Monday, November 30, 2009

George Will's War on Rights

George Will pipes in on medical marijuana in Sunday's Chronicle, declaring that
By mocking the idea of lawful behavior, legalization of medical marijuana may be more socially destructive than full legalization.
Will argues that legalization--even if for medical purposes--removes the stigma of using an illegal product, and more people will begin smoking pot. While this may or may not be true, it is completely irrelevant.

Will's premise is that pot smoking is destructive to society, and therefore should be banned. In other words, the welfare of society justifies prohibiting certain voluntary actions on the part of individuals. This argument has been used to justify all types of controls and regulations-- from zoning to nationalized health care, from bailing out banks and auto companies to "cash for clunkers", from environmental laws to bans on prostitution.

Underlying Will's argument is the morality of altruism--that the individual must serve others, that the individual must place the interests and welfare of others before his own interests and welfare. And, while smoking pot is seldom, if ever, in anyone's interest, this is a decision that each individual has a moral right to make for himself. This is what Will opposes--the right of individuals to make choices regarding their own life. Consider Will's own words regarding medical marijuana in Colorado:
Customers — this, not patients, is what most really are — tell doctors at the dispensaries that they suffer from insomnia, anxiety, headaches, premenstrual syndrome, “chronic pain,” whatever, and pay nominal fees for “prescriptions.” Most really just want to smoke pot.
Smoking pot may be self-destructive, but it doesn't violate the rights of anyone. This isn't good enough for Will, or anyone who wants to dictate the actions of other individuals. Will and other prohibitionists believe that they have a right to determine what is good and bad, and then impose their value judgments upon everyone else.

(It shouldn't need to be said, but if someone smokes pot and causes an automobile accident, or robs a store, or murders someone, they should be prosecuted for those actions, but not for smoking pot.)

The fact is, actions that do not violate the rights of others--do not force others to act contrary to their own judgment--should be legal. This includes smoking pot, prostitution, gambling, and other "victimless crimes". If an action in which all participants are voluntarily engaged can be banned, then anything can be banned. If the "common good" allows government to control and regulate individual behavior, then all rights are destroyed. And in the end, that is precisely where Will's war on pot leads--to a war on individual rights.

Friday, November 27, 2009

They Don't Wear No Britches

The law suit between residents of 1717 Bissonnet (the Ashby High Rise) and home owners in Southamptom is scheduled to go to court next week. Residents are suing over alleged nudist activities in the ritzy neighborhood, which they claim they cannot avoid seeing when looking out of their windows. Residents further claim that since completion of the high rise in 2012 they have attempted to meet with Southampton residents to discuss their differences, but their efforts have been rebuffed.

Home owners in Southampton, who had fought the construction of the "Tower of Traffic", are claiming that they have a right to do as they please on their own property. "If I want to prance around in my back yard wearing nothing but my birthday suit, I have a right to do so," said one Southampton home owner. "Who do these people think they are, trying to tell me what I can do on my own property?"

A spokesman for the Southampton Civic Club acknowledged that neighborhood residents had previously tried to dictate how Buckhead Development used its property when the high rise was in the planning stages. For years residents had twisted the arms of city officials to delay construction of the 23-story building. "That was then, this is now," the well-tanned spokesman said as he sipped on coffee purchased at Java Joe's, which is located on the ground floor of the multi-use high rise. (In keeping with the new blogger guidelines, I am obligated to disclose the fact that I have received no compensation or other considerations for mentioning Java Joe's. But if the non-existent coffee shop in the non-existent high rise would like to send me a few bucks, I will be more than happy to accept them.)

A message left on my answering machine claimed that Southampton has long been a haven for nude gardeners. It was difficult to make out the exact message, but it sounded something like, "They been digging in the dirt without no britches fer years." I would have dismissed a message left in a raspy voice that could only be traced to a phone booth, but I also received written collaboration. A hand-written note, which you can see above, was left on my windshield while I was visiting Rice University. (And the people at blogHouston wonder where the good investigative reporting is in Houston.)

Mayor Greenjeans, who had vowed that the "Ashby High Rise" would never be built, chuckled at the irony of the situation. "The Southampton residents had claimed that the high rise would block their view, and now they are giving the high rise residents a view," he joked to a bewildered pre-school class that was touring city council chambers. "It just shows that you shouldn't count your eggs until the chickens come home to roost."

