Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Defending Property Rights on Moral Grounds

The following is the text of a talk I delivered to the Houston Property Rights Association on January 16, 2008.

During 2008 Forbes magazine lauded Houston as the best city in the United States in which to earn a living and the best city to buy a home. Numerous other publications placed Houston at the top of their “best of” lists. The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics found that Houston had the highest job growth in the nation. Houston escaped the housing bubble that gripped so much of the nation. In short, Houston’s economy has provided us with affordable housing and plentiful job opportunities and continues to do so. Some pundits claimed that Houston’s strong economy is the result of high oil prices and abundant land. While there is certainly some truth in these claims, they fail to address the fundamental difference between Houston and cities that experienced economic turmoil during 2008.

Unlike other American cities, Houston has not stifled developers and builders with crippling land use regulations. The absence of these government controls significantly reduces construction costs and the cost of doing business compared to other cities. These lower costs are a direct result of the city’s general respect for individual freedom and property rights, a respect that is much greater than other American cities. These lower costs keep housing affordable and stimulate job creation.

But there are many who wish to change this. At a time when Houston is enjoying the economic consequences of its freedom in land use, many simultaneously seek to have Houston adopt the same restrictive policies that drive jobs from cities and create unaffordable housing. Potential candidates for Mayor in 2009 have called for tougher land use regulations. For example, City Controller Annise Parker has suggested that the city use a combination of regulations and financial incentives to steer development into areas it deems appropriate. Councilmember Peter Brown claims that the absence of development regulations is creating flooding, air pollution, neighborhood blight and decline. During 2008 City Council fought to stop several development projects, such as the Ashby High Rise and Magnolia Glen, in response to outcries from neighborhood civic organizations. The trend in the city is for greater land use regulations.

For decades Houston has stood in stark contrast to other American cities by rejecting destructive land use regulations. Today Houston stands in stark contrast to other American cities in its affordable housing and lower cost of living. Houstonians will not continue to enjoy these economic benefits if the city enacts restrictive land use policies. Houstonians cannot eliminate the cause of affordable housing without eliminating affordable housing.

To understand why Houston is considering more restrictive land use regulations, we must first examine the principles that underlie those controls. Only then can we identify the proper response, and what Houstonians can do to retain their freedom in land use and the ensuing economic benefits.

The arguments for land use regulations are designed to have broad appeal and thus attract the support of the public. Land use regulations, it is alleged, improve a community’s “quality of life”, it allows for planning, it protects neighborhoods, it empowers the people, and it stabilizes property values. These arguments have been used over and over in defense of land use regulations.

These claims fail to address the principles that underlie land use regulations. These claims fail to answer important questions about how land use regulations actually work. For example, whose ideas regarding “quality of life” will prevail? Whose plan will be followed? What are the consequences of restrictive land use regulations in cities that have them? These are crucial questions that must be answered in any debate over land use regulations.

“Quality of life” is a matter of personal values. Some individuals value a short commute to work, while others value life in the suburbs. Some individuals value a spacious back yard, while others prefer a home with no yard. Each of these preferences and many, many more contribute to our “quality of life”. Each individual defines “quality of life” differently, and that definition is based on the individual’s values. In seeking to improve a community’s “quality of life”, land use regulations officials must necessarily choose one definition while rejecting others. In the end, when individuals hold different values regarding land use, land use regulations allow for the values of some individuals to be imposed upon the entire community.

The same is true in regard to planning. Land use regulations advocates claim that land use regulations allows city officials to plan the city’s growth and without land use regulations a city will develop in a chaotic manner. Such arguments ignore the fact that every individual and every business engages in planning on a routine basis. Planning is the process of identifying goals and the means for achieving those goals. Choosing a career or a place to live requires planning. Deciding on what products or services to offer to the market requires planning. Each individual develops plans on the basis of his values and judgment. Land use regulations subject the plans and judgment of individuals and businesses to the approval of bureaucrats and politicians. The plans of individuals and businesses are subjugated to those of centralized planners, and are therefore rendered irrelevant if they do not conform to the dictates of the planners. Which means, the plans, values, and judgments of some individuals are imposed upon the entire community.

All of the arguments for land use regulations are founded on the premise that the community is the standard of value and the individual is subservient to the community. Whether it is “quality of life”, or planning, or “empowering the people”, or any other argument in favor of land use regulations, the underlying premise is that the individual must sacrifice his values to those of the community; the individual must subjugate his judgment to that of others.

Some have argued that this is simply democracy in action. While this is true, it is important to remember that America’s Founding Fathers rejected democracy. James Madison wrote:

There is no maxim in my opinion which is more liable to be misapplied, and which therefore needs elucidation than the current one, that the interest of the majority is the political standard of right and wrong.... In fact it is only reestablishing under another name and a more specious form, force as the measure of right....
Democracy means unlimited majority rule. The majority may do as it pleases simply because it is the majority. Under democracy the individual is subservient to the majority.

Under democracy an individual’s rights are continually threatened, because if the individual finds himself in the minority on any issue, he is required to follow the dictates of the majority. He may be on the winning side on a vote regarding light rail, but be on the losing side on a vote regarding school bonds. When he wins, his values are imposed upon others. When he loses, the values of others are imposed upon him.

