Saturday, November 29, 2008

Don't Sweat the Small Stuff 3

Fool Me Twice
Last week the Chronicle's Political Blog reported that Commissioner's Court will likely award a $1.2 million contract to a company that has twice been sued by the County. The contract is for clearing land. The company has been sued for improperly disposing of materials cleared from land. I detect a pattern here. I guess the County thinks that the third time is a charm.

Our Brother's Keeper
Altruism decrees that we are our brother's keeper, that is, that we take care of our fellow man in his time of need. Of course, there is far more need than there are resources to satisfy those needs. No matter how many brothers one keeps, there will always be more waiting at the door.

Conservatives expose their hypocrisy when they rail against "illegals". "Illegals" certainly have needs, and often desperate needs at that. They have a need for work, for food, for health care, for an education for their children. Yet conservatives decry the burden that "illegals" place on our health care system, the educational system, and the fact that they "steal" jobs. But if need is truly a legitimate moral criteria, if we truly are our brother's keeper, conservatives should embrace the opportunity to help their "illegal" brethren.

Economic Equality
On Thanksgiving Day the Chronicle's Editorial lauded America's democracy. Citing Benjamin's Franklin's often quoted statement that the Founders created a republic, "if you can keep it" the editorial states:

As Franklin envisioned, history served up severe challenges to the rights of citizens that the new Constitution enshrined. Times of crisis produced periodic lapses. It took the suffragette movement to earn women the vote, while their struggle for full economic equality continues. [emphasis added]

Economic equality was the exact opposite of the Founders' intentions. They created a nation with equality in opportunity, not in results. They understood that some individuals work harder, possess more talent, and aspire to more in life. They understood that the choices and actions that individual take will create different economic results. Their goal was to protect the freedom of individuals to take action, not to insure that all enjoyed the same economic status.

What Was Good Enough Yesterday...
Poet Mark Doty (HT: Houston Strategies) has been visiting Houston for ten years to teach a creative writing class. Unlike many (if not most) East Coast intellectuals, he has grown fond of Houston. He also identifies an important characteristic about the city:

Houston is about the new, about transformation and ambition, the making and remaking of the self and the environment.

This is true of Houston, and it is true (or should be) of the individual. Life is a process of goal-directed activity. Life is about setting goals, aspiring to be better, and working to achieve our values. Life is about enjoying yesterday's success, but desiring more for tomorrow. Life, like Houston, is about moving forward.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Pragmatism, Fallacies, and Property Rights

In an essay littered with fallacies, arbitrary assertions, and evasions neoHouston inadvertently demonstrates the results of Pragmatism. Responding to my post The Star of the Lone Star State, he actually validates and demonstrates many of the points in my post. However, Pragmatism renders him incapable of knowing this. (I do not intend to respond to everyone who criticizes one of my posts. However, I found this one particularly interesting because of the abundance of errors, and the arguments presented are fairly typical.)

I have included the portions of my original post that were quoted by neoHouston in order to set the context. The original post is in blue italics.

Live Oaks: 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.

Why do they reject the evidence? Why do they remain convinced that more government control will make Houston a better city?

neoHouston: Well, for starters, because the evidence isn’t all that compelling. Again, I *agree* that Houston’s lean regulatory environment helps keep prices lower, but I don’t think that it makes a night and day difference. I say this because Houston isn’t actually THAT unregulated. There are extensive setback and parking requirements mandated across the city, and they are especially high outside the loop.
While admitting that regulations make a city more expensive, neoHouston claims that the impact isn’t large. How does he know this? No evidence is supplied. What constitutes a "night and day difference"? He doesn't say. A comparison of heavily regulated cities to Houston shows vast cost differences, and study after study, as well as article after article, have shown that a large part of those costs are attributed to land use regulations and building restrictions. In Seattle land use regulations add nearly 44% to the cost of a median priced home. I would call that significant.

Live Oaks: 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.

neoHouston: Ok, big red BS flag all over this.

Everyone is interested in economic prosperity.

People have different beliefs as to what creates it, and what the realization of prosperity is. For some, prosperity means low stress, simple living. For some it means a high-stress career used to make lots of money and acquire large quantities of material possessions. Go ask a family farmer or an Amish crafstman what prosperity means, then go ask a corporate CEO. You won’t get the exact same answer.

This is nothing more than a circular argument. In short, his argument is: Everyone is interested in economic prosperity; people define prosperity differently; therefore, no matter what one’s definition, one is interested in prosperity. If this is true (which it isn't), an ascetic hermit is interested in economic prosperity, because he defines prosperity as an absence of worldly goods. This is clearly absurd.

Further, neoHouston drops the context of my comments. I was comparing cities, and by the measures commonly used to compare the economic health of cities-- such as housing costs, job growth, cost of living, etc.-- Houston has been a shining example throughout 2008 and before. While it is true that an Amish craftsman would define prosperity differently than a corporate CEO, this is irrelevant. When the economic health of a city is measured, it is not compared to an Amish craftsman.

Live Oaks: The answer lies in morality. The answer can be found in the premises that underlie their proposals.

neoHouston: Grow up. This isn’t religion, and if it is your religion, you need a new one. The difference of opinion isn’t moral, it’s philisophical. It’s time we as Americans quit calling each other good and evil because of differences of political opinion. Good is neighbors helping one another, friends and family loving each other. Evil is murder and corruption.

In AMERICA Policy is almost never good or evil, and what genuinely evil policy (Slavery?) has existed in our nation has not lasted forever in the face of a democratic society.
Retorts such as "grow up" are not very intellectually compelling as arguments. But I guess they serve a purpose when one is devoid of rational arguments.

neoHouston apparently cannot conceive of morality without religion. He cannot conceive of a morality derived from observable facts and the use of reason. He certainly isn’t alone in believing that without God, morality is impossible. And he is wrong.

Further, he apparently does not know that morality is a branch of philosophy. While all moral principles are philosophical principles, philosophical principles are not necessarily moral principles, i.e., they may be metaphysical, epistemological, political, or esthetic principles.

Morality is "a code of values to guide man’s choices and actions—the choices and actions that determine the purpose and the course of his life." Its purpose is to define what is good and evil. Its purpose is to define which actions are good for us and which will do us harm, which will enhance our life and which will negate it.

neoHouston believes that we should quit calling one another “good and evil because of differences of political opinion”. In other words, can’t we all just get along? You have your opinion and I have mine. Who is to say who is right and who is wrong? This is a complete rejection of principles—i.e.,
Pragmatism. So what if someone advocates "spreading the wealth" or forcing women to bear unwanted children or sending teenagers to "volunteer" camps? These are just differences of opinion, and everyone's opinion is equally valid. Or so believes the Pragmatist.

Consider neoHouston's definition of good—“Good is neighbors helping one another, friends and family loving each other.” That is, service to others and love is what defines the good. This is precisely the morality--altruism-- that I argued against. It is altruism that serves as the moral foundation for land use controls, as well as every other use of coercion to impose the community's values upon individuals. And it is an argument that neoHouston completely evaded.

Live Oaks: 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.

neoHouston: This premise has a name. It’s called RULE OF LAW. Nobody is allowed to kill you because the community bans it! This is part of our belief that prosperity comes when we can live without fear. The community determines what things pose a danger and write laws against them, then everyone is held accountable to the law.
neoHouston declares that “the community determines” what is dangerous and then outlaws it. Everyone is expected to abide by the dictates of the community. This is the “RULE OF LAW”. So, if the community decides that red heads pose a danger to the community, it would be perfectly appropriate to throw them in jail (or worse). After all, the community has decided so. If you think my example is going to extremes (which is really nothing more than applying his stated principle to another concrete), consider that the community in Salem executed “witches” and the community in Germany executed Jews. In short, neoHouston is arguing that the community is the standard of good and the citizens are to blindly and obediently act accordingly.