Council member Andy Cumberbund, who represents Southampton, was more philosophical (but equally unintelligible): "What we have here is a classic case of two different groups with opposing viewpoints. This is precisely the type of dispute that should be resolved in a court of law, complete with a judge, a gaggle of attorneys, and a lady who types real fast."

Southampton residents have responded to the lawsuit in much the same way that they originally responded to the planned high rise. They have held several clothing optional rallies at nearby Poe Elementary, established a web site at, and littered their neighborhood with signs. They have set up lemonade stands at major intersections near the neighborhood in an effort to raise money for their legal fees.

The trial promises to be as amusing as the Southampton residents' sanctimonious assault on the rights of Buckhead Development. In the meantime, residents of the high rise are threatening to post videos on YouTube.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Re-Writing History, Conservative Style

During the Thanksgiving season, many conservatives love to comment on the Pilgrims. Most are so blinded by their religious beliefs that they re-write the story of the Pilgrims, the Puritans, and other early American colonists.

For example, they love to claim that the Pilgrims were seeking religious freedom. This is akin to claiming that Islam is a religion of peace. Writing in his diary of their stay in Holland, Pilgrim leader William Bradford lamented:
...Of all sorrows most heavily to be borne, was that many of the children... [as a result of] the great licentiousness of youth in that country, and the manifold temptations of the place, were drawn away by evil examples into extravagant and dangerous courses, getting the reins off their necks and departing from their parents. Some became soldiers, others took upon them far voyages by sea, and other some worse courses, tending to dissoluteness, and the danger of their souls, to the great grief of their parents and dishonor of God. So that they saw their posterity would be in danger to degenerate and be corrupted.
According to Bradford, becoming a soldier or a sailor was a "dishonor of God". And so he and his band rounded up the kids and fled Holland for the comfort of the New World. In other words, while in Holland the Pilgrims enjoyed a level of freedom virtually unrivaled in Europe, but it was not freedom that they sought. They wanted to live in a Christian "utopia", which they could not do in Holland because others did not share their stifling ideology.

The Puritans were similarly disinterested in religious freedom. When Roger Williams questioned the civil authority of religious leaders, he was banished from the colony. These theocratic tendencies were not limited to colonies founded on explicitly religious principles, nor were they limited to the very early colonies. Maryland, which was originally founded as a haven for Catholics, was witness to a Puritan revolt called the "Battle of the Severn" that resulted in the burning of many Catholic churches in the 1650s. In 1649 Maryland enacted a Toleration Act, which stated:
that noe person or psons whatsoever within this Province, or the Islands, Ports, Harbors, Creekes, or havens thereunto belonging professing to beleive in Jesus Christ, shall from henceforth bee any waies troubled, Molested or discountenanced for or in respect of his or her religion not in the free exercise thereof within this Province or the Islands thereunto belonging nor any way compelled to the beliefe or exercise of any other Religion against his or her consent…
While this might seem rather tolerant, the act also prohibited any form of blasphemy:
That whatsoever pson or psons within this Province and the Islands thereunto belonging shall from henceforth blaspheme God, that is Curse him, or deny our Saviour Jesus Christ to bee the sonne of God, or shall deny the holy Trinity the ffather sonne and holy Ghost, or the Godhead of any of the said Three psons of the Trinity or the Vnity of this Godhead, or shall use or utter any reproachfull Speeches, words or language concerning the said Holy Trinity, or any of the said three psons thereof, shalbe punished with death and confiscation or forfeiture of all his or her lands and goods to the Lord Proprietary and his heires…
This was their idea of tolerance! Mere denial of the Trinity was cause for death. In other words, you were free to believe as you chose, so long as you believed what the authorities demanded. While the blasphemy laws were not enforced, their existence indicates the degree to which dissenting opinions were tolerated in many of the colonies.

Conservatives also love to claim that the Pilgrims were the founders of America. Such a claim ignores the fact that the Pilgrims landed in the New World eleven years after the founding of Jamestown. The earlier colony however, was an entrepreneurial endeavor, rather than a religious migration, and thus that wouldn't square well with the story conservatives wish to tell.

