Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Star of the Lone Star State

During 2008 cities throughout Texas have made many top 10 lists. But one city has stood above all of them-- Houston. Houston has been at the top of many of these lists. Houston has been the star of the Lone Star State.

Some have attributed Houston's success to the price of oil. But high oil prices do not explain affordable housing or a low cost of living. High oil prices do not explain the fact that Houston escaped the housing bubble. Other cities have economies largely based on oil, and their economies have not been as vibrant and resilient as Houston’s. One fact, and one fact alone, explains Houston's economic prosperity-- the lack of restrictive land use regulations.

Houston is one of only two American cities with a population greater than 100,000 without zoning. (The other is Pasadena, TX, a suburb of Houston.) The lack of zoning has allowed developers to use land for its most efficient uses, as well as avoid the onerous expenses incurred by meeting zoning regulations. The lack of zoning has allowed property owners to use their property as they choose, rather than as politicians and bureaucrats dictate.

For more than 80 years zoning advocates have made dire predictions about Houston's future. Without zoning, we have been told, our city would become unlivable, we would not attract businesses, and we would collapse into myriad forms of depravity. These predictions have not come true. Our economy and population have continued to grow. We rebounded from the collapse in oil prices in the 1980’s. We escaped the economic turmoil that has plagued many cities in 2008.

Houston's economy has grown steadily and consistently for decades. Housing costs have remained stable and affordable. The cost of living has remained well below the national average. All of these economic benefits are the result of Houston's relative freedom. All of these economic benefits can be directly traced to the lack of restrictive land use policies.

However, there remains a steadfast group that believes that increasing government control over land use will somehow benefit the city. Despite the overwhelming economic evidence, they remain convinced that prosperity lies in more government control. Despite the experiences of other cities, they remain convinced that Houston should adopt the policies of those cities.

Why do they reject the evidence? Why do they remain convinced that more government control will make Houston a better city? Why do they believe that if we emulate cities with restrictive land use policies we will not suffer similar economic problems?

The answer cannot be found in politics or in economics. Indeed, despite their words, they are not interested in economic prosperity. If they were, they would be seeking to understand why Houston has done so well while other cities have suffered economic turmoil. And they certainly would not be seeking to emulate those cities. They would not be seeking to enact the cause of the problems they profess they wish to avoid.

The answer lies in morality. The answer can be found in the premises that underlie their proposals. The answer can be found in the ideas that dominate the culture.

Zoning, as well as all land use regulations, are founded on the premise that the community has a right to impose certain standards upon individuals. According to this premise, the individual is subservient to the values and dictates of the community. According to this premise, the individual may not use his property as he chooses, but as the community dictates.

But a community is only a collection of the individuals comprising it, and a community does not speak with one voice. Individuals have different values. Which means, according to zoning advocates, some individuals can impose their values upon others. Some individuals may rightfully be forced to sacrifice their values to others. This is the hidden and unspoken premise underlying zoning. Houstonians have largely rejected this premise, and instead embraced a "live and let live" attitude. Houstonians have largely allowed individuals to pursue their values without intervention from others, so long as they respect the mutual rights of others. Houstonians have largely respected the property rights of their neighbors.

The right to property is the right of use and disposal. The right to property allows you to use your property without interference from others, so long as you respect their mutual right. Respect for property rights has allowed developers to meet the ever changing demands of consumers, to transform land uses quickly. As one example, as land values in certain areas rose, higher density developments made more economic sense. Higher density developments created greater housing choices and kept housing costs affordable. Lamar Terrace and the Ashby High Rise are two examples.

Zoning and similar land use regulations would have made such actions much more difficult, if not impossible. (Indeed, those who support land use regulations are making it impossible for the developers of the Ashby High Rise to proceed.) Developers would have been forced to meet the demands of bureaucrats and politicians, rather than the market place.

Those in favor of tighter land use regulations voice numerous arguments in support of their proposals. Such controls will improve our quality of life, stabilize property values, and empower the citizens. But underneath all of these arguments lies one unspoken premise-- some individuals may impose their values upon others. Some individuals may use force to dictate the actions of others. Which means, the values of some may be sacrificed to others.

For example, quality of life means different things to different people. Some prefer parks, while others prefer malls. Some prefer short commutes, while others prefer life in the suburbs. Land use regulations restrict or eliminate these choices.

Underling every proposal for regulating land use is the premise that some may sacrifice the values of others to the community. It is a premise that has never been, and can never be, justified. It treats individuals as sacrificial animals whose lives can be disposed of by others.

Houston has become the star of the Lone Star state because it has implicitly rejected this premise. Houston has largely respected property rights, and has thus not used political coercion to dictate the actions of individuals. But an implicit rejection makes the city vulnerable. An explicit defense of freedom is necessary if the attacks against property rights are to be defeated.

If Houstonians wish to retain the benefits of freedom, then they must embrace the moral principles that make freedom possible. They must embrace the right of each individual to pursue his values without interference from others, so long as he respects the mutual rights of others. They must embrace an objective morality that defends this right, and they must do so proudly and without reservation.

Each individual-- no matter his race, gender, religion, or ethnicity-- has a moral right to take the actions necessary to sustain and enjoy his life. He has no right to demand that others provide for his sustenance or enjoyment, just as others have no right to make such demands of him. When such rights are recognized completely and consistently, Houston will be able to be more than just the star of the Lone Star state. Houston will be the star of the world.

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