Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The War on Property Rights Continues

The headline for Monday's lead article in the Chronicle blares: "Tough Land-Use Law Supported". The headline implies that a specific law has been proposed and is generating support. But in fact, the headline refers to a poll conducted by the paper. That poll of 601 people found that 71% strongly agree or somewhat agree that “Houston should enact tougher land use restrictions.” The Ashby High Rise controversy is getting pinned as the reason for this support:

Rice University sociologist Stephen Klineberg, who has gauged voter support for zoning and stronger development protections for decades, said much of the support for such planning improvements likely falls at the feet of the Ashby high-rise development. [emphasis added]

I have argued numerous times that those calling for increased city "planning"--such as Peter Brown--are simply seeking a more appealing way to implement land-use regulations. While the article does not mention any questions about "planning", Klineberg equates land-use regulations and "planning". But that isn't the real story here.

Assuming that the poll accurately reflects the sentiments of Houstonians in general is a stretch. However, that doesn't stop the Chronicle from shouting from the rooftops. This isn't surprising since the paper eagerly embraces virtually any proposal that regulates or controls the activities of individuals. Rather than wait for an actual land-use law to be proposed, the paper wants to take the lead and start the public relations campaign now.

Back in the early 1990s the Houston Post played cheerleader to the last attempt to bring zoning to Houston. That paper trotted out poll after poll showing support for zoning, even on the eve of the referendum. But the defeat of zoning in 1993 did not deter zoning advocates, who have continued to press for land-use regulations.

What is particularly interesting about the papers using these polls is that they evade one very important fact: On three separate occasions a poll--a referendum--has been taken on zoning, and each time it has been defeated. The only poll that really matters--a binding vote by the citizenry-- is repeatedly ignored by both the Chronicle and advocates of land-use regulations.

What is also interesting is that zoning advocates (that is what they are, but they lack the intellectual honesty to say so) keep bringing up the same stale arguments. Without zoning, or "planning", or land-use regulations our "quality of life" will deteriorate, our economy will crumble, and Houston will become unlivable.

These arguments weren't true in the 1990s and they aren't true now. As evidence, Houston's population and job growth has been among the nation's leaders for decades. Houston did not experience the housing bubble and it has weathered the recession much better than most major cities. The predictions made in the 1990s have not come true, and yet zoning "planning" advocates continue to use the same claims.

I can think of a number of possible explanations for this lack of creativity. Perhaps zoning "planning" advocates are in such denial that they have lost all touch with reality. Perhaps they think that Houstonians have forgotten what was said a mere 19 years ago. (Peter Brown has apparently forgotten what he said, so it would be natural that he would think the same is true of all of us.) Perhaps they think that if they repeat their mantra over and over and over voters will approve their proposals simply to shut them up.

Regardless of their reason, those who want more control over our lives and our property will not and do not give up easily. After all, they need only one victory, while defenders of property rights must remain ever vigilant. They have lost three straight attempts to impose their restrictions and controls on property owners across the city, yet they need win only a single battle to claim victory in their war on property rights.

The Chronicle's article is the opening shot of what will surely become another battle to defend property rights in Houston. The battle cannot be fought with economic or practical arguments (as many anti-zoners did in the 1990s). The battle must be fought on moral grounds--on the intransigent moral right of each individual to use his property for his own values and interests (so long as he respects the mutual rights of others). A battle fought on any other grounds concedes morality to our enemies.

Morality--and specifically the morality of rational self-interest--is on our side. It is our most powerful weapon. We must brandish it proudly and without reservation.

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