want to pray, I don't go to church," Ellison said. "If you don't want to smoke, don't come in here."

Today, Ellison and at least a dozen other bar owners across the county defiantly encouraged their patrons to smoke in violation of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department's six-week-old smoking ban.

These bar owners deserve praise for refusing to passively accept a violation of their rights. But is often the case, their defiance is less principled than it might appear.

Ellison said he's sick and tired of playing by the rules while his competitors secretly allow their customers to light up. He's called the Health Department to complain, but nothing is done, he said.

"Either rescind the order or enforce it," Ellison said. "Either make it happen or let it go. I want a level playing field."
In other words, if the ban were enforced, Ellison would have fewer problems with it. He just wants the law to be applied equally. While it is certainly reasonable to expect the law to be applied equally to all, the victims of unjust laws should not be demanding that the injustice be applied equally. They should be fighting the injustice.

This type of unprincipled opposition is a large part of why such laws get passed. Often, some business owners would like to ban smoking in their establishment, but fear that they will lose business. So they support a government imposed ban. This, they declare, will level the playing field. This reminds me of a lyric from The Trees, by Rush:

So the maples formed a union
And demanded equal rights
"The oaks are just too greedy;
We will make them give us light."
Now there's no more oak oppression,
For they passed a noble law,
And the trees are all kept equal
By hatchet, axe, and saw.

Such bans ultimately harm everyone, including non-smokers. By advocating that government impose restrictions and controls on businesses, they implicitly accept similar controls and restrictions on themselves. They cannot reasonably advocate violating the rights of others and not expect others to advocate violating their rights.

This is what occurs when principles are rejected or ignored. Each issue is treated in isolation, as if there are no wider implications or consequences. But self-induced blindness will not prevent those consequences from being made manifest.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Protection from our Protectors

The City’s Airport Commission held its first hearing on airport zoning on August 21. Carolyn Feibel reported in the Chronicle that “it was surprisingly brief and undramatic.” That isn’t completely surprising, since it was held in the middle of a work day.

Feibel wrote:

Brenda Taylor, who lives in the North Hollow subdivision near Bush IAH, said at the hearing that she understands why the city needs to restrict construction around the airport. But she doesn't like the provision of a notice being attached to real property records for houses located in the tiers.

Taylor referenced my last story, which said "The notice's exact language still is being worked out, but it will indicate that property in the tier could be subject to airport noise and hazards, and is located in an area that the city has power to regulate."

"After 25 years, my property has become dangerous?" asked Taylor. "If so, the cities of Houston and Humble have to take immediate steps to protect us."

Taylor has a legitimate concern. By government fiat her property is not subject to regulations and controls. Selling her home will likely be much more difficult.

Taylor is also correct in saying that the cities of Houston and Humble should be protecting her. The government’s sole purpose is the protection of individual rights, including property rights. However, the City of Houston is demonstrating, with ever greater frequency, its willingness to cast aside its role as a protector of rights and instead become a violator of rights.

Airport zoning is one example. The city is proposing regulations that will control construction around Houston’s airports. These regulations include soundproofing requirements, as well as a complete prohibition on construction in certain areas. In other words, the city is forcing land owners to follow its edicts, or face penalties of $500 per day.

This entire power grab is being motivated by an FAA mandate. But rather than stand up to the FAA, city officials are meekly caving to what is essentially blackmail. Rather than protect the property rights of Houstonians, city officials are seizing upon another opportunity to expand their control of land use within the city.

The contrast between our current city officials and America’s Founding Fathers is stark. Our Founders defiantly stood up to the most powerful military in the world. They proudly declared the rights of individuals to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. They did not cower in appeasement. They did not cave to political expediency.

City officials have abandoned their responsibility to protect our rights. Worse yet, they are becoming violators of those rights. Who will protect us from our protectors?

© J. Brian Phillips 2008

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Smallest Minority

From the Washington Post:

The Mannassass, VA City Council passed a zoning ordinance that “restricts households to immediate relatives, plus one unrelated person, and excludes aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, cousins and other members of the extended family. A family of seven that includes nieces and nephews is now illegal in Manassas, for instance, even if the occupancy limit is 10.

City officials admitted that the ordinance was aimed at Hispanics and might have been a
mistake. But what happens when legislators don't admit to their mistakes? Who
pays the price for their errors and arrogance whether they admit to them or

Some might say that only the target of the legislation suffers, such as Hispanics in the case of the Manassas ordinance. But the truth is, we all suffer and we all pay the cost.

Of course, legislation targeting specific people is frequently enacted, and in regard to many different issues. And usually the target is some “undesirable” segment of the population, such as sexually oriented businesses, or high rise developers, or smokers.

All that is required is a large enough group to pressure legislators. Acting on the democratic principle that the majority rules, those legislators happily trample on the rights of one group in an effort to appease the demands of another group. There are two things wrong with this.