Where neoHouston first could not conceive of morality separate from religion, he now argues that morality is derived from the community. But morality is neither a mystical revelation nor a social convention. It is derived from observable facts. Man must exert effort to produce the values necessary to sustain and enjoy his life. He must transform his environment and natural resources in order to create those values. He must use reason and logic to understand reality and transform it to serve his values and his life. The individual who exerts this effort has a moral right to the products he creates. To deny him the products of his labor is to deny him the means necessary to sustain and enjoy his life.

Live Oaks: This is the premise [altruism] that underlies every proposal for regulating land use. 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.

neoHouston: Again, grow up. This isn’t ancient Rome. Nobody is taking anyone to the colliseum to fight lions. Expand your vocabulary and quit being a fear-mongerer.

The rest of the article basically argues that people have the right to do whatever they want with their property no matter what.
It is not necessary to throw an individual to the lions in order to sacrifice his life. Place restriction after regulation after control on his actions, and you prevent him from taking the actions necessary to sustain and enjoy his life. Prohibit him from pursuing his values and compel him to pursue the values of others and you have forced him to sacrifice for others. When an individual is forced to sacrifice for others, he has been forced to sacrifice his life. Make it more and more difficult for him to achieve his life's dreams, place more and more arbitrary obstacles in his path, and slowly but steadily you take his life away. But for one to grasp this one would first have to grasp the principle that each individual has a moral right to his life and the actions necessary to sustain and enjoy it, so long as he respects the mutual rights of others.

The fact is, if an individual is forced to abide by the dictates of the community his life is no longer his possession. His life is under control of the community, to be used and disposed of as they determine.

neoHouston claims that the end of my article "argues that people have the right to do whatever they want with their property no matter what." This is an evasion of what I wrote and intellectually dishonest. neoHouston uses his evasion to erect a
straw man which he can easily knock down.

The rest of my article actually goes on to explicitly identify the moral principles I support:

Live Oaks: 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.

This is where neoHouston’s Pragmatism shines through. He claims that I support the right of individuals to do "whatever they want with their property no matter what” despite my very clear statement to the contrary—each individual must respect the mutual rights of others.

neoHouston sees morality as a choice between “everything goes” or regulations and controls. He cannot envision objective moral principles derived from observable facts. Either moral principles are handed down from God, imposed by the community, or there are no moral principles at all. Either we act as mindless robots guided by God's dictates, we act as mindless robots guided by the dictates of the community, or we act as a mindless animal guided by our urges and whims.

There is an alternative. An objective, reality oriented morality has been defined. It's name is Objectivism.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A Different Thanksgiving Story

This may be an old story to some, as it was originally posted last year. However, it is new to me and I found it interesting. In The Tragedy of the Commons John Stossel writes about the first few winters the Pilgrims spent in the New World.

When the Pilgrims first settled the Plymouth Colony, they organized their farm economy along communal lines. The goal was to share everything equally, work and produce.

They nearly all starved.

Not surprisingly, when each family was given a plot of land to work and they were allowed to keep the products of their labor, production soared.
"So as it well appeared that famine must still ensue the next year also, if not some way prevented," wrote Gov. William Bradford in his diary. The colonists, he said, "began to think how they might raise as much corn as they could, and obtain a better crop than they had done, that they might not still thus languish in misery. At length after much debate of things, [I] (with the advice of the chiefest among them) gave way that they should set corn every man for his own particular, and in that regard trust to themselves. ... And so assigned to every family a parcel of land."

"This had very good success," Bradford wrote, "for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been. ... By this time harvest was come, and instead of famine, now God gave them plenty, and the face of things was changed, to the rejoicing of the hearts of many. ... "

The Pilgrims initially found themselves in a literal state of nature. Their very survival depended on their own effort. But when that effort did not specifically benefit the individual exerting it, he had no motivation to work. When the Pilgrims were guided by the principle of "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need" few demonstrated any ability. Some Pilgrims resorted to theft, while others ate dogs, rats, and horses.

And remember, the Pilgrims were devoutly religious. They believed in service to God and their fellow man, and yet even this piety was insufficient to motivate them to work hard. Despite their devotion to God, they chose lethargy and starvation over service to others.

Service to others--altruism--demands more than merely sacrificing one's material values. It demands the sacrifice of one's spiritual values as well. It demands that one place others above oneself, both materially and spiritually, both physically and intellectually. Altruism demands the renunciation of one's values, all of one's values, including one's life.

As the Pilgrims demonstrated, altruism does not lead to brotherly love and sharing. It leads to theft, death, and destruction. Yet life on earth requires the creation and attainment of values. It requires that individuals take the actions necessary to attain their values, not values imposed upon them by society or God. Only when individuals are permitted to pursue their values without interference from others, that is, pursue their own self-interest, can individuals and a community prosper. The Pilgrims demonstrated this fact as well.

And there is a Thanksgiving story you won't hear very often.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Demagogues and Voting

On his October 22 broadcast conservative talk show host Michael Savage said:

Do you think a person on welfare has the right to vote? I don’t. Why should a person who is on public assistance maintain the right to vote? Tell me why. Where is it written that they should have the right to vote? I support them, and they should have the same vote I do? That would be like saying an infant has the right to vote or an insane person has the right to vote. Why should a welfare recipient have the right to vote? They’re only gonna vote themselves a raise.

So if you get a demagogue like [Sen. Barack] Obama coming along, and he says to the welfare recipient, elect me, and I’ll make sure that we have trickle-up poverty, and the rich — so-called, that is anyone who works for a living — will give you more money, more welfare, of course you’re gonna vote for the demagogue Obama. See, if I was in charge, I’d pass a law which says, OK, you can’t support yourself for whatever reason, you’re on welfare, you lose the right to vote.
Ironically, Savage makes a valid point while simultaneously missing the fundamental issue. It is true that demagogues appeal to the emotions of voters. The path to elected office is often littered with promises of handouts, favorable legislation, and similar bribes. But the right to vote is not the fundamental issue. The fundamental issue is that government has the power to redistribute wealth, to regulate the economy, and to interfere in the lives of citizens.

In a free society, that is, one in which the government is limited to the protection of individual rights, citizens cannot vote to redistribute wealth or control the actions of others. In a free society, neither voters nor the government can violate the rights of individuals. Prohibiting welfare recipients from voting will not protect individual rights.

A few weeks earlier Minneapolis talk show host Chris Baker made a similar statement: “I don’t think homeless people should vote. Frankly, in fact, I have to be very honest. I’m not that excited about women voting, to be honest.” When asked why he is opposed to women voting, Baker replied, "Because women tend to vote more for security than freedom."

I do not know if Baker's contention about women is true or not, but it is irrelevant. Like Savage, he fails to address the fundamental issue. Rather than address the improper powers vested in government, both believe that prohibiting some individuals from voting will somehow improve the culture. Both are wrong.

This isn't the first time conservatives have put forth a proposal of this type. Since the 1990's conservatives (with some occasional liberal support) have pushed for term limits. The web site for Citizens for Term Limits states

Present occupants of the luxurious seats in Congress become more insulated and isolated from reality with each passing year of their perceived life tenancy.

It is time to remind Members of Congress that we citizens put them there to serve the country, and not themselves. It is time to remind them that the government exists to serve the people, and not the politicians.

The terms limit movement makes little mention of the ideas driving government policies. They simply argue that government should serve the people, and they believe that a new batch of politicians will somehow result in better policies. But replacing one demagogue with another will change little, except the name of the incumbent. Further, the purpose of government is not to serve the people, but to protect individual rights.

The fundamental issue is not who is voting on legislation, but the nature of that legislation. The issue is not who is in power, but the power vested in government officials. Replacing Mike with Mary will not change that. So long as government officials can vote away property rights, the name, gender, or time in office is irrelevant.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Going to Extremes

I have previously written that the cause of Houston's economic success is the relative freedom enjoyed by Houstonians. Despite the practical benefits of individual freedom, there remains a large segment of the city that is eager to enact more controls on the citizenry, particularly in regard to land use. Unable or unwilling to identify the principles that underlie Houston's prosperity, the proponents of regulations seek to enact the very causes of the economic turmoil gripping the nation.

