Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Q & A From My HPRA Talk

After my talk to the Houston Property Rights Association, I answered questions for about an hour. (The text of that talk was posted yesterday.) Below are some of the more interesting questions/ comments along with my answers. Both the questions and my answers are from memory and are paraphrased.

Q. I don’t see it as a moral issue. Free markets provide more benefits to the masses.

A. Freedom is a moral requirement for human life. Morality provides us with the principles to think and act—it tells us what actions are proper for human beings. If you lived on a deserted island, you would have to take action in order to survive. You would have to pick berries, fish, build a shelter, etc. But you wouldn’t automatically know how to do these things. You would have to look at reality and understand it before you could transform it to provide you with the values you need to survive. You would have to think rationally or die. This doesn’t change when you enter society—you must still produce. You don’t have to grow your food or build your home. You can create other values to trade. But you still must produce or die. Or live as a parasite. However, in society others can impede your ability to think and act. Others can use force to prevent you from taking the actions needed to sustain and enjoy your life. Morality tells us that we must think and act rationally; morality tells us that we must be free in order to do so.

Q. If we had a society such as you describe, and a small percentage of people accumulated all of the wealth and everyone else lived in abject poverty, would you abandon your moral principles?

A. No, I am not a hypocrite. The number of people who benefit from an idea does not determine its truth. In addition, throughout the history of mankind, there has never been a single example of this happening when individuals are relatively free. Free individuals create wealth, and some create more than others. Even if one person accumulated all of the wealth, nobody would have a moral right to take his property by force.

Q. What do you think of deed restrictions? They force people to give up their property rights.

A. Deed restrictions are voluntary and contractual. No force is involved. If you don’t like the terms of the contract, don’t sign it. There are valid reasons to agree to limit the use of your property—you don’t want to live in a neighborhood with billboards, muffler shops, and convenience stores nearby. But there is a huge difference between deed restrictions and land use regulations.

Q. Most deed restrictions required a vote of 75% of the property owners to make any changes. But the Texas Legislature changed that to 51%. So there is government coercion involved.

A. Yes, but not in regard to the deed restrictions themselves. The coercion comes from the fact that the government unilaterally changed the terms of a valid contract. The parties to that contract did not agree to the change—why else would the government be involved? What the government did is wrong. The only role the government should have in regard to a contract is to determine if it has been breached, who breached it, and what damages should be awarded. But the government should not be changing the terms of a contract.

Q. Should the government get involved when a property owner allows his property to get run down?

A. That would depend on the specific circumstances. If the property is causing an objective threat to others, then yes. For example, if a house is falling over and threatening to crash into the neighbor’s house, I would say that this is a legitimate and objective threat. But there would need to be clear criteria as to what would constitute an objective threat. In many neighborhoods the house would never get to that point of disrepair because deed restrictions would govern some level of maintenance.

Q. What if I want to keep a room full of dynamite? Should the government be able to ban that?

A. Yes. There is no valid reason to have a room full of dynamite. Dynamite can be very destructive and does pose a threat to your neighbors. Property rights do not mean that we can do anything we want. We can’t use our property to violate the rights of others, or threaten to do so.

There was then a great deal of conversation on this topic before the meeting was adjourned. What follows are some additional thoughts on the subject.

A right is a sanction to freedom of action in a social setting. Our rights place boundaries on others—they may not interfere with our actions. Their rights place boundaries on us—we may not interfere with their actions. Only physical force can prevent or compel an individual to act in a specific way. Only force can make him act contrary to his own judgment.

If we sent noxious smoke over a fence, we have exposed our neighbor to harmful materials without his consent. We have forced him to act contrary to his own judgment. Now, if for some reason he allows us to send such smoke into his yard, we have not violated his rights—he has voluntarily agreed.

The same holds true of a room full of dynamite. If we pack a room with enough explosives to damage the property of others—and we do so without their knowledge and consent—we are placing their lives and property at risk without their agreement. We have imposed an objective threat against them without their voluntary consent. If we are able to secure the permission of everyone who might be impacted—that is, those whose lives and property are threatened—we would not be violating their rights.

An analogy to the dynamite situation is a guard dog. So long as the dog is restrained he poses a threat only to those who voluntarily come near him. But if the dog is allowed to roam freely, he becomes a threat to anyone who is nearby, whether they consent or not.


Burgess Laughlin said...

Answering questions after a presentation can be very difficult. The questions are often poorly formulated or "loaded."

Congratulations on handling the questions so well.

How would you characterize the audience in terms of their interests and background in relation to property?

Brian Shelley said...

Insightful answers. Clearly you were well prepared.

Brian Phillips said...

Burgess--You are right about answering questions. It is both a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge is thinking quickly and identifying the real question or issue. But it also provides an opportunity to elaborate or bring up another issue.

The audience was an eclectic mix of conservatives, libertarians, and other "free market" types. My perception was that they defend property rights on either utilitarian or religious grounds.

Brian--I had anticipated some of the questions, or at least their general flavor.

Harold said...

Do you have any recordings of your speeches? If so, can you post them? I really liked the HPRA post.

Brian Phillips said...

Harold-- Yes, I record virtually all of my talks. Blogger doesn't host audio files, so I need to find an alternative. I may just set up a site to host the files.

You can hear the audio of a panel discussion from last April here