America was not founded by the Pilgrims, the Puritans, or any such group. America was founded by John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, et al. America was founded by the Founding Fathers--men who defended freedom. The Pilgrims, the Puritans, and their ilk were as opposed to freedom as King George III. To claim otherwise is an injustice to the Founders.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The "Self-Absorbed" Generation

An OpEd by William Klemm, a professor at Texas A&M, in Sunday's Chronicle declares that today's youth are "self-absorbed" because of technology. According to the article, developments such as cell phones, Facebook, and text messaging breed laziness, narcissism, and a sense of entitlement:
The most egregious consequence is a growing collective feeling of entitlement. This manifests itself in many ways, from expectations of better grades for less effort in school work to political beliefs that there really should be a “free lunch” of government social programs. As one example of a common attitude of middle schoolers, I know of one student who, when being pressed to study, actually said unabashedly, “I don't need to learn. Somebody will always take care of me.”
While I would agree that today's children to have a sense of entitlement, it isn't because of technology and it certainly isn't a manifestation of self-love. Indeed, the root cause is selflessness, which is precisely what these children have been taught.

Self-love (that is, self-interest or rational egoism) requires that one first identify one's interests. It requires that one identify the long-term requirements of one's life and the values one seeks. It requires that one recognize the fact that life is not a series of disconnected days, but a continuum that spans decades.

Contrary to what Klemm implies, self-love is not the pursuit of any whim or momentary desire, nor does it lead to a sense of entitlement. Neither is truly in one's self-interest. The momentary "pleasure" of taking heroin or engaging in indiscriminate sex or ignoring one's education is ultimately destructive to one's long-term well-being.

In contrast, consider that we are continually told that we must serve others, that we must place the needs of others before our own interests. Morality we are told, demands that the renunciation of our own interests and values, that is, our own self-interest. To do otherwise is selfish and immoral.

The advocates of altruism--the creed of service to others--presents a false dichotomy. Either we must sacrifice for others, or sacrifice others to ourself. Life requires sacrifice, they claim, and the only issue is the victims and the beneficiaries.

Faced with this false alternative, the "self-absorbed" generation is choosing to sacrifice others for their own momentary pleasures. Others will take care of them--others will assume the responsibility of providing the values that life requires. And what if others refuse? What if others decide that they will not support these parasites?

Well, the little tykes haven't thought that far ahead. They believe that food, clothing, and shelter, along with I-Pods, cell phones, and flat-screen televisions will fall from heaven. And when they aren't deluged with such material goods, their "self-absorption" will not have served them well. Their wasted hours sitting in a classroom will have prepared them for wasted hours sitting in front of the television whining about how unfair life is.

The fact is, an entitlement mentality is not in one's best self-interest. It is an abnegation of self-responsibility. It is a declaration that one will place his life in the control of others and all that that implies. If someone wishes to live off of me, he better be prepared for crumbs.

Those who refuse to take responsibility for their own lives should get exactly what they deserve--misery. Unfortunately, most Americans believe that the mere fact that someone is born entitles him to food, clothing, education, transportation, and perhaps health care. They ignore the fact that someone must pay for these values. They ignore the fact that someone must create these values. They ignore the fact that someday their meal ticket will expire.

If today's youth truly wishes to be "self-absorbed", they must reject altruism and the cult of sacrifice. They must embrace the morality that holds that life does not require sacrifice--whether of others or of oneself. They must embrace rational selfishness.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Strange Bedfellows

The Chronicle reports that anti-gay activist Dave Wilson has sent out 35,000 fliers attacking Annise Parker "in part because of her sexual orientation". I'm not sure which is more disgusting, Parker's position on the issues or Wilson's superficial attack. (For a really good parody of Wilson's position, click here.)

I could care less what Parker does in her bedroom. I only wish she would extend the same respect to others in the boardroom--she has a long record of supporting proposals that dictate how people use their property. If Wilson really cared about something important, he would attack Parker for her horrible record on property rights, not whom she is sleeping with.

If the implications of Wilson's attack were not so serious, I would dismiss them as the ravings of a Neanderthal. Wilson told the paper:
There's a cultural war going on in our society today. I feel that homosexual behavior is an affront to the family values of one man-one woman, and homosexual behavior, to any society that's embraced it, has led to the extinction of that society.
Wilson is certainly entitled to his opinion, as archaic and ignorant as it is. But he does speak an element of truth, even though it is highly unlikely that he understands how or why.