The consequences of government regulations and controls are evident to anyone who cares to examine the issue. For example, American cities with the most stringent land use regulations are among those most affected by the housing bubble. And the epitome of government regulations and controls-- the Soviet Union-- was an abysmal failure by every objective measure. Despite this overwhelming evidence, there is growing support for more government control over our lives, both locally and nationally.

So long as that trend continues, it can have only one ultimate end—complete government control of our lives. Some may consider this an extreme statement. After all, there is no open movement for dictatorship. The American people are not demanding that all political power be vested in a single individual.

Ideas have consequences. The logical implications of a principle do not change simply because they are not identified and/ or stated.

Consider for example, a politician who openly endorses the idea of “spreading the wealth”. He has not explicitly called for the wholesale seizure of private property by the government. And few citizens would identify his statement as such. However, this does not change the fact that if government can seize some property it can, in principle, seize all property.

If you grant to others the right to take some of your money, you cannot complain about the amount they choose to take. If you grant to others the right to dictate your actions, you cannot complain about the prescriptions and proscriptions they enact. On what possible grounds can you complain? That their actions are too extreme?

Some might argue that my argument is illogical, that I am putting words in the mouth of someone. They might argue that those who advocate "spreading the wealth" don't mean to seize all property. Such an argument illustrates a profound disregard for principles.

A principle is “a fundamental, primary, or general truth, on which other truths depend.” Principles allow us to identify the long-term consequences of our actions, as well as the actions (and words) of others.

So what principle or principles underlies the belief that “spreading the wealth” is proper? And what are the long-term consequences of those principles?

Politically, “spread the wealth” schemes are founded on collectivism. Collectivism holds that the group—whether the community, the race, or the State—is the standard of good and the individual is subservient to the group. Morally, “spread the wealth” schemes are founded on altruism. Altruism holds that service to others is the standard of virtue and the individual must place the welfare of others above his own. Collectivism is the political implementation of altruism.

Altruism and collectivism are the dominant ideas in America (and Houston) today. Both liberals and conservatives exhort individuals to serve a cause higher than oneself. Both advocate programs and policies that force individuals to sacrifice for "the public welfare".

It is impossible to practice altruism completely and consistently because life demands the opposite. The simple act of eating is aimed at sustaining oneself, rather than others. Few can completely and consistently renounce all values because the consequences are asceticism. This is the trap of altruism--morality or practicality.

Both liberals and conservatives acknowledge that altruism is impractical and contrary to the requirements of life on earth. Both declare that man’s “natural, selfish inclinations” are contrary to altruism. Liberals declare that man is not good enough for socialism, while conservatives declare that man is naturally depraved and must be “saved” through the blood of Jesus.

The purpose of morality is to provide man with a guide for living his life and achieving his values. A morality that is impractical is not designed for human happiness, human welfare, or human life. A morality that is impractical is a self-contradiction, and is nothing more than intellectual poison.

It is possible to ingest a small amount of poison and not die. However, one's health will be compromised. And if one continues to ingest that poison, over time the results will ultimately be fatal. The same is true of intellectual poison-- a small dose will not necessarily be fatal. But one will ultimately face a choice: reject the poison and embrace its antidote, or suffer the consequences.

History is the story of philosophy, that is, the implementation of philosophical principles. The Dark Ages were guided by the principle that man is inherently depraved and must obediently serve God and his earthly minions. America’s founding was guided by the principle that all men possess the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. Nazi Germany was guided by the principle that the individual must sacrifice in service to the Volk.

The same cause will always lead to the same effect. Altruism and collectivism have only one ultimate result—death and destruction. That is not just going to extremes, that is a philosophical fact. Ignoring that fact won't change it.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Don't Sweat the Small Stuff 2

What a Nice Gesture
Scenic Houston, the organization behind the ban on "attention-getting devices" explains one of their reasons for promoting the ordinance:

relieve business owners of the expense of purchase, installation and frequent replacement of attention-getting devices
That is very nice of them to "relieve" business owners of this expense. While they are at it, why don't they "relieve" business owners of other expenses, like employee wages, inventory, and rent? Apparently Scenic Houston thinks it knows what is best for these businesses and must arrogantly force the owners to operate as Scenic Houston dictates. I guess they also want to "relieve" the business owners from the chore of thinking for themselves.

An Idea to Kick Around
Houston's professional soccer team-- the Dynamos-- is lobbying for tax money to build a new stadium. The Chronicle reports that the City has already spent $15 million to purchase 6 blocks of land, and now wants the County to chip in $10 million for the project. A rally was held last week to express support for the project.Those who support tax dollars being used to fund the stadium argue that the area proposed for the project needs to be "revitalized".

Dynamo fan Joachim Schaupp said he came to the rally because he thinks the team deserves a stadium.

"We are not second-class fans," he said, noting Minute Maid Park, the Toyota Center and Reliant Stadium were built with public funds. "We're just asking for about ten or 15 million dollars. That's peanuts for all that you'll get here, all the development, all of the jobs."

Mr. Schaupp considers $10 million or $15 million peanuts. In that case, I suggest that he pay for the new stadium. Instead, he would prefer to take a few dollars from each taxpayer so that he can watch his favorite sports team in a new stadium. Couple that with the hundreds of other pet projects competing for tax money, and it goes a long ways towards explaining why government confiscates so much of our wealth. Dynamo fans may not be second-class, but forcing others to satisfy their desires is certainly low-class.

An OpEd article in Thursday's Chronicle calls the decision to cut nearly 4,000 jobs at the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) in Galveston "irresponsible and immoral". In a series of points that seem more like a routine for a stand up comic, the author says

Morally speaking, whoever said a state-owned hospital should be operated like a Wal-Mart, for profit only?

Reducing UTMB's financial losses is necessary, surely, but the notion UTMB could or should "return a profit," while serving many of the state's poorest citizens, is absurd.

Furthermore, UT has worked hard during the past several decades to eradicate the county's private health care providers, especially on Galveston Island.

Having monopolized health care in Galveston, UT plans to gut what remains because the regents find it financially inconvenient.

What I find immoral is that there is even such a thing as a state-owned hospital. What I find immoral is that the state forces taxpayers to provide health care at all. This would have made for a much better article. Instead, readers were subjected to a long list of assertions founded on the premise that one man's need is a claim to the property of others.

A Milestone
Live Oaks reached 100 posts this week. In some ways that doesn't seem like a lot, and in other ways it is a bit amazing. I know that there are many blogs with thousands of posts, so 100 seems rather paltry. But to reach 100 posts in 7 months does require consistency and fortitude.

I must admit to some trepidation in starting this blog. I wasn't sure I wanted to make such a commitment. I'm glad that I did. I think my writing has improved, and I am having fun doing this. I write this blog for primarily myself, but it is nice that others enjoy it and find value in what I write.

Friday, November 21, 2008

The Enemy Within

It is said that the pen is mightier than the sword. The pen determines why men will pick up a sword and the cause for which they will fight. Ideas motivate man to action, and it is ideas that determine the cause and nature of those actions. This is true of a nation, it is true of a city, and it is true of individuals.

America's Founding Fathers upheld the principles of individual liberty, and they picked up the sword in its defense. Stalin, Hitler, and every dictator in history held a different set of ideas, and they picked up the sword to enslave other men. But neither freedom nor dictatorship arise in a vacuum-- both depend upon specific ideas within a culture.

At the time of America's founding the culture was dominated by reason. The rights of individuals were held sacrosanct, not just by the Founders, but by the culture at large. The soldiers of the Revolution picked up their muskets in defense of their own freedom. They believed in the right of each individual to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness". They believed that each individual had a moral right to pursue his own happiness without interference from the government, so long as he respected the mutual rights of others.

During the reign of the communists in the Soviet Union, the culture was dominated by a different set of ideas. The individual had no rights, and was regarded as a servant to the State. The Red Army picked up its weapons in defense of this idea, because the soldiers believed themselves mere pawns of the ruling elite. They believed that the individual had no moral right to anything-- not property, not happiness, not even his life. The same held true in Nazi Germany and every other dictatorship.

