Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Tyrant Next Door

I have noted, and others have as well, that state and local governments are often the worse violators of individual rights.

One of the primary sources for violations of individual rights on the local level is zoning. Where implemented, which is almost everywhere, zoning is used to control virtually every detail of land-use, from architectural styles to landscaping, from parking spaces to height.

I have had some experience fighting zoning in two different cities, and more than 15 years apart. In both instances I was somewhat amazed at how many people believed that zoning would be beneficial for them. And defined in a very narrow and out of context perspective, they were probably right.

Zoning would have allowed them to remedy some evil that they thought existed in their neighborhood--in both instances the primary supporters of zoning were those who thought neighborhoods needed "protection". They had a very myopic view. They looked at a perceived problem in a specific location and proposed a "solution" that would touch every property owner in the city. And they found a cadre of noisy companions in other neighborhoods, and together they could create an almanac of alleged horror stories.

This localized control and the ability for average citizens to have a voice in policy decisions is, in my opinion, much of the reason for the egregious attacks on individual rights that occur on the state and local level. Citizens feel like they have a voice in matters.

On the local level, democracy comes alive. We can attend city council hearings, we can visit or call our council members, and we can even reach the mayor's office with relative ease. We can write letters to the editor and call the local talk radio program. We can instigate petitions and be active in civic groups. We can make a difference.

Of course, there is much more to the story than this. Simply because individuals have a voice in matters does not mean that they will choose to violate the rights of others. That choice is ultimately the consequence of basic philosophical premises, and the resulting belief that government coercion is legitimate and proper.

The desire to use coercion, combined with the ease of getting involved, is why local governments are often so tyrannical. Local officials often develop little fiefdoms, where they can dispense favors, punish their opponents, and rule with an iron fist. They can micromanage in a way that federal officials cannot.

The Founding Fathers believed that the states would be the best protectors of liberty. They believed that the states would be most reflective of the opinions and values of the citizens. The latter may be true; the former certainly isn't.

Until Americans understand the sanctity of individual rights, their complaints about Washington and Austin will do little good. Until Americans demand that the rights of all individuals be protected, they will continue to be victimized by the tyrant next door.

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