There is indeed "a cultural war going on in our society today." But it isn't between gays and straights, or between Bible-thumpers and pagans. It is between individualists and collectivists, between egoists and altruists. It is between those who believe that they have a moral right to live their own lives as they choose (so long as they respect the mutual rights of others) and those who believe that the individual must live in service to others.

It is said that politics makes strange bedfellows. So does an irrational philosophy. Despite Wilson's disgust with Parker's sexual orientation, he shares much more with her than he realizes.

In terms of essentials, there are only two choices in morality: 1. The standard of morality is the pursuit of one's own happiness, or 2. The standard of morality is service to others. On this point, which derives from more fundamental philosophical issues and ultimately leads to specific positions on political issues, Parker and Wilson agree.

Parker believes that it is proper for government to force individuals to act contrary to their own judgment. Witness her support for "preservation" ordinances, her opposition to the Ashby High Rise, and her support for light rail. She believes that it is proper and just to deny individual rights to some Houstonians in the name of the "public welfare". She believes that we have a moral duty to serve others.

In principle Wilson agrees, though he answers to a different authority:
I have nothing but compassion, respect, and sensitivity towards those trapped in homosexual behavior.... With God's grace, I carefully balance this love and respect for these individuals with warnings about the promotion and demand for legal and political approval for homosexual behavior that will stifle religious freedom and trap millions of more people in its deadly grip.
Wilson, who previously led an effort to deny benefits to the same-sex partners of city employees, told KHOU:
I'd like to energize the conservative Christian base in Houston, and get them to vote.
Because he regards homosexuality as a sin, Wilson believes that gays should be denied legal "approval". He believes that it is proper and just to deny individual rights to some Houstonians in the name of God. He believes that we have a moral duty to serve God (or his alleged earthly spokesmen).

Contrary to what both Parker and Wilson believe, individual rights apply to all individuals--gays and straights, Christians and atheists, developers and single-family home owners. Both believe that the rights of some individuals may be violated for the alleged benefit of others. They merely disagree on whose rights should be violated and who should benefit.

Like Parker, Wilson seeks to mobilize his base. Like Parker, he believes that might makes right--that if enough people vote for some proposal then it is justified. They may not agree on much, but they certainly agree on that.

Friday, November 20, 2009

A Snowball Racing Downhill

Like a snowball rolling downhill, the Houston Hope program is picking up momentum and growing larger and more destructive. Mayor White has previously proposed that the city help consumers pay off their debt and and more recently he wanted to offer bribes to Realtors. Now he wants to pay developers to build houses. The Chronicle reports that the city will spend $620,000 to build 10 single-family homes.

One of the three council members to oppose the idea--Melissa Noriega--told the paper:
We can't afford certain kinds of luxury ideas, and this is a luxury idea. We're just giving money to developers to try to pull them into an area, and I'm just not comfortable with that at this time.
In other words, Noriega doesn't have a problem with the program as a matter of principle. Under different circumstances she is in favor of redistributing wealth. Under different circumstances she isn't opposed to "giving money to developers". Indeed, she told the paper as much:
Noriega said she could vote for the idea if it were part of a more robust multi-year housing plan.
To Noriega, the problem isn't that the city is stealing money from taxpayers to subsidize the housing costs of citizens, the problem is that the city isn't stealing enough. Subsidizing ten homes is wrong, but subsidizing 1,000 homes is something she could get behind.

Noriega's "logic" might seem twisted, but it is perfectly consistent with the moral premise underlying the Houston Hope program. If, as we are continually told, we have a moral duty to help those in need, then it is not acceptable to be so selective in extending that help. Until we help everyone in need we are falling short of that moral "ideal". So long as Houstonians accept the premise that one man's need is a claim on the life and property of others, no program will ever be sufficient--there will always remain someone in need.

This of course, will not stop city officials. Oblivious to the principles underlying their schemes, they merrily promote one boondoggle after another in the name of "quality of life", or "protecting neighborhoods", or economic stimulation.