Tyranny cannot rise, nor survive, without some level of complacency on the part of the citizenry. Individuals who uphold their moral right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" will not embrace or tolerate a dictator. A culture dominated by the principles of individual freedom will not allow a despot to rise to power. In such a culture, would-be dictators are nothing more than street thugs. The number of their victims is limited, and they are quickly hunted down and jailed.

However, in a culture that allows government to violate the rights of individuals, that allows some individuals to impose their values upon the citizenry, that allows politicians to dictate what actions individual may take, street thugs can rise to positions of political prominence. Then, the street thug can don a suit and tie, speak to crowds of thousands, and proclaim himself the representative of the people. But neither the number of adoring fans nor his attire change the essential nature of his methods and principles. He will use force to dictate how others may live. He will use force to seize the property of others. He will use force to implement his will.

The street thug and the dictator believe that might makes right. Both believe that he has a right to demand that others sacrifice their values to satisfy his desires. Both believe that those who defy him should be eliminated.

A culture that embraces sacrifice and service to others will embrace a dictator. They are made for one another-- in such a culture individuals seek a master to serve, and the dictator is only too happy to comply. When individuals seek to serve others, the dictator will declare that he represents the "others".

The rise of tyranny is seldom a dramatic process. It occurs in increments, as the rights of individuals are slowly eroded and the calls for sacrifice gradually increase in volume and frequency. Today the rights of taco vendors will be violated, and tomorrow those of companies that display "attention-getting devices". Today the government will impose restrictions on what type of gasoline can be produced, and tomorrow it will impose restrictions on where citizens can drive. Today the government will tax "the rich", and tomorrow the government will tax everyone.

When the citizenry demands that the rights of some be violated, it sets the stage for the rights of all to be violated. In such a culture, the political process is nothing more than a battle over who will be the victims, over who will sacrifice and who will benefit from those sacrifices. In the end, someone will put an end to that bickering and declare that all must sacrifice to him.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Evolution vs. Creationism in the Public Schools

The Texas State Board of Education is currently revising the science curriculum standards for Texas public schools. Those standards are scheduled to be adopted in March 2009. If the past is any indication, the debate over the curriculum will be divisive and contentious as proponents of evolution and creationism seek to exert influence over the process.

For the record, I equate creationism with the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, and Ents. But that is not the point of this post. My point here is to offer a solution to this debate which will allow for both evolution and creationism to be taught. And my solution will allow parents-- all parents-- to choose which is taught to their children.

Some will not like my solution for reasons that have nothing to do with evolution or creationism. They will dislike my solution because it is "not fair", it penalizes children, etc. Some will not like my solution because it will actually empower parents (and students). Some will not like my solution because it will hold teachers and educational administrators accountable. Some will simply dismiss my solution as impractical.

My solution: privatize education.

The government's virtual monopoly on the educational system has been an abysmal failure by virtually every objective measure one could use. For some frightening evidence, watch any of Jay Leno's "Jaywalking" segments. But those failures are only a part of the issue.

The fundamental issue is freedom. Public schools are financed through coercive means-- that is, taxes. Parents and non-parents are forced to provide financial support for the public schools, whether they agree or disagree with the ideas and methods taught in those schools.

While parents can certainly home school or send their children to private schools, these are not viable alternatives for many, if not most, families. Their money for educating their children is taken by the government. In short, most parents have no choice but to send their children to public schools. And they have little choice in the ideas taught to their children.

Privatizing education allows for parent to choose the ideas their children will be taught. Those who want evolution can have it. Those who want creationism can have it. Each parent can choose what his child is taught. And nobody has to pay for teaching ideas that they find repugnant.

There will be those who cry that education is a right, that children are our future, that some parents can't afford to pay for their children's education, etc.

Education is not a right anymore than hair cuts are a right. Rights pertain to action. Specifically, rights permit one to pursue values; rights are not a claim on values. Rights permit one to act without intervention from others, so long as one respects the mutual rights of others. There is no such thing as a "right" to the property of others.

That some parents may not be able to afford an education for their children does not give them a claim on the property of others. First, if education were privatized and parents were not taxed for education, they would have more money. Second, perhaps parents should give more thought to the financial implications of having a child rather than demanding that others pay for their decisions.

A completely privatized educational system would result in a wide variety of schools, as entrepreneurs seek to meet the demands of their customers. Unlike the public school system, a privatized system would allow parents more choices and more control over their children's education.

As with many issues, public schools turn curriculum decisions into political footballs. Each side has a legitimate demand that its values and ideas be taught-- after all, they are paying some of the bill. A privatized system eliminates the politicalization of education, and allows everyone to find a school that teaches the ideas they support.

The free market provides a wide assortment of choices in housing, from apartments to modest starter homes to luxurious mansions. Housing in Houston is among the most affordable in the nation because the free market is allowed to operate without interference from government. The same choices and benefits result in every field when government stays out of the way. The same would happen in education.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Last Minority

In an article titled The ugly side of 'beyond race', Gregory Rodriguez inadvertently reveals everything (well, maybe not everything, but at least the fundamentals) that is wrong in America today:

I was struck by a clip I saw on the local news. A dejected gay protester at a Proposition 8 march essentially argued that blacks got theirs -- in the form of a president -- but did nothing to help the little guys. "We're the last minority left," he said plaintively. Whether he knew it or not, he was accusing blacks of doing what many other ethnic groups have done, joining the mainstream by stepping on the group below them.

I hate to say it, but that's the American way -- a constant struggle by outsiders to become insiders. The competition isn't always pretty, and it's not likely to go away. At any given moment in our society, there are "in" groups and "out" groups, and those who are in will struggle mightily not to be associated with those on the outs.

Politics, he says, is a process of rising by using the group below as a ladder. Climbing on the backs of others is "the American way". There are two things horribly wrong with this view.

First, he takes a collectivist approach-- it is all about groups, not individuals. The individual per se does not exist, but only in his capacity as a member of some group. The individual does not have rights; only the group has rights. The individual must band together with others in order to protect the rights of the group.

Second, he believes that "the American way" requires sacrificing others in order to achieve your goals. According to this view, life is a constant struggle to sacrifice others before they can sacrifice you. And while this is precisely what American politics has become, it is not the true American way.

America was founded on the principle of individual rights. Each individual has a moral right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" and he possesses this right as an individual, not as a member of some group. The true American way-- America's founding principle-- is that each individual may pursue his values without interference from others, so long as he respects the mutual rights of his fellow citizens.

But politics has become a battle over sacrificial victims. It has become a struggle to eat or be eaten, to do unto others before they do unto you. And the way to achieve any measure of political success in such an environment is to join some group so as to exert greater political influence. The result is group warfare:

I don't buy the argument that, two weeks ago, blacks suddenly achieved absolute equality with whites. But black support for Proposition 8 may indeed be post-racial. Unfortunately, despite all our hopes, getting "beyond race" may not be as utopian as it's cracked up to be. If we all insist on keeping score on which group voted with or against us, it could get even uglier. (emphasis added)

What does Mr. Rodriguez expect? According to him, "the American way" is to trample on others. Does he just expect one group-- the "outs"--to lie in the dirt and take it? Does he expect the "outs" to be complacent patsies while others use and abuse them?

Mr. Rodriguez tells us that the path to political equality is group membership and trampling on other groups, and then decries the fact that those groups "keep score". This is what collectivism leads to.

The protester Mr. Rodriguez quoted laments that "We're the last minority left" (referring to gays). Both the protester and Mr. Rodriguez have it all wrong. The last minority left is the individual. The individual is the smallest minority-- a minority of one. And each of us is a minority of one.

