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

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