While the city is facing a budget deficit and crime is increasing, city council finds it more important to throw money at feel good programs. Rather than protect our rights--including the right to spend our money as we choose--council would prefer to engage in give-aways like Houston Hope.

And while the city is selectively fighting development--such as the Ashby High Rise--it is simultaneously trying to encourage other development. It is using its muscle, and our money, to dictate and control what is built and where. City officials have a vision for Houston, and they will use whatever combination of coercion and bribery is necessary to create that vision.

City officials and their accomplices in the media love to point to the beneficiaries of their programs. KHOU for example, carried a story touting Houston Hope:

Gwendolyn Scott used the program to purchase a newly constructed 1,900-square-foot home for $110,000 after almost 20 years of apartment living.

She put $500 down, and her monthly mortgage note is $745.59. Through the home ownership program she received $37,000 in subsidy money, which came right off the price of her new home. That left the amount she had to finance at $73,000. She also qualifies for the federal government’s $8,000 new homebuyers’ tax credit.

What this story--and countless others like it--doesn't tell us is the negative impact these programs have on taxpayers. They don't tell us about the families that must continue to rent because their tax dollars are subsidizing Scott's home purchase. These stories tell us about the dreams that are magically fulfilled by government programs, but they don't tell us about the dreams that are shattered by those same programs. They don't tell us about the victims, and there are victims. Mayor White's program may be benefiting some, but it is also destroying the hope of many more.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Kelly Osbourne on Dancing

Several years ago my wife suggested that we watch an episode of Dancing with the Stars. Reluctantly I agreed and I was quickly hooked on the show. Though I am not a fan of dancing, I found the graceful elegance of a waltz enjoyable, the sensuality of a tango mesmerizing, and the fun of a quick-step a pure delight.

It also became clear that the celebrities were way out of their comfort zone. Many had never danced before, and with few exceptions, they reveled in challenging themselves and competing against their fellow stars. Combined with the benevolence of the judges and hosts, the show has been a source of inspiration and enjoyment.

Another benefit of the show is getting to know some of the celebrities a little better. Rodeo star Ty Murray for example, was virtually unknown to me prior to his appearance on the show. Though he was clearly more comfortable sitting on a bucking bronco than dancing on live television, his conscientious effort to improve was fun to witness.

This season's great surprise has been Kelly Osbourne, the daughter of Ozzy. I knew little of her before this season, and what I did know was not favorable. I saw her as a rebellious brat, driven by whims. And for the first portion of the season my initial impression was confirmed.

In many of the first shows Kelly regularly whined about the difficulty of dancing, complained about various minor issues, and seemed destined to be quickly booted off of the show. She exhibited virtually no self-confidence. Yet somehow she managed to escape elimination (perhaps because of her fan base--viewer voting counts for half of the contestant's score).

And then something remarkable happened. As the season progressed Kelly became a very competent dancer, and in the process her self-confidence began to improve. Her somber, morose demeanor gave way to a cheerful expression. And she verbalized this transformation numerous times, stating that she has learned that hard work and persistence can create amazing results.

Her realizations are certainly not a news flash for many people. But to see her come to this understanding, and explicitly state it on national television, has truly been inspiring.

Several philosophical points are worth noting:
  • Kelly has demonstrated a focus on reality, both in her training and in her assessment of herself. As her long hours of training began to bear favorable results, she objectively re-evaluated her self-image. She recognized that she was getting better (and surprisingly so). She realized that she could achieve values, even when they seemed immensely difficult.
  • Kelly has shown us free will in action. Rather than simply accept herself as she was and complain about being a dumpy, talentless young woman, she recognized that she was making choices. She took responsibility for those choices, and in doing so, began to make better decisions.
  • Perhaps most importantly, Kelly has allowed us to witness the achievement of values. The struggle to improve her skills, the dedication required, and the pride that she has earned are all worthy of admiration.
Kelly has made the finals, and while I doubt that she will win, her success is a victory. She has overcome her own doubts and insecurities. She has proven to herself--and everyone who has followed the show--that we create our own character. She has demonstrated that we can become a better person.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Politics of the Soccer Stadium

As the mayoral runoff approaches the home stretch, Annise Parker and Gene Locke are scrambling to demonstrate their economic illiteracy. While I doubt that either is doing so intentionally, their positions on the proposed soccer stadium for the Houston Dynamos show just how little they understand about economics (and the Constitution for that matter). A story in Sunday's Chronicle addresses the two candidates views on the stadium:
Gene Locke embraces a new professional soccer stadium for Houston as an engine of economic growth. Annise Parker holds it at arm's length while assessing its economic risk.
As Henry Hazlitt points out in Economics in One Lesson, government spending cannot foster economic growth. While government spending might create visible jobs--which candidates love to tout--the jobs that are destroyed or never created are ignored. These are the "invisible" victims that Locke and his counterparts conveniently ignore.