The first is that the majority should rule—i.e., that the values of the majority can be imposed upon the minority. The Founding Fathers warned against democracy. Thomas Jefferson: “A democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where fifty-one percent of the people may take away the rights of the other forty-nine.” James Madison: “There is no maxim, in my opinion, which is more liable to be misapplied, and which, therefore, more needs elucidation, than the current one, that the interest of the majority is the political standard of right and wrong.” John Adams: “Democracy... while it lasts is more bloody than either [aristocracy or monarchy]. Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There is never a democracy that did not commit suicide.”

The Founders understood that democracy is incompatible with freedom. They established a constitutional republic in which the rights of the minority—and the individual is the smallest minority—were protected.

The second error is the belief that individuals are to be subservient to the group. Those who refuse are forced to do so, through the threat (or actual exercise) of fines or jail. This view holds that individuals are expendable, that only the welfare of the group matters. And this is precisely what occurs—individuals are sacrificed to the group. All of us are potential victims. All of us are always in the minority—all of us are individuals.

Most Houstonians would shudder in horror if our city officials suggested an altar be erected in downtown Houston for the purpose of human sacrifices. Yet they do not hesitate to run to those same officials to demand the same. They demand that developers be prohibited from pursuing their dreams. They demand that business owners be regulated, controlled, and prevented from using their own independent judgment to provide the goods and services consumers desire. They do not hesitate to sacrifice the money, time, dreams, and lives of those with whom they disagree.

That these sacrifices do not involve ripping the beating heart from their victims does not change the nature of their demands. They seek to place shackles on the ambitions of businessmen. They seek control over the lives of their fellow citizens. And when they can convince enough legislators to act according to their wishes, we all get laws like that passed in Manassas.

Monday, August 18, 2008

More Evidence for Freedom

A wonderful article in the New York Sun by Harvard professor Edward Glaeser compares Houston and New York City. Houston, he shows, is much more friendly to the middle-class. An abundance of jobs, affordable housing, and a low cost of living are driving Houston’s economy.

Glaeser compares numerous economic statistics between the two cities. For example, a registered nurse earns about $50,000 in New York and $40,000 in Houston. A retail manager in New York earns about $200 more than one in Houston.

Housing in Manhattan is out of reach for a middle-class family. However, on Staten Island a 2,000 square foot house would cost about $340,000, or about $24,000 per year. A larger home in Houston would cost about $160,000 and cost about $9,200 per year.

The tax burden in Houston is also much lower. While property taxes are about 50% in Houston, the absence of a state or city income tax makes the total tax bill about 35% lower than New York.

Transportation costs are also lower in Houston, both in terms of money and time. The average middle-class commuter in New York spends 120 hours more per year commuting to and from work.

These lower costs make the Houston family significantly better off financially:

If we exclude the areas that our two families have already paid for (housing and
transportation) and average the remaining categories in the index (food,
utilities, health, and miscellaneous), Queens is 24% more expensive than the
average American area and Houston is 6% less expensive. Thus — again, after
housing, taxes, and transportation — the Queens residents' real remainder is a
little less than $21,000; the Houston family's is $32,200. The Houston family is
effectively 53% richer and solidly in the middle class, with plenty of money for
going out to dinner at Applebee's or taking vacations to San Antonio. The family
on Staten Island or in Queens is straining constantly to make ends meet.
Glaeser points to Houston’s relatively free market as the primary explanation for these differences:

Why is it so much more expensive in New York? For one, supplying housing in
New York City costs much, much more — for a 1,500-square-foot apartment, the
construction cost alone is more than $500,000. Also, part of the reason is
geographic: an old port on a narrow island can't grow outward, as Houston has,
and the costs of building up — New York's fate, especially in Manhattan — will
always be higher than those of building out. And the unavoidable fact is that
New York makes it harder to build housing than Chicago does — and a lot harder
than Houston does.

The permitting process in Manhattan is an arduous, unpredictable,
multiyear odyssey involving a dizzying array of regulations, environmental, and
other hosts of agencies. A further obstacle: rent control. When other
municipalities dropped rent control after World War II, New York clung to it,
despite the fact that artificially reduced rents discourage people from building
new housing.

While many are clamoring for tighter land use regulations, Glaeser thinks that this would be a mistake. The middle-class (and indeed all Houstonians) would suffer if Houston tried to emulate highly restrictive cities.
Houston's success shows that a relatively deregulated free-market city,
with a powerful urban growth machine, can do a much better job of taking care of
middle-income Americans than the more "progressive" big governments of the
Northeast and the West Coast.

