Sunday, July 12, 2009

Signs and Printing Presses

In keeping with its unstated policy of supporting any idea or policy that increases government control, on Saturday the Chronicle editorial supported the city's new restrictions on signs:
Houston brings out the nagging mother in us: She’d be such a pretty girl if she paid a shred of attention to her appearance. She has such beautiful trees and bayous, such interesting architecture! But she hides her assets behind hideous visual clutter — big clashing signs and billboards that are the urban equivalent of wearing zebra prints, polka dots and paisley all at the same time. They make our head hurt.
I suppose that the Chronicle will next support laws dictating how Houstonians may dress. If "visual clutter" is worth outlawing, then certainly poor taste is as well. After all, they are equivalent according to the paper.

In response to critics who argue that such restrictions violate the tenants of free enterprise, the editorial responds with a childish retort:
To that we say: Oh, please. There’s no virtue in looking awful, and when Houston competes with other cities, our tackiness puts us at a disadvantage. Nobody dreams of living in the Ugly Betty of cities.
The Chronicle fails to tell us their standard for "looking awful". Nor does the paper make mention of the fact that the city led the nation in job creation last year--a fact that belies the claim that Houston is somehow at an economic disadvantage. Nor does the paper mention the number of jobs that will be destroyed by this ordinance. By why let facts get in the way of your argument?

Interestingly, the editorial cites a private developer--Ed Wulfe--who restricts signs in his commercial developments. The paper would have us believe that the voluntary, contractual decisions of Wulfe and his tenants are the equivalent of a government mandate enforced at the point of a gun. The paper doesn't recognize the difference between the voluntary and the mandatory, between the contractual and the coerced. This is what happens when principles are abandoned (or never recognized).

According to the editorial, restricting signage is actually good for business:
Controlling all the signs’ size and materials makes the mall (Wulfe's properties] as a whole classier and more attractive to customers. Each tenant, of course, would prefer that its own sign be bigger and more attention-grabbing. But smaller, more coordinated signs for everyone lead to higher profits for all the stores.
In other words, left to their own devices, businesses will engage in activities that are harmful to their self-interest. What we need is for government to step in, determine what is truly beneficial, and then force business owners to comply. The judgment of the owners is irrelevant--the city knows better than they do. And besides, if Ed Wulfe--"a deal-loving, free-enterprise kind of guy"--implies support, then the ordinance must be consistent with property rights.

The truth is, the utterances of Wulfe (or any number of people) do not change the fact that the ordinance is a violation of property rights. The right to property is the right of use and disposal, the right to use one's property as one judges best, so long as the mutual rights of others are respected. But the Chronicle does not like the decisions that some individuals make. The Chronicle does not like the fact that some use their property differently than the paper would choose.

In a civilized society, disagreements are resolved through reason and persuasion--by an appeal to the facts. The Chronicle however, chooses to appeal to force, to endorse fines and imprisonment for those who do not share the paper's values. In the name of some undefined and undefinable "public good", the paper attacks the very source of the good--the individual, reasoning mind. As Ayn Rand noted, this is a gross contradiction:
An attempt to achieve the good by physical force is a monstrous contradiction which negates morality at its root by destroying man’s capacity to recognize the good, i.e., his capacity to value. Force invalidates and paralyzes a man’s judgment, demanding that he act against it, thus rendering him morally impotent.
The Chronicle has a moral right to use its property as it chooses, including printing editorials that attack that right. Having abandoned principles it treats the sign ordinance as an isolated issue with no broader implications. But if the city can regulate the use of a single property, in principle it can regulate the use of all property, including the Chronicle's printing presses. If force can be used to negate the decisions of one individual, it can be used to negate the decisions of all individuals, including those of the paper's editorial staff.

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