Every dollar spent by government must come from someone in the private sector. When money is taken from a business, that business has less to invest in its business, which means, its economic activity is stifled. As a result, it hires fewer employees, or purchases less equipment (which means less economic activity for its vendors), or even reduces the number of people it employees. When money is taken from individuals, they have less to save, invest, or spend on consumption, all of which also reduces economic activity.

For her part, Parker is straddling the fence. While she supports the city "investing" the $10 million committed by Mayor White, she is opposed to any more city tax dollars being put into the project. She does not oppose the city being involved in such projects, but only when it is not economically feasible, i.e., not practical. The story doesn't tell us how will she determine what is practical. But we can be certain that it will have nothing to do with the fact that building sports stadiums is not a proper function of government.

Parker has previously voiced support for the stadium, and she has not shied away from using government coercion to appease constituents. So it appears that her hesitancy in backing the stadium is purely political and not founded on principle. Which means, she could turn on a dime if doing so would bear political fruit.

Parker is trying to position herself as the fiscal conservative to counter Locke's backing from the business community. By painting herself as the watchdog of taxpayer money, she hopes to attract those who are fed up with government largess. But those of us who do think in principles can see beyond this smokescreen.

Parker has not suggested cutting a single program, and there are plenty that are ripe for taking a cleaver to them. However, doing so would alienate a handful of voters, and she is scratching for every vote she can get. And if that means engaging in hypocrisy, so be it.

The soccer stadium is hardly the biggest issue facing Houstonians. Light rail will be a far costlier boondoggle. But the entire issue illustrates the mentality that dominate modern politics. Soccer fans want a new stadium, and they want others to pay for it. The cost is more than the money being requested. In forcing taxpayers to finance another stadium, the cost includes the sacrifice of more of our freedom. And that, more than the money, is a cost we cannot afford.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Nuisance and Zoning

One of the primary justifications for zoning is to prevent "incompatible" land uses, such as keeping industrial facilities out of residential areas. Such "incompatible" uses are regarded as an inherent nuisance, and rather than wait for the nuisance to occur, the use is banned as a pre-emptive measure.

In Euclid v. Ambler, the Supreme Court case that found zoning constitutional, the court ruled:
The harmless may sometimes be brought within the regulation or prohibition in order to abate or destroy the harmful.
While acknowledging that zoning can sometimes harm the innocent, the court found this acceptable. After all, you must crack a few skulls to make an omelet.

Apparently, government officials found it too much trouble to address actual nuisances. That would require a careful analysis of the facts. They found it much easier to simply cast a wide net and lop off the head of whatever they happened to reel in.

Nuisance law is one of the least understood aspects of property rights. Derived from common law, nuisance laws are founded on the premise that an individual has the right to the peaceful enjoyment of his property. The actions that create a nuisance are not inherently a violation of property rights, but the time and place of their occurrence makes them such.

For example, playing loud music does not necessarily harm anyone. If you have a soundproof room in your basement, the volume of your music is unknown to anyone else. However, if you set up your stereo on your back porch and blast AC/DC at 130 decibels at 3 AM your neighbors will be negatively impacted. (Unless of course, your neighbor happens to be Angus Young, which is highly unlikely.)