The right response to Houston's growth is not to stymie it through
regulation that would make the city less affordable. It's for other areas, New
York included, to cut construction costs and start beating the Sunbelt at its
own game.
Houston is a beacon of freedom. The economic benefits we enjoy are a consequence of that freedom. Rather than seek to copy those cities that limit their citizen’s freedom and create economic turmoil, Houston should proudly declare to the world that we will continue to be a shining example of individual rights and personal freedom.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Fool Me Once

An old adage states: Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. The meaning is that if someone takes advantage of us, we should learn from that experience and not allow it to be repeated.

Zoning advocates apparently subscribe to this adage. They have changed their tune and their approach many times over the years. They have tried to fool Houstonians, but to date have been unsuccessful (at least on the scale that they want). But this hasn’t stopped them from trying again and again. And soon they will likely try again.

Three times they have been defeated in referendums. Each time however, they have inched closer to victory. They only need one victory to accomplish their goal. Once they have fooled Houstonians it will be too late. Zoning, once instituted, has never (to my knowledge) been rescinded.

In the Crisis Papers, Thomas Paine wrote: “Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must, like men, undergo the fatigue of supporting it." And so they must, for those who seek to remove their freedom take many forms and use many tactics. Those who love freedom must remain ever vigilant, for once their freedom is removed, it is difficult to recover.

American political history is replete with examples of legislation that doesn’t work as its proponents promised. Indeed, no legislation involving government intervention into the economy and/ or lives of citizens will work as promised. The reason is that citizens respond to limitations on their freedom by seeking ways around the legislation. Economists often call this unintended consequences.

According to Wikipedia, this concept was popularized by sociologist Robert K. Merton

In his 1936 paper, "The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action", Merton tried to apply a systematic analysis to the problem of "unanticipated consequences" of "purposive social action". He emphasized that his term "purposive action… [is exclusively] concerned with 'conduct' as distinct from 'behavior.' That is, with action that involves motives and consequently a choice between various alternatives".

In other words, when individuals have a choice, they not necessarily make the one that legislators wanted them to make. In response, legislators “tweak” the law to close loopholes, impose more stringent controls, expand the controls, or outlaw something else. And the cycle repeats as more unintended consequences arise.

This, in part, is why zoning ordinances invariably expand—pressure groups harmed by the existing legislation seek to mitigate their harm. (The same is true of other interventionist legislation.) They pressure legislators to change the laws to reduce the harmful consequences to them, and thereby pass the harm to someone else.

While Houstonians have avoided being fooled into zoning, they have not avoided this whirlpool of competing groups. We still have pressure groups seeking to enact legislation that limits property rights—preservationists, anti-smokers, the porn police, and opponents to the Ashby High Rise are a few examples.

Typically these groups press for extensive regulations and then settle for less draconian measures. For example, preservationists might argue for a ban on demolishing historical buildings and then settle for a 90-day moratorium. In doing this, they establish the principle that a particular activity or land use can be regulated. Once the principle is established, they can then work on expanding its reach.

The public is often fooled into believing that interventionism will solve some social ill—whether real or imagined. They are fooled into believing that a compromise between interventionism and freedom is possible. But such a compromise is not possible—it is a complete victory for the interventionists. It is foolish to believe otherwise.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Pedestrian Zones

The assaults on property rights in Houston seem to be coming more frequently and more egregiously. In addition to airport zoning, the City recently introduced a proposal to create pedestrian zones in areas served by Metro’s light rail system.

The proposal, which has been in the works for two years, was announced in a Chronicle article on Sunday. Which means, for two years city officials have been plotting a strategy to violate property rights. The plan is now scheduled for public hearings and input.

The goal of the proposal is to create corridors that will allow home owners to walk to work, restaurants, and entertainment facilities and reduce traffic congestion. Ironically, that is what the Ashby High Rise developers sought to do and the City has gone to extremes to stop that project.

The article states: The neighborhood protection proposal would provide incentives for developers to voluntarily limit the heights of buildings on the edges of neighborhoods. Developers who complied would be exempt from the same regulations as those who met the city's building design standards.

In other words, developers who appease city officials would not be subjected to the same regulations as those who don’t. The city calls these “incentives”. I would call them bribes.

Developers will be given two choices: “voluntarily” limit the size of your project, or face more stringent regulations. Or to put it another way, “voluntarily” limit the size of your project, or the city will force you to do so. That is a choice between arsenic and cyanide.

Personally, I think pedestrian zones could be a great enhancement to many areas of the city. Last fall my wife treated me to a weekend in downtown Houston. We spent the weekend strolling the streets, eating in a variety of restaurants, listening to music, touring Minute Maid Park, and various other activities. It was fun to do so much without the need of a car.

But to impose pedestrian zones on developers and property owners will, as Ric Campo, the chief executive of Camden Property Trust, said, add to “costs and doesn't necessarily add value." More importantly, it violates property rights and imposes the city’s view of proper land use upon everyone. It dictates uses that the owners and users of the property may not want.