Economically, by restricting the land available for any particular use, land use regulations increases housing prices and the cost of doing business. Many studies have documented the economic impact of zoning and other land use controls. As one example,
University of Washington professor Theo Eicher found that Seattle and Washington state's land-use regulations have increased home costs by 44 percent of the total price of a $450,000 median home. The costs of land use regulations have made home ownership virtually impossible for a large percentage of the residents of Seattle.

Houston, on the other hand, has some of the nation’s most affordable housing.

There is an inverse relationship between government controls and the cost of living. Cities that violate individual rights by enacting restrictive land use controls experience higher housing costs and higher costs of doing business. The additional costs result from a lower supply of land for each type of use, the costs of obtaining permits, the costs of carrying property that cannot be developed due to the permitting process, and the inability of developers to easily change land to its most efficient use. Houston’s builders avoid the expenses associated with the regulatory process, and those savings benefit all Houstonians in the form of lower housing costs and lower costs of doing business, that is, a lower cost of living. These economic benefits are the practical consequence of Houston’s greater respect for property rights.

As important as these economic points are, they are insufficient. If we are to effectively defend property rights we must seize the moral high ground.

The right to property is the right to earn, use, and dispose of material values. The right to property means that the owner may use his property as he chooses, free from the dictates of government or his neighbors. The right to property, like all rights, defines and sanctions an individual’s freedom of action within a social context. Rights place boundaries on the actions of others, thereby allowing an individual to act without interference from others. The mutual rights of others prohibit him from interfering with their actions, that is, violating their rights.

The only manner in which rights can objectively be violated is through the use of physical force (or the threat of force) against an individual and/ or his property. It is only through physical force, such as robbery, kidnapping, or murder, that an individual can be deprived of his property, liberty, or life. It is only through physical force that one individual can compel another to act (or not act) in a particular manner.

This does not mean that an individual can do anything he wishes on his property. Blaring loud music in the middle of the night objectively prevents neighbors from enjoying their property. Sending noxious fumes over the fence presents an objective threat to the physical welfare of others. Such actions—commonly addressed through nuisance laws— are properly banned because they are a form of physical force and pose an objective threat to others.

The moral basis of property rights, like all rights, is not mystical incantation or social convention, but the requirements of human life. The values required to sustain and enjoy one’s life do not magically appear. They require effort to produce. The individual who produces such values has a moral right to the products of his effort. To deprive him of his production is to deprive him of the right to sustain and enjoy his life.

The very nature of land use regulations violates the property rights of the owner, and thus is a rejection of the right of an individual to act according to his own judgment in the pursuit of his individual values. With land use regulations, a property owner may not use his property in the pursuit of his values, but rather, he is compelled to use his property to serve the values of others. The use of his land is dictated by law, and any use contrary to that dictate makes him a criminal. Land use regulations permit some individuals to give their values the power of law.

Unlike most American cities, Houston has remained relatively true to the principles of individual freedom and property rights. On three separate occasions Houstonians have rejected land use regulations in referendums. But they have not rejected the principles underlying land use regulations. For nearly thirty years Houstonians have embraced and accepted regulations and controls—such as billboard regulations, a preservation ordinance, and a ban on attention-getting devices— that would normally be a part of a comprehensive zoning plan. While land use remains relatively free in Houston, there are a growing number of controls on land use.

These regulations are accepted because Houstonians have embraced the premise that the individual must sacrifice for the community. Houstonians accept the premise that individual rights can be subjugated to the “public interest”. But such a standard is incompatible with human life—an individual cannot live and prosper while sacrificing his values to others. An individual cannot achieve his values while simultaneously renouncing them. An individual is not free if his actions are controlled by others.

Houston’s relative freedom is land use is the result of implicitly embracing the moral principles that support individual rights. But implicit acceptance is insufficient and easily undermined.

Houston is a great city because it is a relatively free city—it has a greater respect for property rights than other cities. Houstonians have not allowed political power to deny individuals the ability to plan and act in pursuit of their values. But Houston’s continued greatness is not guaranteed.

Advocates of land use regulations believe that they have morality on their side. They defend their proposals with appeals to the “common good”. They believe that the individual must sacrifice to the community. But morality is not on their side; life does not require sacrifice. Life is not a battle over which individuals will be victims, and which individuals will be victimizers.

For too long defenders of property rights have accepted the morality of our enemies. We must change that. We must do more than argue that land use regulations are impractical. We must also argue that they are immoral. And they are impractical precisely because they are immoral.
We must write letters to the editor and speak to whomever will listen. We can write a blog, as I do. But most importantly, we must challenge the moral premises that underlie land use regulations.

If Houston is to remain a world leader in the recognition and protection of property rights, the defenders of those rights must seize the moral high ground. We must defend the morality of property rights with certainty and pride. We must defend the moral right of each individual to his own life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. If this occurs, Houstonians will continue to enjoy their freedom and the economic benefits that result.


Mike N said...

Great post! Individual rights need to be defended on moral grounds, as you have done, a lot more often. It seems that some Houston officials either like to start the use of force against others, they enjoy it, or they just don't know any other way of dealing with their fellow humans. They think initiatory force is practical.

Brian Phillips said...

Thanks Mike. What was interesting to me was that the idea of defending property rights on moral grounds was like an epiphany to the audience.