The largest politically valid group is that of individuals, and every single person is a member of that group. Each member of that group possesses the same rights, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. Each member of that group has a moral right to pursue his values without intervention from other members of the group, so long as he respects their mutual right to do so. No member of that group has a right to force others to do as he chooses. Anyone who believes otherwise is my enemy, and on that count, I will keep score.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Right to Contract

The gay rights movement, like many such movements, is a mixture of good and bad premises, of legitimate and irrational arguments. It is a package-deal. From the Ayn Rand Lexicon:

“Package-dealing” is the fallacy of failing to discriminate crucial differences. It consists of treating together, as parts of a single conceptual whole or “package,” elements which differ essentially in nature, truth-status, importance or value.

Consider the reaction to the recent passage of Proposition 8 in California, which defines marriage as between a man and a woman. On November 15 gay advocates rallied across the nation to protest that vote and call for legalizing gay marriages. The Chronicle story on the rallies quoted two of the protesters:

"Civil marriages are a civil right, and we're going to keep fighting until we get the rights we deserve as American citizens," said Karen Amico, one of several hundred protesters in Philadelphia, holding up a sign reading "Don't Spread H8".

"We are the American family, we live next door to you, we teach your children, we take care of your elderly," said Heather Baker a special education teacher from Boston who addressed the crowd at Boston's City Hall Plaza. "We need equal rights across the country."

In regard to equal rights, the gay rights movement has a legitimate and proper position. Gays possess the same rights as heterosexuals. Indeed, all individuals possess the same rights, regardless of gender, race, religion, or any other characteristic. In short, those rights are "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness". That is, each individual has a moral right to his own life and the freedom to take the actions necessary to sustain and enjoy it, so long as he respects the mutual rights of others.

In a free society, individuals are not forced to deal with one another. They do so only by mutual consent, with the voluntary agreement of all involved.

Gays, like every individual, have a moral right to enter into contracts. Marriage is a contract-- it is a voluntary agreement between two individuals. Gays, like every individual, have a moral right to get married. This is where the legitimacy of the gay rights movement ends.

The name of the movement itself is a package-deal. "Gay rights" implies that gays have rights distinct from heterosexuals. But there are no such thing as gay rights, nor are there heterosexual rights. There are only individual rights, and they apply to all individuals. By implying that there are different sets of rights, gay advocates undermine their argument and create an unnecessary divisiveness.

But they don't stop there. The gay rights movement advocates laws that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, and thereby force individuals to deal with gays. In doing so, they advocate violating the rights of non-gays-- such laws compel individuals to associate without the consent of all parties.

It is irrational to discriminate against gays, just as it is irrational to discriminate on the basis of race, gender, or ethnicity. (There are some legitimate situations in which such discrimination is rational-- such as medical studies regarding illnesses more prevalent in a particular race.) But irrational behavior should not be illegal. Individuals should be free to discriminate on whatever grounds they choose. Their irrationality will harm nobody but themselves, and those who voluntarily associate with them.

The gay rights movement calls for equal rights, while simultaneously advocating violating rights. They can't have it both ways. They cannot call for the right to freely associate with whom they choose while denying that right to others. They cannot call for the right to enter voluntary agreements while denying that right to others.

If the gay rights movement truly desires equal rights, then it must advocate individual rights. It must drop the entire "gay rights" moniker. It must oppose anti-discrimination laws. Then, and only then, will the movement deserve the support of all who love freedom.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Houston's Unique Selling Proposition

Lisa Gray recently wrote a column on Houston's brand and a recent talk by Patricia Martin at the Greater Houston Partnership. (HT: Houston Strategies)

The world thinks of us (and with reason) as a city built on oil, the headquarters of the world's petroleum industry. In this era of global warming and disappearing fossil fuels, Martin says, that's not the image you want. It's an "anxiety brand."

Anxiety brands play to consumers' uncertainty or fear. Hillary Clinton made herself into an anxiety brand, portraying herself as the seasoned, known candidate, less frightening than her (then) unknown competitor. The result was about what Martin would have predicted: effective at first but not long-term. People don't like anxiety brands.

Martin suggests that Houston could instead become a "compassion brand," known for its friendliness and big heart. When Hurricane Katrina showcased that side of our civic personality, people in other cities were surprised — just as they're surprised, once they get here, to discover Houston's openness to newcomers and its easy racial diversity. We could be known for our niceness — a city akin to Minneapolis, a brand like Kleenex or Dove soap.

Alternately, and more powerfully, we could be an "idea brand," a brand that seems magically new and transformative. The iPhone is an idea brand, says Martin, and so is Barack Obama.

But if Houston became an idea brand, what would its idea be?

One of the cardinal principles of marketing is the Unique Selling Proposition (USP). The USP is that characteristic or benefit offered by a company that differentiates it from competitors. Houston has a USP, and it isn't friendliness or compassion-- it is freedom.

I have previously written about the causal relationship between freedom and economic prosperity. Freedom, and particularly in regard to land use, is greater in Houston than most other American cities. The economic growth and prosperity Houston has enjoyed for decades is the consequence of that freedom. Houston's most unique characteristic is the relative freedom that citizens enjoy.

Of course, to advertise Houston in such a manner requires that City officials take freedom seriously. They must stop their assault on property rights. Houston will not retain its freedom if City officials continue to place restrictions on the actions of individuals and businesses. Houston will not remain America's freest city if City officials continue to restrict individual freedom.

The economic benefits of freedom are readily evident. Simply compare America's economy to that of nations with greater government control. Compare Houston's economy to that of cities with greater government control. The greater the freedom, the greater the economic prosperity. But economic arguments are insufficient.

While individuals are often motivated by their pocketbook, their ultimate motivation derives from morality. Politically, the City's increasing restrictions on private property are founded on the belief that the "public welfare" or the "common good" supersedes the rights of individuals. It is founded on the belief that the community is the standard of good, and individuals must sacrifice their values to those of the community. This is the premise that underlies the prohibition on "attention-getting devices", airport zoning, and the effort to stop the Ashby High Rise. It is the premise that underlies restrictions on billboards, the preservation ordinance, and every other land use regulation. Morally, these restrictions are founded on the belief that the individual must serve others, and those who refuse to do so "voluntarily" may properly be forced to do so.

Freedom is not a primary. It is founded on the premise that the individual has a moral right to pursue his values without intervention from others, so long as he respects their mutual rights. It is founded on the premise that the individual cannot be forced to sacrifice for others, nor can he force others to sacrifice for him. It is founded on the premise that each individual has a moral right to his own "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness".

Houston has respected this right more than any major city in America. That is a fact that should be advertised. It is a fact that makes Houston unique. It is a fact that identifies the essence of Houston.

"America's Freest City" is more than a quaint tag line. It is a title that addresses the fundamental difference between Houston and other cities. It is Houston's Unique Selling Proposition.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Don't Sweat the Small Stuff

Don't Sweat the Small Stuff will be a new regular part of this blog. In these posts I will address items that I couldn't get to during the week, or perhaps I don't have the energy or interest to address in great detail. The title is intended to be sarcastic-- our leaders seem to think that principles are small things. I don't.

Say What?
Apparently, President Bush has forgotten what he said just a few weeks ago. According to an article on he recently admonished world leaders:

President George W. Bush today urged leaders of the world's biggest economies not to abandon free-market capitalism as they seek an escape from the financial crisis, calling it the "best system'' for delivering growth.

"History has shown that the greater threat to economic prosperity is not too little government involvement in the market, but too much,'' Bush said. "Our aim should not be more government, it should be smarter government.''

I missed the part where he explained how taking $700 billion from tax payers to bail out Wall Street and impose more restrictions on bankers (already among the most heavily regulated businessmen in the country) is not more government and is smarter.

(HT: The Beatles)
Everywhere there's lots of piggies
Living piggie lives
Clutching forks and knives
To eat our bacon

According to the NY Times, the piggies are lining up to feed at the public trough:

When the government said it would spend $700 billion to rescue the nation’s financial industry, it seemed to be an ocean of money. But after one of the biggest lobbying free-for-alls in memory, it suddenly looks like a dwindling pool.

Many new supplicants are lining up for an infusion of capital as billions of dollars are channeled to other beneficiaries like the American International Group, and possibly soon American Express.