Freedom is seldom lost in one fell swoop. It is usually a gradual process. We are witnessing that in Houston, as group after group pushes some pet project on the rest of the city. Whether that group is the FAA, City Hall, or some neighborhood civic organization, each seeks to control the use of property that it doesn’t own. They may not be directly attacking our property rights when they do so, but they are attacking the principle of property rights.

And once we surrender that principle, we shouldn’t be surprised when they are knocking on our door.

© J. Brian Phillips 2008

Monday, August 11, 2008

Preserving our Heritage

Preservationists argue that we must save our heritage. But they fail to define what they mean by heritage. Consider this statement from the web site of the Greater Houston Preservation Alliance:

Historic preservation is not about isolating the past in a time capsule. It is about managing change; integrating the old and new in ways that improve the quality of life in our community; and maintaining our individuality. Greater Houston Preservation Alliance remains committed to this vision. From Houston's founding by the Allen Brothers in 1836, Houstonians have a sense of pride in our unique history. By preserving our history, we maintain our city's individuality and attract more visitors in the process.
I agree that it’s good to manage change—we shouldn’t just start changing things willy-nilly. Change for change’s sake is not necessarily a good thing. A drug addict should change his behavior; a successful businessman probably shouldn’t. In either case, the change should be planned and directed toward an explicit goal.

But this ignores the question of who should choose and direct that change. In the context of the GHPA, we are talking about property—buildings of some historic significance. Even the term “historic significance” raises questions: Historic by whose standards? Historic in what context? Who should make that decision? How should that decision be enacted?

My first apartment in Houston is historic to me. The same is true of many other places around the city—my first Mexican restaurant, the Astrodome, Gabby’s BBQ. Does this give me a voice in the use of those properties? One of my first published articles was about the downtown tunnel system, so that certainly is historic to me. Do I have a voice in how the tunnel system is developed and changed?

I love old buildings. I’ve toured the Vanderbilt Mansion in New York, the underground city of Seattle, and Galveston’s many mansions. I’ve toured castles in England and old barns in Kansas. I find them fascinating and a great way to learn about history. I would be sad if they were torn down. But I don’t own them, and I have no voice in how the owner chooses to use his property. If I think I do, then I grant him the mutual right to have a voice in how I use my property. If I claim that I can violate his rights, then I cannot complain when he, or someone else, makes a similar claim against me.

More interesting is the use of the word “individuality”. The paragraph quoted above uses the word twice. The first time the meaning is ambiguous; the second time it is not. The second time the use is: “maintain our city’s individuality”.

The root of individuality is individual—a singular, particular person. Each individual has characteristics—both physical and intellectual— that are unique to him. Those characteristics are what define him as a unique human being.

A city consists of many individuals, each with their own characteristics and values. It consists of many areas, each with its own characteristics and values. Is Houston’s “individuality” the Montrose, River Oaks, the Galleria, the Heights, downtown, Memorial Park, NASA, or the Medical Center? Which defines Houston?

The truth is, each of these areas represent much different characteristics and values. Each has an “individual” character, but even within those areas there are many differences.

To apply the concept of individuality to a city is to obliterate these differences. And this is precisely what the GHPA wishes to do. They seek to destroy the difference between individuals and the community. They treat all individuals as part of a giant organism called society.

The organic theory of society is not new. Many have advanced the idea that each individual is simply a cell in the organism of society. Each cell must do its part to contribute to the whole, and those that don’t are expendable. This is nothing more than a crude form of collectivism.

Collectivism holds that the group is the standard of value, that the individual only matters to the extent that he contributes to the group. When an individual does not contribute to the group, he can be removed, much like a cancerous growth is removed.

But the real cancer is collectivism, and the morality that underlies it—altruism. Altruism literally means “otherism”—the welfare of others supersedes one’s own welfare. Which means, self-sacrifice is the moral ideal. Altruism is the morality that underlies the GHPA. They want us to preserve our history at the expense of the individuals who actually make history. They want us to preserve Sam Houston’s home, while destroying the principles for which he fought.:

The more neighborhoods that seek designation [Historic District Designation], the louder the message to City Hall that citizens want to protect the visual character of the places they live. This will help us to get more neighborhood-friendly building codes and ultimately to strengthen the preservation ordinance for the benefit of all Houstonians.

In other words, if enough Houstonians make enough noise, GHPA can get laws enacted that will control the use of properties deemed historic. And these laws can impact a property owner without his consent. This, they would have us believe, is beneficial to all Houstonians.

I agree that we must preserve our heritage. But I disagree that our heritage consists of log cabins, Victorian homes, or quirky things like the beer can house (which is one of those things that would be prevented with strict land use and/ preservation regulations). Our heritage, as Americans and particularly as Houstonians, is that of individual freedom—the right to pursue our values without interference from others, so long as we respect their mutual rights. If Houston has “individuality”, it is because it respects individualism—the rights of individuals.

