Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Your Home is not Your Castle

The phrase "a man's home is his castle" has its roots in English common law, and it means that an individual's home is his property, secure from arbitrary searches or seizures. No matter how modest one's home, an individual can do with his property as he chooses. The essence of this phrase is captured in the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Over the past one hundred years (or more) it has become clear that a man's home is no longer his castle. Your home can be seized by government for the purpose of selling to another individual (see Kelo). You can be prevented from remodeling your home if it does not meet standards established by government (see any zoning ordinance). And you can be forced to sell your home to another party against your wishes.

The right to property is the right to own, use, and dispose of material values, including land and one's home. Ownership means control, including to whom one will sell one's property and under what conditions. When control is removed and vested in others, ownership and the right to property is also removed.

For years, Houston's Mayors and City Councils have trod roughshod on the right to property. They have restricted the right of property owners to erect signs, to modify or demolish "historic" buildings, to plant certain types of trees, and many other land uses. And now they demand that a citizen (Matthew Prucka) sell his property to a neighbor, and threaten him with fines if he refuses to do so.

What is particularly galling about the Prucka case is that the city is speaking out both sides of its mouth. On one hand it wants to prohibit certain modifications to "historic" homes. Mr. Prucka owns a 1920's home, which he restored. When a neighbor wished to purchase the home, and make modifications that would alter the home in a manner inconsistent with its "historic" status, Mr. Prucka refused to sell. The city is now intervening and suing Prucka for discrimination.

Had Prucka chosen to demolish the home, rather than restore it, the city (or at least some noisy "preservationists") would have raised a stink and perhaps threatened to sue him under the city's preservation ordinance. So they get him coming and going. The city can use one ordinance to prevent him from demolishing or altering his home, and can use another to force him to sell it against his wishes. In both instances his property rights are being violated.

If I were mayor, I would vigorously pursue the repeal of both the preservation ordinance and the fair housing ordinance. Indeed, I would seek the repeal of any ordinance that violates individual rights, including property rights.

The myriad city ordinances that violate individual rights have been enacted under the pretense of protecting "the public". But there is no such entity as "the public"--there are only individuals. To "protect the public" really means to enact laws that favor some individuals at the expense of others. Both the preservation ordinance and the fair housing ordinance are cases in point. Further, the preservation ordinance was enacted to protect our "heritage". As I testified to city council during hearings on that ordinance, our true heritage is one of freedom, that is, the right to property.

If you examine the statements and positions of candidates for mayor and city council, you cannot find a single reference to freedom or individual rights. You cannot find an inkling of a hint that a single candidate has any understanding that the proper purpose of government is the protection of individual rights--freedom.

Instead, they promise that they will solve our problems--real and imagined--by expanding government, by taking more of your money, by placing more restrictions on your actions. They tell us that they will solve the problems of "the public"--that is, individuals--by enacting more controls on individuals. They will improve your life by prohibiting you from having the freedom to improve your own life. They will tell you what you can and cannot do, and that, we are to believe, will make your life better.

If I were mayor I would not make such promises. First, they are impossible to fulfill. Second, I have no right (nor does anyone) to tell you how to live your life. Each individual has a moral right to his own life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. Nobody--not the mayor, not city council, not the President, not Congress, not your neighbors--has a right to dictate how you should live your life, so long as you respect the mutual rights of others.

While candidates for mayor and city council grovel before assorted groups seeking political support, I will continue to seek support from the only "group" that matters--individuals. Each of us is an individual, and each of us has the same essential need--freedom. Each of us has the same right to live our life according to our own judgment in the pursuit of our own values and goals. This applies to whites and blacks, Anglos and Hispanics, gays and straights, men and women, property owners and renters. And it applies to Matthew Prucka as well.

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