Of the initial $350 billion that Congress freed up, out of the $700 billion in bailout
money contained in the law that passed last month, the Treasury Department has committed all but $60 billion. The shrinking pie — and the growing uncertainty over who qualifies — has thrown Washington’s legal and lobbying establishment into a mad scramble.
Whenever government can take from some and give to others, the piggies will line up and demand a share. Oink, oink.

The auto industry is already squealing for its share, and the airlines are rumored to be close behind. These industries, their lobbyists will argue, are vital to the American economy. If they fail there will be layoffs and the impact will be widespread. I've heard that everyone will be impacted if the automakers fail because: 1. Everyone uses vehicles for transportation; 2. Many jobs depend on the auto industry; 3. Vehicles get our food and other essentials to the stores.

That is such a great argument that I (sarcastically) propose we bail out the paint industry. After all: 1. Paint is on the outside of every vehicle; 2. Paint is on the walls of virtually every home; 3. Paint is on the walls of virtually every store and business. Paint does more than protect surfaces, it enhances our environment, it creates moods, and if the paint industry fails, we could all turn into moping little piggies. Oink, oink.

How About Bad Driving?
The Galveston County community of Santa Fe has banned the use of cell phones in school zones. The idea behind such bans is to reduce driver distractions and save the lives of countless children. I'm not opposed to saving lives, but when it restricts my freedom (or anyone's freedom) I am opposed. How about just banning bad driving? How about holding people responsible for their actions and not penalizing everyone for the actions of a few? I guess that would be discriminatory, and we would not want to discriminate against irresponsible people.

Maybe City Council Can Pass a Law
The Chronicle reports that Barton Smith, director of the University of Houston's Institute for Regional Forecasting, is predicting that Houston's economy will shrink in 2009.

Smith predicts the Houston area will lose jobs in 2009. How many will depend on the intensity of the economic slump.

In his best-case scenario, the area will lose 11,000 jobs, a 0.4 percent drop, he said. But if the global downturn deepens and draws in more countries that, in turn, will use less energy, Smith projects losses of 37,500 jobs, a 1.4 percent drop.

Since City Council has been on a rampage lately destroying businesses (such as taco vendors and those who sell "attention-getting devices"), maybe they can pass a law that mandates the creation of new jobs.

What is interesting is that President Bush exhorts world leaders to refrain from interfering with the free market while he simultaneously nationalizes the banking industry. Houston's leaders cheer our city's robust economy while simultaneously enacting laws that kill jobs, raise the cost of living, and reduce our freedoms. Neither is able to understand that their actions render their words meaningless. Except of course, those to whom they are pandering.

Sell the Freaking Land
Via Market Urbanism, I found this interesting map showing how much land the federal government owns. The Feds own almost all of Nevada, which might explain why prostitution is legal there. At least with a prostitute you might enjoy it when you get screwed.

Friday, November 14, 2008

An Exception to the Rule

In 1776, while the rest of the world was governed by kings, czars, and other despots, America’s Founding Fathers declared the rights of the individual. They rejected the tyranny of the British Crown and declared America an exception to the rule. The result was the freest and most prosperous nation on Earth.

Throughout the 20th century, while many cities in America were regulating land use and subjugating property rights to the dictates of politicians and bureaucrats, Houston rejected such transgressions. Houston respected, even if implicitly, the rights of the individual and declared Houston an exception to the rule. The result has been the freest and most prosperous city in America.

While much of America has suffered economic turmoil throughout 2008—lost jobs, dramatically reduced housing prices, and a declining economy—Houston has remained vibrant. Houston has been an exception to the rule.

Economic prosperity is the result of individual freedom. And individual freedom is not possible without respect for and protection of property rights. It is not a mere coincidence that America is the most prosperous nation on Earth, and Houston is America’s most prosperous city. There is a causal relationship between freedom and prosperity.

Much of the nation suffers from the consequences of government controls and regulations, just as nations around the world suffer from the controls and regulations enacted by their governments. Controls and regulations do not apply to inanimate objects or faceless “others”. Controls and regulations apply to individuals. Controls and regulations limit the actions that individuals may legally take.

Houstonians are much freer than the citizens of other cities, and that is an exception to the rule. Houston’s economy has continued to grow and prosper, and that is an exception to the rule.

Many cities in America have extremely restrictive land use controls. Those regulations drive up the cost of doing business. They increase the cost of housing. They reduce jobs. And they drive the middle class to the suburbs. Land use controls make life more expensive and more difficult for everyone within the community.

Houston has been an exception to the rule. Houston is one of the most affordable cities in the nation. Our cost of living is well below the national average. Forbes Magazine has called Houston the best place to earn a living. Kiplinger Magazine named Houston the best place to live. Business Week awarded Houston the title of best big city to find a job.

Houston’s economic prosperity is the consequence of Houston being an exception to the rule. Houston has rejected the draconian regulatory policies of other cities, and Houston has avoided the economic consequences of such policies. By rejecting the cause of economic turmoil, Houston has remained prosperous.

While other cities believe that government should dictate how individuals live their lives and use their property, Houston has largely respected the rights of individuals. Houston recognizes the right of individuals to pursue their values without seeking permission, without requiring oversight, without being subject to the rule of politicians and bureaucrats.

If Houston is to maintain its position as a world class city, as a city that others around the world look at in admiration, Houston must remain an exception to the rule. And more importantly, Houston must declare, openly and proudly, that we are a city that respects individual rights, including property rights. And that would truly be an exception to the rule.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Let's Ban Everything

For the past few weeks I've been having a difficult time sleeping. I'm not sure if the cause is all of those taco vendors driving around town with dirty spoons, the fact that I didn't register my bicycle, or the large number of inflatable "attention-getting devices" I see everyday. Fortunately, City Council is addressing these issues and hopefully I will be able to return to sleeping well.

According to local ABC affiliate KTRK, City Council will soon consider a ban on "attention-getting devices", as those large gorillas and other inflatables are called. Council Member James Rodriguez says, "I do get complaints from several of my constituents about the way this looks, the way it detracts from property values and so we are concerned about businesses utilizing this type of advertising." So I guess if I can get a few of my neighbors to call Mr. Rodriguez and complain about something he will hold hearings on the matter and perhaps outlaw it.

Where do I begin? I don't like politicians calling me up and subjecting me to long-winded self-endorsements. I don't like politicians who stick their nose into each and every issue, no matter how mundane. I don't like politicians who promise the world in exchange for votes. I don't like politicians who use my money to pander to parasites. I don't like politicians who violate my rights. Maybe Mr. Rodriguez will hold some hearings and do something about these things. Maybe, but I doubt it.

Maybe appearance is the key issue, since several of Mr. Rodriguez's constituents have complained about "the way this looks". I don't like the way my neighbor trims his yard. I don't like the color of the azaleas in another neighbor's yard. I don't like the color the guy across the street painted his shutters. These things really detract from my property value. Somebody must do something, and they must do it now. Maybe Mr. Rodriguez will ban bad shutter colors while he's at it.

I must admit that when City Council decided to crack down on the taco truck drivers I concluded that they had surely run out of things to do. But I guess I seriously underestimated their ingenuity when it comes to finding new areas of our lives to control. And that reminds me, I don't like politicians who think that they have a right to tell me, or anyone else, how to live my life.

Vice Mayor Pro-tem Sue Lovell, who is spearheading the move to protect Houstonians from this invasion of the inflatables, said, "If it's an attention-getting device, then it's also an attention-distracting device." Sort of like all of those political signs that litter the roadways prior to elections? Sort of like the endless stream of phone calls from political candidates during campaign season? Sort of like those grandstanding politicians who don't hesitate to protect "the public" while trampling on the rights of individuals? I personally find all of those actions very distracting. They distract me from living my life as I choose.