This is what the GHPA seeks to destroy. They seek to preserve buildings at the expense of freedom. They seek to impose their values upon others by using government coercion. In the end, what they really advocate is not preservation, but to take us back in time, back to the days when America was ruled by a tyrannical king. And they want to be the modern king.

© J. Brian Phillips 2008

Saturday, August 9, 2008

“Conflicts” of Rights

It is common for proponents of proposals that would violate property rights to present the issue as a conflict between the rights of those on the opposing sides of the issue. Such claims are naïve at best, and demonstrate a serious misunderstanding about rights.

Rights are a sanction to act without interference from others. The mutual rights of others prevents you from interfering with their actions. Rights are not a license to do anything one desires. If this were the case, there would be a conflict between the rights of individuals.

Consider bans on smoking in bars and restaurants. Those in favor of such bans argue that their rights are violated when they are subjected to second-hand smoke, and thus such bans are appropriate. But such arguments ignore the meaning of rights, as well as the fact that such bans are in fact a violation of the legitimate rights of the property owners.

Rights pertain to action and the consequences of those actions. Rights are not a guarantee that one’s actions will have the desired results, only that one may take those actions.

In the case of smoking, individuals are free to patronize an establishment or take their business elsewhere. If an individual objects to a smoky environment, he can patronize bars that do not allow smoking or stay at home. Each individual can choose for himself and act accordingly.

This freedom of choice applies to bars as well. The owner has the right to determine and set whatever rules he chooses regarding the use of his property. If he wishes to ban smoking, he should be free to do so. If he wishes to mandate smoking among his patrons, he should be free to do so. The choices of consumers will determine if his rules are acceptable or not—he will succeed or fail.

Unfortunately, many bar owners argue for widespread bans as a way to “level the playing field”. They fear that if they ban smoking in their establishment, they will be at a competitive disadvantage. Their solution is to enact a prohibition on everyone, rather than allow owners and patrons alike to make choices based on their personal values.

The alleged conflicts arise when government intervenes in the choices of individuals. When government intervenes, the choices of some individuals are reduced or eliminated. Which means, the choices of some are imposed upon all.

As Ayn Rand wrote:

A right cannot be violated except by physical force. One man cannot deprive
another of his life, nor enslave him, nor forbid him to pursue his happiness,
except by using force against him. Whenever a man is made to act without his own
free, personal, individual, voluntary consent—his right has been violated.

Therefore, we can draw a clear-cut division between the rights of one
man and those of another. It is an objective division—not subject to differences
of opinion, nor to majority decision, nor to the arbitrary decree of society. No
man has the right to initiate the use of physical force against another
A bar owner cannot force patrons into his business. His door is open to those who choose to enter, subject to whatever conditions he imposes. Those who do not like those conditions can go elsewhere. In other words, he initiates force against nobody.

To impose certain conditions upon him however, is an initiation of force. Banning smoking for instance, prohibits him from acting according to his own voluntary, independent judgment. At the same time, it prohibits consumers from acting according to their own voluntary, independent judgment.

Recognizing the rights of each individual eliminates such perceived conflicts. In a free society, there are no conflicts of rights. Each individual is permitted to choose for himself and act accordingly. Business owners can choose what products or services they offer, and consumers can choose which businesses they will patronize.

© J. Brian Phillips 2008

Thursday, August 7, 2008

"Group Think" and Property Rights

The American Planning Association (APA)– “a nonprofit public interest and research organization committed to urban, suburban, regional, and rural planning”—is one of the leading advocates of land use regulations in the nation.

The APA is essentially a training grounds for mini-dictators. For example, they oppose legislation that limits the ability of states or localities to use eminent domain or other regulations to seize or control private property. Their policy guide on “takings” states:

Some legislation proposed within the past several years has been the result of some legitimate concerns regarding the rights of property owners, an issue discussed elsewhere in this paper. Much of this legislation, however, is really anti-regulation legislation clothed in the fabric of private property rights. Care must be taken to distinguish between the two.

While it is true that anti-regulation is not the same as protecting property rights, property rights cannot be protected without dismantling the existing myriad of regulations pertaining to land use.

The APA’s policy statement goes on to say:

These proposals have a certain amount of surface appeal. They are extremely dangerous proposals, however--proposals that could destroy the quality of life in communities in the United States and bankrupt local and state governments. If adopted, they would also contribute significantly to future federal deficits.

This is an admission that if the government had to pay for all of the property it routinely seizes, it would go broke. But the APA only sees a problem with requiring government to make such payments, not in the seizure of private property.