To declare certain land uses an inherent nuisance is to ignore a multitude of facts:
  1. A nuisance is an actual event, not a potential event.
  2. Value judgments presuppose a valuer. To declare a particular land-use "incompatible" is to declare it bad or harmful. Bad or harmful to whom?
  3. Individual's values are not monolithic. They make choices based on their personal interests, values, and desires. Sometimes--such as when they have a low income or no vehicle--they may make choices that others find questionable. They may choose to live in a commercial area because of cost or ease of access to shopping.
  4. When individuals are free, they find innovative solutions. Zoning officials for example, might find auto repair shops inherently "incompatible" with residential areas because of the noise and fumes they might generate. But a shop owner might limit his hours, or install barricades, or take other measures to eliminate a potential nuisance if he believes that the potential benefits justify the expenses.
  5. The owner of a parcel of property has a right to continue his use, even when the use of adjacent land changes and his use becomes a nuisance. This is the doctrine of "coming to the nuisance". If I own a pig farm and you build a home next door, you cannot complain that the odor is a nuisance, for you "came to the nuisance".
  6. The market is dynamic and the "best" use of a parcel of land can change over time. What seems appropriate for single-family homes today may be more economically beneficial as multi-family tomorrow.
By restricting land-use, zoning prevents individuals from making decisions regarding their own life--such as living in a commercial district--by limiting the options and choices available. New ideas--whether methods for preventing a potential nuisance or changing land-use--cannot be implemented.

While nobody is openly clamoring for zoning in Houston, there are plenty of busy-bodies who are pushing similar agendas. The entire "neighborhood protection" movement is founded on similar premises, and seeks to use government coercion to impose zoning-like controls on developers and property owners. As with zoning, such regulations punish the innocent by declaring certain types of land-use illegal, even when such use has and will not violate anybody's rights.

Indeed, Mayor White has been using the cloak of nuisance laws in his rampage against sexually-oriented businesses. He has launched a war against apartment complex owners, subjecting all to more regulations because of the actions of a few. He has happily sacrificed the harmless in order to abate what he perceives as the harmful.

If such a principle is applied consistently, the actions of some individuals can be used to justify controls on all individuals. If it is proper to punish the innocent for the actions of the guilty, then virtue becomes one's enemy. Virtue no longer serves to further one's life, but becomes the source of one's misery.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Houston's Crime Wave

Fox News reports that crime is increasing downtown and many crimes are not even being investigated. (HT: blogHouston). Ray Hunt, of the Houston Police Officers' Union, told the station:
"We have beats that go unprotected, we have beats where there are no officers assigned to, we have lots of cases that go uninvestigated," Hunt says.

Hunt gave some examples: home and car burglaries, gas drive offs, class c misdemeanors under $50 - he says some of these cases may end up being ignored.

The station reports that Police Chief Harold Hurtt sent a letter to the Chronicle (which wasn't published) indicating that the city needs another 1,400 to 5,000 officers. Since protecting individual rights is government's only legitimate purpose, and the police are the primary local means for doing so, why can't the mayor and city council find the money to hire more officers?

I suspect that city officials will point to the city's budget deficit as an excuse. They must balance priorities, they would say. But actions speak louder than words, and if we look at their actions, we can clearly see where their priorities lie.

The mayor and city council are more interested in using tax money to help first-time home buyers, or busting apartment complex owners for having inadequately heated water, or ridding the city of "attention-getting devices". They are more interested in harassing private businesses (such as the Ashby High Rise and sexually-oriented businesses), reneging on their word, threatening veterinarians, and pushing the "greening" of Houston than protecting the citizens.

There is indeed a crime wave emanating from downtown, and it is coming from City Hall. City officials are intent on threatening--and using--force to accomplish their goals. Like the street thugs that they should protect us from, they believe that might makes right. They believe that if enough citizens support some measure, then they have a right to impose the will of that noisy gang upon the entire city. And they believe that the recalcitrant may properly be threatened with fines, jail, or both.

That they wear ties and dresses does not change the nature or the meaning of their actions. The street thug threatens you with injury. They threaten you with jail. The street thug demands your wallet. They demand your tax payment. The street thug will openly and brazenly threaten you with his gun. They will keep their gun hidden, telling you to obey, or else. The street thug believes that he has a right to take what he wants. They believe that they have a right dictate as "the people" want.

The initiation of force is always morally wrong. It is never moral to steal, to rape, or to murder. It is never moral to force an individual to act against his own judgment (unless he has first forced others to do so). The number of individuals supporting the initiation of force does not change its evil nature.

The greatest threat to our property, our lives, and our safety does not come from criminals. It comes from government. Government holds a legal monopoly on the use of force, and the only proper use of that monopoly is in retaliation against those who first initiate its use.