But here is the really good part: "The biggest concern is there's been sort of an ordinance on the books and they can only be up a certain amount of time and we haven't found a way to be able to enforce it," said Lovell. It seems that the City currently has an ordinance that states"attention-getting devices" can only be displayed 104 days a year. The article doesn't say why the City can't enforce this ordinance. I can only assume that either City employees can't find the damn things, or City employees can't count to 104. Or, perhaps they are too busy tracking down renegade taco vendors and writing citations for unregistered bicycles.

Rather than recognize the inanity of the existing ordinance (which they admit is unenforceable) they simply outlaw something that they don't like. I don't like self-righteous demigods, power lusters, and irrational whim worshippers, so does that mean I could outlaw City Council? Interestingly another equally silly and unenforced law requiring the registration of bicycles is going to be repealed.

If the lives of real people weren't damaged by this buffoonery, it would be absolutely hysterical. But the fact is, the City seems to be on a crusade to control everything in sight. That control ultimately impacts individual human beings. That control limits the choices, destroys the plans, and wrecks the lives of individual human beings. Anyone who believes that any good can come from destroying the lives of individuals has a very perverted view of "the good".

It might seem like a small issue to ban "attention-getting devices". It might seem like a small issue to put tags on taco vendors. But these aren't small issues, because the underlying principle--government control of the property of individuals--isn't small. If the principle of government control is accepted, we can only bicker over the details. And most people won't bicker until some control impacts them directly. By then it is too late.

Houston once had a great respect for individual rights. That respect is slowly eroding. If we aren't careful, it won't be long before they outlaw practicing your nine-iron in the living room and drinking red wine with fish.

Addendum: I already had the above ready to post when I learned that City Council outlawed "attention-getting devices" on Wednesday. What's next? Party balloons, tight jeans, and low cut tops?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Ignorance is No Laughing Matter

What do you do if you get cited for violating a law that you find silly? You could fight it, but the absurdity of a law is generally not a good defense. Unless of course, you happen to be the Mayor of Houston.

According to the Chronicle an ordinance on the books requires bicycle owners to register their ride with the city. Mayor White, who is an avid bike rider, was unaware of the law and had not registered his bike. City Council is scheduled to vote to repeal the ordinance.

Admittedly it's a silly law, not to mention an improper function of government. But according to the Chronicle, since 2006 Houston police officers have written 206 citations for violating the ordinance. While the City has not prosecuted these heinous criminals, individuals were subjected to all of the hassles associated with such citations. Everyone apparently, except the Mayor.

The Chronicle article does not mention how this archaic law came to be rediscovered, or who is behind the move to repeal it. But it makes one wonder what other silly laws are on the books and when they might be used against political opponents. The City has already demonstrated a propensity to this very thing, which I write about in Selective Enforcement. The City has used a law from 1947 to stop the Ashby High Rise, a law which has rarely been enforced.

As I wrote in Here a Rule, There a Rule, Everywhere a Rule:
I can state with a high degree of confidence that virtually every single person in the United States today is a criminal. In fact, I can say with absolute certainty that there is not a single functioning adult in America who could not be accused of breaking one law or another. (By functioning I mean individuals who carry on the normal activities of life.)

The Mayor is the Chief Executive of the City of Houston. It is his job to enforce the City's laws, and yet he does not know all of those laws. How is the average citizen to know? Yet, we are often told that ignorance of the law is no excuse for violating the law. Apparently, the average citizen must be omniscient.

Some may simply laugh this off. After all, the City will soon repeal the law and the law hasn't been rigorously enforced. No harm, no foul, they may think. But that is not the point, and it ignores the underlying principle-- there are laws on the books that are absurd, that grant government improper powers, and can be selectively applied. Which means, you could be arrested and charged with violating some unknown, archaic law simply because someone at City Hall doesn't like what you write on a blog.

Some may think that this would only happen to trouble makers who try to incite debate and rancor. Try telling that to Joe the Plumber, who simply asked a question and then was subjected to an inquisition. Try telling that to Barbara West, who had the audacity to do her job and ask tough questions, only to have her husband subjected to media scrutiny. Simply minding your own business and doing your job might piss off the wrong person.

The problem isn't silly laws, or unscrupulous people in positions of power (though these don't help). The problem is that government has too much power. Government can legislate on virtually any issue, no matter how mundane. Even the most honest and virtuous person cannot govern with integrity in such a situation.

Repealing silly laws is a start, but who knows how many silly laws are on the books? More importantly, any law that infringes on the rights of individuals should be repealed. We might find the bicycle registration law amusing, but violating the rights of individuals is no laughing matter.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Tacos and Tags

Apparently, Houston has a serious problem with renegade taco truck owners. I say apparently because this past week City Council considered an ordinance to require mobile food vendors to carry a radio-tag on their vehicles. According to the Chronicles political blog, the purpose is to be sure that mobile food vendors "are actually visiting the city commissaries to clean up, as required."

Last November a new ordinance requiring mobile food vendors to visit a city commissary within 24-hours prior to serving food went into effect. At the commissary the vendors are to dump waste and obtain clean water. A Chronicle article at the time quoted Robert Cambrice, senior assistant city attorney: "The public needs protection from unclean utensils, unclean facilities. This is in the public's interest."

Certainly, nobody wishes to eat contaminated food. But that does not justify compelling mobile food vendors to visit city commissaries. There are other ways to achieve clean utensils and clean facilities without resorting to force. And more importantly, why is the City even worried about such things? Policing mobile food vendors is not a proper government function.

Mr. Cambrice cites the "public interest" as justification for the ordinance. But there is no such thing as the "public interest". The public does not speak with one voice. The public agrees on few, if any issues. In truth, members of the public have a wide variety of interests. Consequently, the "public interest" really means that the interests of some will take precedence over the interests of others. Which means, some will be permitted to use the power of government compulsion to impose their interests on others. The "public interest" is nothing more than a rationalization for forcing some individuals to sacrifice their values to others.

Citing the "public interest", or "common good", or the "general welfare" can be, and is, used to justify nearly anything. We must regulate land use for the "common good". We must provide health care for the "general welfare". Allowing random and invasive searches is necessary for the "public interest". Pick any issue that involves the violation of individual rights, and not far behind you will find its advocates proclaiming the "public interest" as justification.

The implication underlying the ordinance, as well as others like it, is that individuals will sell tainted food unless they are rigorously controlled by government. Not only does this defy common sense, it ignores the actual facts. A business that poisons its customers, whether intentionally, accidentally, or through negligence, is not going to stay in business long. First, its customers would go elsewhere. Second, if such were done intentionally, criminal penalties would apply.

Mobile food vendors, who are predominantly Hispanic, fought the ordinance in court. Their attorney, David Mestemaker, stated that the ordinance is the result of "the racist agenda of certain legislators." This may be true, but it doesn't address the fundamental issue-- that is, the ordinance violates the individual rights of all mobile food vendors, regardless of their race.

The sustenance of one's life requires effort. Food, clothing, shelter, and other values do not magically appear. They must be produced. Each individual has a moral right to take the actions necessary to sustain his life, so long as he respects the mutual rights of others. To deny him this right is to deny him the means of sustaining his life.

While the City's ordinance does not deny mobile food vendors the right to operate, it imposes significant hardships on the business owners. Some vendors spend three hours a day meeting the city's requirements. Those are hours away from their business, or family, or other activities. Those are hours taken from them simply because the City believes clean spoons are more important than individual rights.

What is particularly sad is mobile food vendors are attempting to make an honest living. They are taking responsibility for their own lives. They are not asking for handouts. They simply want to be free to ply their trade. And the City is making that more and more difficult.

Rather than making these hard-working, industrious people out to be villains and potential criminals, the City should be celebrating their efforts. These are the type of people who have made Houston great. It is a gross injustice to put arbitrary barriers in their way.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Thus Spoke Obamathustra

Loren Steffy, writing in the Business Section of the Houston Chronicle, says:

One word, nestled amid the eloquence of Barack Obama’s victory speech, lingered long after the cheers subsided.


It’s a word too long absent from the political discourse, one that speaks to the change that Obama claims his presidency will represent.