Every regulation that limits the use of property in any way has some theoretical impact on the value of that property. If the city refuses to let your next door neighbor store junk cars on her property, should she then be compensated for the difference in value between a commercial junkyard and a piece of residential property? If that becomes the legal rule, the city will probably have to allow the junkyard next door in order to avert bankruptcy. Should a property owner who wants to build high-rise apartments in a single-family neighborhood be compensated because he is not allowed to do so? Assuming that he is allowed to build a house, just like everyone else in the area, has he really been hurt? What about a regulation that prevents grocery stores near residential areas from selling liquor? The sale of liquor is very profitable for grocery stores, with a much better mark-up than most of the grocery items in the store. Should the store be compensated for the theoretical loss of business, just because it cannot sell liquor? Such rules theoretically reduce the value of property and would thus be subject to the compensation requirement under "reduction in value" approaches. It is important to remember in considering such arguments that a principal purpose of zoning is to protect property values.

Again, the APA sees no problem with regulations that diminish the economic value of private property. After all, a developer who cannot build a high-rise has not “really been hurt”. The APA’s only concern is avoiding driving a city into bankruptcy. If city regulations force a number of that city’s individuals to go bankrupt, that isn’t the APA’s concern.

This callous disregard for the welfare of individuals is not surprising:

APA develops policies that represent the collective thinking of our members, and represents a collective view on positions of both principle and practice.
Thinking, despite what the APA might believe, is not a collective activity. Thinking is an individual activity. “Collective thinking” is a contradiction in terms, and can only mean compromise, consensus building, and appeasement whereby those involved come to a shared agreement.

“Collective thinking” is how the APA and its brethren seek to shape communities. Their vision is not that of a visionary, but a mish-mash of ideas collected from across the spectrum of the community. According to this ideology, the ideas of the developer and an apartment dweller, the ideas of a business owner and a minimum wage employee, the ideas of a property owner and a non-owner, are all equated and considered. All ideas should be considered in the use of property which only one, or none, owns.

This is nothing more than a claim that all opinions are of equal validity, i.e., all ideas are equally true. What it really means is that no ideas are true.

How, for example, would they resolve the conflict between an advocate of private property rights and an advocate of state ownership of property? If each is merely a matter of opinion, and each opinion is equally valid, the middle ground is a combination of private property and public control. In truth, this is a complete surrender of the principle of property rights. And this is the goal of the APA.

Rather than take responsibility for their own ideas, they hide behind “group think”. Rather than exercise independent, rational judgment, they find “common ground” where everyone can agree. Rather than assert the truth, they seek compromise.

It is a grotesque sight to witness a group advocate such policies. It is more grotesque when they seek to impose those policies on others through the force of law. And that is precisely what they do when they advocate laws that will impose their values upon others.

They may find certain solace in such activities. I find them hideous.

Consider the results if Thomas Edison had suspended his own judgment and submitted his ideas to a vote. His genius would be subject to the whims and decisions of others, including the ignorant and ill-informed. The truth that he saw was not seen by others, and had he left the decision to them, the world would have remained in self-imposed darkness.

© J. Brian Phillips 2008

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Zoning Horror Stories, Part 2

If the stories weren’t true, they would almost be comical. My comments are, in case it isn't obvious, sarcastic. All of these stories come from an article by James Bovard:
Flosmoor, Illinois, in an act of legislative snobbery, banned pickup trucks from its streets — and even from private driveways. Coral Gables, Florida, charges residents $35 to get a permit to paint the bathroom in their home — or the living room, or any other room. Local building inspectors patrol the streets looking for painting trucks parked at homes that have not paid the permit fee.

I am sure that the residents of Coral Gables sleep well at night knowing that their neighbors have paid the appropriate fees to have their bathroom painted. I know I stay up at night worrying about such things.

Los Angeles prohibits freelance writers from working out of their homes in residential neighborhoods, fearing that the tap-tap-tap of their keyboards could devastate the quality of life in their neighborhoods. Similarly, Chicago issued a cease-and-desist order to a couple using two personal computers in their home to write software and magazine articles.

I am sure that the incredible volume of noise generated by the keyboards was threatening the character of the neighborhoods, destroying the quality of life there, and diminishing property values.

Pasadena, California, banned residents from having weeds in their yards, a policy sometimes referred to as "crabgrass fascism."

There is nothing quite so frustrating as neighbors with weeds in their yard. Since gardeners generally define a weed as a plant that you do not want, would the city inspector who enforces this absurd law be considered a weed?

The Office of Code Enforcement in Alexandria, Virginia, sent certified letters to twenty-two homeowners in June 1993 threatening to condemn their properties unless they fixed chipping paint on their window sills or door frames.

I seem to recall an episode on HGTV where a house collapsed because of peeling paint on a window sill. These city officials likely saved countless lives.

A Princeton, New Jersey, store owner was threatened with a 90-day jail sentence in 1993 for the crime of having a few barbecue grills lined up in front of his hardware store. Though Irving Urken had put the grills and other goods outside his store for 57 years, a new zoning ordinance banned anything in front of the store — except books, flowers, plants, vegetables, and newspapers.

