Friday, January 23, 2009

Trump Wins Right to Build in Scotland

The following article was written by Joe Meuth. Joe is a student of Objectivism looking to apply and to promote rational ideas in our culture. His areas of particular interest include economics, corporate governance, ethics, and politics.

Donald Trump’s long fight for permission to build a golf course and resort north of Aberdeen, Scotland offers a depressing look into how low debates concerning property rights have sunken.

The fact that Mr. Trump hasn’t a right to build a golf course north of Aberdeen, but first had to seek approval from the Scottish Government is rightful cause for some vituperation of the culture as it is. Presumably Scots largely support the idea that people shouldn’t decide what to do with their property by right, but instead must seek approval of the public beforehand. If this were not the case, their government would have never gained such power.

Scotland may be the epicenter for this debate, but the same hackneyed arguments used in Scotland can be heard all over the world in similar contexts. Untold thousands around the world are probably fighting less-publicized battles similar to Mr. Trump’s.

Already off to a bad start, the public didn’t redeem themselves in the debate surrounding Mr. Trump’s now approved project. In personal conversations with people around Aberdeen, I noticed that most did support Mr. Trump’s development, but I also noticed that no one supported it for the right reasons. The most common arguments offered supported the development because of the effect it would have on the economy. Two world-class golf courses, one thousand holiday homes, and a 5-star hotel were correctly seen as a potential boon to Aberdeen’s economy. An estimated 1,200 people will be permanently employed as a result of this development.

Trump himself went before a commission to explain his case, including his plans to limit the environmental impact of the resort. Here again, the argument offered is altruistic via his vehement touting the economic benefits to Scotland. “If you reject this, there will be a terrible blow to Scotland,” Trump contended in an article from ABC News.

I never did find a person who supported Trump’s right to build for his own sake in a newspaper article or letter to the editor, either. Here all the arguments were from the altruistic perspective, i.e.: Trump’s development will be great for the community. Jobs will be created. It will foment further investment by businessmen. The shire will have a higher tax base, etc.

I am glad that people can see the economic benefits of such a plan, but when someone such as Mr. Trump has to appeal to public opinion to gain permission for such a project, it is tough to call his eventual success a victory. Indeed Trump and others have already been defeated by having to make private decisions subject to public approval in the first place.

From here the arguments against the development just get worse. The environmental groups defended the usual causes of birds and other wildlife at the expense of human beings, and even sunk so low as to say that the presence of inanimate matter in the form of sand dunes should preclude development. The Washington Post quoted Anne Johnstone, a columnist for the Glasgow Herald:

The Trump plan calls for planting grass on a section of dune to prevent it from drifting in Scotland's rough weather. But environmentalists say that would be an illegal, unsound practice. "If you stabilize a sand dune, you change its very nature.

The context of the article clearly presents this ridiculous statement as legitimate, not as tongue-in-cheek.

What about the nature of human life and what furthering it requires? If Ms. Johnstone’s premise that making changes to inanimate matter is illegal or should be illegal, those of us who enjoy living on Earth should be worried. Of course, Ms. Johnstone and others who violate property rights for environmental causes can’t and don’t consistently live according to their creed. To do so, they would have to stop eating food grown on land that was altered from its natural state, give up shelter, medicine, etc. Environmentalism presents a manifestation of the false morality of altruism that forces man to decide between life and guilt, or morality through death. It should be rejected as immoral because man cannot practice the morality consistently so long as he is living.

Human sacrifice for the sake of sand dunes represents the end of road for the environmental movement’s agenda. If one still thinks that environmentalism is a movement looking to promote human life on Earth through conservation, remember that sacrifice of human happiness to an amalgamation of sand is what environmentalism holds as an ideal. Some may say this is an extreme case and not representative of the environmental movement as a whole. Such a perspective is erroneous because it fails to recognize that in principle environmentalism holds any man-made change of the environment as immoral. The degree of sacrifice to the environment advocated may vary depending on what environmentalists think they can get away with, but the principle is always the same.

To wit, note that Ms. Johnstone obviously isn’t worried about the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere—otherwise she would have supported the planting of grass on the sand dune. She isn’t worried about the lives of wildlife, because the presence of more grass would undoubtedly be beneficial to the habitat of animals native to Scotland (though concerns for animals are not valid reasons to sacrifice human life). Her primary concern is with leaving nature untouched by man, period. Man cannot live on Earth without exploiting it, and to live a full, happy, productive life, man has to exploit the Earth a great deal.

Some might say all this exploitation is “unsustainable,” but that idea has been popular for several hundred years thanks to Thomas Malthus, and it is just as wrong today as it was when he wrote An Essay on the Principle of Population. Economic history proved Malthus wrong, and it will prove modern-day Malthusians wrong as well. Economic history has shown that the more we exploit the Earth by developing new technology, the higher its carrying capacity, and the higher the standard of living for its human inhabitants.

The absurdity of the arguments against development mentioned above point to two things: The first is that the fight for property rights has a long way to go, both here and abroad. The second is that there is a widespread unwillingness to make a principled stand for rights. Trump’s supporters wittingly or unwittingly accepted the status quo as legitimate and continued to entrench it every time they offered up the resort’s economic benefits to Scotland as a reason to support the project. Because Trump won his fight thanks to arguments such as this, his victory is almost Pyrrhic.

When men such as Mr. Trump accept the idea that decisions concerning property use should be subject to a popularity contest, they grant the opposition a legitimacy it does not deserve. When they try to win the popularity contest without making any claim to a right to build regardless of public opinion, they provide a textbook example of how people come to be copasetic about the further abrogation of their freedoms.

The inability or unwillingness to fight regulation with a principled argument ensures that the regulatory status quo remains unquestioned, undoubted (by many), and ensures that there will be more victims of the “public good.”


Burgess Laughlin said...

> "The inability or unwillingness to fight regulation with a principled argument . . ."

Thank you for the article. It focuses on a particular, concrete situation and makes a statement about principles. That is an effective combination.

I would like to make a point that is outside of the scope of the article, but deserves attention. I suspect that inability to form a principled argument may be the driving factor in the absence of such arguments, in some cases.

Working from introspection, I would suggest that first one must have proper concepts such as "property" and "right" and "self-interest." Then, after acquiring such concepts, one must learn the relationship between them. Then, and only then, can one formulate--and practice for presentation in debate--an actual argument for a particular man's right to buy and develop a particular piece of property.

That is a long, difficult process--which is one reason why cultures change slowly.

Brian Phillips said...

I agree. The inability to think in principles is a result of Pragmatism, which rejects principles as a matter of principle. So men like Trump go on fighting battle after battle, focusing on the concretes of the moment.

Harold said...

Interesting article and comments. I've run into this myself recently when discussing objectivism. People throw around terms like "collective good" as if everyone knows what that means and that it's somehow an argument. I get things like well, objectivism (they're referring to capitalism) is good in theory, but not in practice. It's very frustrating. I'm stil new to this of course, but c'mon :-/

Brian Phillips said...

"Good in theory, but not in practice" is an example of the mind/ body dichotomy. It means that ideas are separate from practice, and we can judge them indepdently of one another. How can an idea be "good in theory" if it sucks in practice? We judge a theory by how well it corresponds to reality. A theory that doesn't correspond to reality isn't good in practice, or as a theory.