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 Zoning, once instituted, has never (to my knowledge) been rescinded.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.

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