Barbecue grills are so much less attractive that flowers. No wonder this business owner has only managed to make it 57 years-- he has such unattractive displays outside of his store that it is a wonder anyone would patronize his store.

East Hampton, Long Island, issued a warrant for the arrest of a food-shop owner guilty of an unauthorized exhibition of large orange gourds. Jerry Della Femina, the co-owner of a local market, had a few dozen pumpkins stacked in front of his store. Village bureaucrats ruled that the pumpkins were the equivalent of a sign advertising the sale of pumpkins, and thus the owner needed a sign permit. The shop was in a historic district, and government officials may have thought that similar markets in East Hampton in the 19th century never placed pumpkins in front of their stores.

Pumpkins are signs. I've seen orange signs before. What was this market owner thinking to advertise what he is selling? He might actually entice some mindless consumer to purchase his products. I am sure that consumers would much prefer to purchase a permit to have their bathroom painted, rather than a pumpkin.

In September 1993, the New York City buildings commissioner bushwhacked Fordham University. Fordham had received permission from the city government to build a 480-foot radio tower at its campus in the Bronx. After the radio tower was almost half finished, the city government reversed its position and revoked the building permit. The government's action cost Fordham over half-a-million dollars.

That NYC building commissioner is such a practical joker. "Sure, you can build a tower. Just kidding, I had my fingers crossed."

Newtown Borough, Pennsylvania, requires citizens to pay a $10,000 nonrefundable fee in order to challenge the constitutionality of the local zoning ordinance.
How dare citizens question the authority of zoning officials? Don't they know that they have no rights and should meekly submit to the dictates of those officials?

None of this, of course, could never happen in Houston. Our public officials-- like Chuck Rosenthal, the HPD crime lab, those involved in the City Hall bonus scandal-- are completely above reproach and we can always trust them to make better decisions regarding our lives than we can.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

With "Friends" Like This...

There are many organizations that proclaim their support of freedom and property rights. But sometimes one doesn't need to dig far below the surface to discover that such proclamations are merely a façade. Consider the Independence Institute (II) for example.

On their About Us page, they say:

Because the pursuit of happiness and the enjoyment of life and liberty are matters of individual choice, the Institute addresses a broad variety of public policy issues from a free-market, pro-freedom perspective.

This sounds pretty good. I’m certainly in favor of individual choice and the free market.

II runs the Property Rights Project (PRP), along with other projects aimed at specific policy issues. On the blog for the PRP and interesting post titled Aurora Seniors Victorious Against Developers appears.

The post consists of nothing more than a quote from a newspaper article:

The Aurora Planning Commission handed about 30 senior citizens a small victory Wednesday. They gathered at the Aurora Municipal Center to speak against a 13-acre building development close to their homes.

The panel voted 4-2 against a site plan extension that would have developed four-story apartment complexes at the Heritage-Eagle Bend housing complex.

The article goes on to quote 2 individuals involved in this:

"We don't think (the plan) is very suitable to seniors because all the walkways are exposed and none of the garages are attached to the building," said Toni Smythe, a neighborhood delegate who spoke at the commission meeting.

"You don't just stick a four-story next to two-story," said Michigan Hill, a commissioner who voted against the extension.
In other words, the senior citizens didn’t like this project, and convinced the city’s Planning Commission to squelch it. Which means, non-owners of the property were able to impose their values and ideas upon the owners of that property.

The right to property means the right of use and disposal. It means that the owner chooses the use, without requiring the permission or sanction of anyone else.

There is nothing in the PRP post to suggest that they disagree with this ruling. Indeed, their title (which is different from the newspaper’s title) states that the ruling was a victory for the seniors. Which means, PRP considers this a victory for those who seek to control the property owned by others.

An organization that purports to support property rights, while applauding the destruction of those rights is the most vile type of hypocrite. Such actions undermine the efforts of those who truly support property rights by misrepresenting those rights.

I submitted the following comment on the blog:

How can you consider this a victory? The right to property is the right of use and disposal. The rightful owners first had to beg for permission to use their property. Then they were denied the right to use their property.

When non-owners of a parcel of property have a voice in its use, property rights have been destroyed. This was might have been a "victory" for a gang of seniors who seek to impose their values upon others, but it certainly was not a victory for property rights or their advocates.
I have not previously heard of II. At first, I thought the organization might have merit. But it did not take much reading to discover that what looked like Jefferson was really just a mask.

© J. Brian Phillips 2008

Monday, August 4, 2008

Airport Zoning Ordinance

The city recently released its draft ordinance on airport zoning. The ordinance was mandated by the FAA at the risk of the city losing federal funding.

The ordinance creates three “tiers” around the city’s airports. Building restrictions in the outer tiers are minimal, while in the tiers closest to the airports the ordinance prohibits construction of hospitals, schools, and churches, and requires soundproofing of new homes.