We cannot fix our finances without it. We can’t address our foreign oil dependence without it. We can’t repair our broken health care system without it.

We can’t simply shop our way through the crisis, and we can no longer afford to delude ourselves into thinking we can.
Mr. Steffy is either uninformed, or he has fallen victim to Obamania. Sacrifice has long been a part of the political discourse, both in America and elsewhere. For all his talk of change, Obama is proposing nothing new.

I have called for personal sacrifice, and I am assured of the willingness of almost all Americans to respond to that call. A part of the sacrifice means the payment of more money in taxes. Franklin D. Roosevelt

And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country. John F. Kennedy

There is no greater nobility than to sacrifice for a great cause. John McCain

To sacrifice means to give up a value for something that one values less or does not value at all. According to Mr. Steffy and his fellow members of the cult of sacrifice, by surrendering our values we will: fix our finances, decrease our dependence on foreign oil, and fix our health care system.

In the case of foreign oil we must give up the value of driving a larger vehicle, or reduce our driving, or curtail our energy consumption in other ways. We must surrender these values—which are chosen voluntarily—in the name of achieving energy independence. We will achieve energy independence, we are told, by restricting individual independence, that is, reducing or eliminating the choices available to individuals. And eliminating individual independence is the real goal of the apostles of sacrifice. This is the change that Obama proposes.

The siren call of sacrifice is presented as the moral ideal to which we should aspire. But this service has two parties—those who sacrifice and those who benefit. That is, there are those who surrender their values, and those who collect those values.

Thus Spoke Zarathustra, perhaps the most well-known work of Friedrich Nietzsche, was written to “turn morality on its head”. But Nietzsche failed in his task, offering the same moral options as the Christianity he was attacking. Rather than calling for one to sacrifice to others, Nietzsche called for one to sacrifice others to oneself. He viewed life as requiring sacrifice, and the only debate was over who would be the victims and who would be the beneficiaries. This is a false choice, for life is not a battle over sacrificial victims.

Obama’s call for change, like Zarathustra’s call for a new morality, is simply a rehash of the same tired and stale ideas. And the consequences will be exactly the same—destruction, misery, and death.
This self-sacrificing will to give one's personal labor and if necessary one's own life for others is most strongly developed in the Aryan. The Aryan is not greatest in his mental qualities as such, but in the extent of his willingness to put all his abilities in the service of the community. Adolf Hitler
The calls for sacrifice take many forms: "we must all work for the common good"; "no man is an island"; "everybody must to his part"; "we must serve something higher than ourself". It all means the same thing-- the individual must sacrifice his values for others. And if we won't do so "voluntarily" then we will be forced to do so.

The calls for sacrifice are applied to virtually every realm of life. In regard to land use, the individual must sacrifice his values to those of the community. He must use his property, not as he chooses, but as his neighbors dictate. In regard to education, the individual must support public schools that teach ideas he opposes. He must sacrifice his money to support an educational bureaucracy that achieves little more than routinely demonstrating its profound ability to graduate functional illiterates. In regard to health care, the individual must provide free doctors and hospitals to those who cannot pay. He must sacrifice his money to provide services to those who have not earned them.

At the end of the day, the minions of sacrifice want you to surrender your money, your ability to choose, and your values to others. They want you to educate, heal, and feed others. They want you to reduce your lifestyle for "the planet". They want you to eat less, drive less, travel less, enjoy life less, all in the name of sacrifice.

Life is not about sacrifice. Life is about the achievement of values.

For all his talk of change, Obama is proposing nothing new. Indeed, his ideas have been put into practice throughout the history of mankind. There have been many cultures that have embraced sacrifice as an ideal. Lenin called for sacrifice. Hitler called for sacrifice. Jim Jones and David Koresh called for sacrifice. The results are always the same, and they always will be the same. Calls for sacrifice mean the renunciation of values, and with it, life. And the pile of corpses that results is the "monument" to their moral ideal.

So let us summon a new spirit of patriotism; of service and responsibility where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves, but each other. Barack Obama
Thus spoke Obamathustra.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

When the Umpire is Biased

Ideally, the government would act as an impartial arbiter in human affairs. This is government's proper purpose, and its proper functions are limited to the police, the courts, and the military. Because America is so far removed from that ideal, many have a difficult time grasping how such a society would function.

In America today, the umpire--that is, the government-- is biased. Through scheme after scheme, the government favors some while penalizing others. Whether it is paying farmers to let land sit idle, or bailing out Wall Street, or encouraging home ownership through the Community Reinvestment Act, or imposing tariffs on steel imports, or subsidizing peanut farmers, the government makes rules that favor some individuals at the expense of others. Imagine watching a sporting event in which this occurred at regular intervals.

Brian Shelley, at Freedom is the Solution, alludes to this. While he is writing specifically about the officiating at sporting events, the same principle applies to our government:

For several years now, the Longhorns have consistently benefited from poor refereeing. However, I do not believe that there is any kind of conspiracy; I simply believe that all schools that have a recent history of being very good or happen to be media darlings receive better treatment by referees. Were I to watch a large number of games by USC or some other powerhouse I would expect to feel the same way. Furthermore, I do not believe that referees during the game are aware that they have a bias. There is simply a cognitive difficulty in seeing the game as it truly is when there is a preconceived notion of who is “supposed to win” the game.

Government officials, through subsidies, tariffs, tax breaks, and more, try to determine who "wins". And more and more, they try to make sure that nobody "loses". More and more frequently they attempt to shield individuals from the consequences of their actions, such as bailing out Wall Street or protecting irresponsible home buyers. And while the referees in a football game may be unaware of their bias, government officials do it openly and knowingly.

For a long time I simply attributed this to pandering to voters and power lust. While I think that this is true, a recent article in The Objective Standard shed a more illuminating light on the subject.

In an article titled "The Menace of Pragmatism", Tara Smith writes:

In short, for the pragmatists, we find no ready-made reality. Instead, we create reality. Correlatively, there are no absolutes—no facts, no fixed laws of logic, no certainty. . .

So, government can "create" winners and prevent losers. Government can bypass the laws of nature-- there are no such laws. Government can make anything and everything happen, with never an ill consequence. The fact is, as has been amply demonstrated, government can't do these things. Yet, the American public keeps demanding that government "do something".

While life is not a game, the American public truly has "a cognitive difficulty in seeing the game as it truly is", as Brian Shelley put it. The American public cannot see that government is not capable of transforming reality, or making wishes come true, or suspending the laws of economics.

If a crowd at a sporting event witnessed the type of incompetent, biased, and dishonest officiating we get from our political leaders, they would pelt the field with debris. But when it comes to our lives and our future, the American people simply demand more of the same. There truly is a cognitive problem. And that problem is Pragmatism.

Republicans demonstrated this in the aftermath of the election. Prior to the election, they labeled Obama a Marxist, they decried the destructive nature of his policies, and they warned that the future of America would be at risk if Obama were elected. And when Obama's victory was secure, Republicans were conciliatory and pledged their support to get beyond bi-partisan bickering. In other words, forget what they said prior to the election, they didn't really mean it. After all, according to Pragmatism, there are no principles, there is no certainty.

I submit that this is the reason for the Republican's pathetic showing in Tuesday's election. In 1994 the Republicans made a contract with America-- a principled statement regarding their views on government. American voters responded by sweeping Republicans into office. American voters responded approvingly to clearly stated principles. But the Republicans turned their back on those voters, broke their contract, and began spending like drunken sailors on shore leave.

The Republicans tried to play the game by the Democrat's rules-- buying votes by pandering to special interest groups, by "creating" winners and preventing losers. Rather than fighting for individual rights, including property rights, they became eager participants in an orgy of rights violations. The Republicans got exactly what they deserve. And I fear that the American public will as well in the coming years. After all, according to Pragmatism there are no principles, there is no certainty.

If America is to return to greatness true change is needed. We don't need more controls and regulations, which Obama calls change. We need more freedom. We need principled defenders of individual rights. We need umpires who are not biased.