Thursday, September 17, 2009

What Is and Ought to Be

The continuing debate over light rail in Houston is following the same pattern as debates over land-use. In both issues, one group asserts an arbitrary ideal, demands government action, and then marches forward while ignoring the facts.

In regard to land-use regulations, it has been clearly established that government restrictions lead to higher housing costs and a higher cost of living. (I have too many posts to link to a single one on this issue.) In regard to light rail, it has been clearly established that Houstonians don't use what we already have. Why then, the unrelenting insistence that the city enact more controls on land-use and build more light rail?

We could simply attribute this obsession to power lusting--the desire on the part of some to control the lives and property of others. But this explanation is insufficient, for it fails to explain why the mountain of evidence is so easily dismissed. It fails to explain why the advocates of these proposals pursue policies that have proven impractical--have failed to achieve their stated ends.

The answer can be found, in part, in a fundamental philosophical issue: the "is-ought problem". This "problem" questions how an "ought" can be derived from an "is". Or to put it another way, how do statements of fact relate to moral principles? Or, what is the relationship between facts and values? Philosophers have wrestled with this "problem" since David Hume first posed it in 1739, and have concluded that there is no connection between facts and values.

If we look at the world around us, we see that humans spend much of their waking time in the pursuit of values, whether spiritual or material. If values are severed from the facts of reality, then how is this so? Where do values come from? Again, philosophers are nearly unanimous in their answer.

Values, we are told, are a creation of consciousness. Values are created by God (in the case of religion), or by one's economic class (in the case of Marxists), or by society (in the case of democracy), or by one's own personal whim (in the case of hippies). While these variants disagree on whose consciousness is the source of values, they agree that values (the ought) are divorced from reality (the is).

Thus, any value can be asserted without reference to the actual facts. The advocates of land-use regulations and light rail begin with the ought--they assert the way they think the world should look--and then bemoan the fact that the world isn't that way. They ignore the is--the fact that individuals have different dreams, aspirations, and values--and seek to impose one set of values on everyone in the community through government coercion.

Certainly, these advocates make a pretense at providing facts to support their position. For example, land-use regulations are needed to "protect" neighborhoods and enhance our "quality of life". As I have previously noted, "quality of life" is a matter of personal values. For the government to promote one version of "quality of life" necessarily means that the personal values of some are imposed on others. In other words, the values of some become the values that all Houstonians ought to pursue. Or else.

The myriad values pursued by Houstonians are a matter of personal choice. Some choose the opera while others choose rock concerts. Some choose to play golf while others prefer tennis. Some choose to visit the zoo while others enjoy visiting the mall. Some choose to live in town homes with minimal yards while others choose to maintain extensive landscaping. Some choose short commutes while others prefer to live in the suburbs. These choices are based on our personal values. Yet the advocates of land-use regulations and light rail seek to negate our personal choices and values, to render our individual choices and judgment irrelevant. They tell us what we ought to value, and seek the power of government to enforce their choices and values.

The fact is, each individual has a moral right to his own life, his own liberty, his own property, and the pursuit of his own happiness. The fact is, each individual has a moral right to live his life as he chooses, so long as he respects the mutual rights of others.

Having divorced facts from values, the advocates of government controls feel unconstrained by individual rights. They regard their desire as an unquestionable fact, and the greater the number who agree, the greater their righteousness. So long as individual rights are subject to the passions of the majority, the city is doomed to continuing debates over land-use regulations and light rail. The only solution is for the city to recognize and protect individual rights, including property rights. And that is precisely what the city ought to do.

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