Undoubtedly the ordinance will increase the cost of housing within these tiers. The cost of soundproofing new homes will ultimately be passed on to home buyers. Residential construction on undeveloped land is prohibited, which will reduce the availability of housing.

More significantly, the ordinance prohibits individuals from using their property as they choose. The city will deny a property owner permission to build a house, a church, or a hospital on his land, even if he is willing to tolerate the noise of air traffic. In other words, the city is telling the property owner what is best for him, and using the force of law to impose its dictates.

Violations of the ordinance carry a penalty of $500 per day. Which means, if you choose to build a home that does not meet the soundproofing requirements, you will be fined. You violate nobody’s rights by doing this, but are subjected to the threat of fines.

That the federal government mandates such ordinances is bad enough. That our City Council caves to blackmail is worse. Rather than standing up to the FAA, Council simply goes along. Rather than protect the rights of Houstonians, Council appeases a federal bureaucracy.

For years the city has enacted ordinances that, in other cities, would be a part of a comprehensive zoning plan. This piece-meal approach has allowed the city to slowly grab more control over land use. Airport zoning is just one more example of this.

Fortunately the ordinance is still in the draft phase. Both the city and City Council will hold hearings on the ordinance prior to voting. The first hearing is scheduled for August 21.

© J. Brian Phillips 2008

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Hints of San Francisco

The following letter was printed in the August 3, 2008 Houston Chronicle:

As someone who moved to Houston last year largely due to its reputation for being a friendly pro-capitalism , no-zoning city, I must say that the details of the Ashby High Rise story disappoint me greatly.

Coming from Northern California I was used to people trampling each others' rights and trying to expropriate things through majority rule; I just never expected to see
it here in Houston. I was especially surprised to see the Mayor of Houston making his corruption so transparent by demonstrating that project permitting is not objective, but instead is subject to his whims. If not for the heat I'd think myself back in San Francisco. I therefore urge any remaining Houstonians that believe in such fundamentals as individual liberty, property rights, and the objective rule of law to stand up and be counted – especially in the next round of Mayoral and City Council elections.

Robert Reynolds

Saturday, August 2, 2008

The Tortoise and the Hare

In the fable of the tortoise and the hare, the hare is overconfident of his superior speed and lazes while the tortoise methodically moves toward his goal. In the end, the consistency of the tortoise proves victorious.

Those who would violate our property rights have taken the approach of the tortoise. They have moved slowly, but methodically to gradually remove our freedoms. On occasion they have tried the hare approach—such as instituting zoning—but this has been repeatedly defeated. While they lick their wounds, zoning advocates continue to press forward with their agenda.

As a small sampling of Houston ordinances that violate property rights:
  • Smoking ordinance
  • Sexually oriented business ordinance
  • Landscaping ordinance
  • Preservation ordinance
  • Sign ordinance

Each of these ordinances is an infringement on the property rights of business owners and property owners. Each imposes restrictions or prescriptions on the property owner, who was not violating the rights of anyone.

This slow encroachment of our property rights illustrates the dichotomy both Houstonians and Americans try to live by. While paying lip service to political freedom (including property rights) they reject the moral basis of freedom.

Freedom is founded on the ethics of rational self-interest—the moral right of each individual to pursue his values without interference from others, so long as he respects their mutual right to do so.

Most Houstonians and Americans embrace rational self-interest implicitly. They seek to make more money, advance in their career, buy a bigger home, send their children to good schools, take nice vacations, etc. These values bring pleasure to them and enhance their enjoyment of life.

At the same time, they worry about others—the poor, the homeless, the uninsured, etc. Someone, they declare, must do something. It seldom occurs to them that the someone could be the poor, the homeless, and the uninsured. It seldom occurs to them that the something is taking responsibility for one’s own life and happiness.

Helping the “less fortunate” has become their measure of self-worth. They regard helping others as the standard of morality. And those who refuse to “voluntarily” help others may properly be forced to do so.

There is nothing wrong with helping others, so long as one has the means to do so and one does so in the support of one’s values. But to help anyone at a cost to oneself and one’s values is a sacrifice, and there is nothing noble in self-sacrifice. Yet self-sacrifice is what our leaders would have us embrace.

Self-sacrifice underlies every attempt to violate the rights of individuals. We are told that we must sacrifice for the “common good” or the “public welfare”. We are told that the collective good supersedes the good of any individual. This idea is wrong, it is immoral, and it must be rejected.

This idea—putting others before oneself—has permeated America since the first colonists arrived. Its influence has ebbed and flowed, but it has remained a constant.

Until self-sacrifice is rejected we will continue to witness the slow erosion of our freedoms. Until rational self-interest is embraced we will have no moral defense against the tortoises who seek to regulate our property and our lives.

© J. Brian Phillips 2008