The initiation of force is a criminal act, and it is government's purpose to protect us from such actions by apprehending and punishing criminals. But when government uses its power to prohibit the actions of consenting adults, when it uses its power to compel individuals to act contrary to their own judgment, government is no longer our protector.

Yes, a crime wave has been sweeping Houston. It has worn the mask of historic preservation, light rail, and neighborhood "protection". It has promised us a better "quality of life" and the allure of becoming a "world-class" city. And it is a Trojan Horse--a shell that hides our ultimate undoing.

Friday, November 13, 2009

How Not to Argue for Property Rights

Given the ever increasing expansion of government, it can be difficult to find books that provide evidence of private sector solutions to issues typically viewed as requiring government involvement, such as the provision of roads, water, and similar infrastructure. Unfortunately, while many of the books that I do find provide interesting information, most undermine their own message because the author fails to understand the moral foundation of individual liberty.

The Voluntary City is one such book. The book--which consists of articles from several authors--presents numerous examples of the private sector providing streets, garbage collection, parks, and other infrastructure that I have not seen before. The examples are valuable ammunition in demonstrating the practical benefits of freedom.

However, the book also endorses ideas that are inimical to liberty. For example, in Chapter 13 Robert H. Nelson discusses deed restrictions as a private "alternative" to zoning. Unable to distinguish between voluntary, contractual agreements--such as deed restrictions--and coercive, mandatory dictates--such as zoning--the author is left to argue that the private alternative is more practical:
[T]he administration of zoning takes place at the municipal level, where political considerations often include many people who are not residents of the neighborhood. But in matters such as the control of fine details of neighborhood architecture, there is no need or justification for broader municipal involvement. Indeed, under zoning the substantial influence on such matters by outsiders leaves the neighborhood exposed to regulatory actions that it does not want. This lack of secure control over the details of the administration of neighborhood zoning leads to neighborhoods' reluctance to accept more precise and comprehensive zoning controls over aesthetic matters. (page 314)
While noting the growing popularity of deed restrictions, the author laments that older neighborhoods cannot take advantage of these voluntary limitations on property use. His proposal: Allow a super-majority of neighborhood property owners to impose deed restrictions on the entire neighborhood. If 75 percent of the property owners vote for deed restrictions, then all property owners will be compelled to accept and abide by those restrictions.

While I am certainly supportive of deed restrictions, imposing them by force is no different than zoning. Under zoning, a property owner must abide by the dictates of zoning officials, regardless of his own personal judgment and desires. Under the proposal to impose deed restrictions by force, a property owner must abide by the dictates of his neighbors, regardless of his own personal judgment and desires.

The problems go even further. The author argues that "privatizing" zoning would be a natural and logical extension of "long-standing American zoning practice":
Such an evolution of zoning from a de facto collective right to a formal collective property right recognized in the law, moreover, would be consistent with long-standing patters of property-right evolution.

Except in times of revolutionary turmoil, legislatures seldom create new property rights from whole cloth. Rather, property rights emerge gradually from informal practice, often at odds with the accepted economic and property-right theories of the day. (pages 320- 321)
Under this view, "rights" are merely permissions--rights do not derive from man's nature, but rather, from the will of legislators. And that which can be granted by law makers can just as easily be revoked. Rights however, are not arbitrary social conventions, nor are they bestowed upon us by God:
The source of man’s rights is not divine law or congressional law, but the law of identity. A is A—and Man is Man. Rights are conditions of existence required by man’s nature for his proper survival. If man is to live on earth, it is right for him to use his mind, it is right to act on his own free judgment, it is right to work for his values and to keep the product of his work. If life on earth is his purpose, he has a right to live as a rational being: nature forbids him the irrational. Any group, any gang, any nation that attempts to negate man’s rights, is wrong, which means: is evil, which means: is anti-life.
Only the individual can think. Only the individual has rights--rights are the means of subordinating society to moral law by sanctioning the individual's freedom to act according to his own judgment, so long as he respects the mutual rights of others.

Having divorced "rights" from morality, the concept of "rights" has no connection to reality for Nelson. It is a "floating abstraction"--a mix of ideas whose meaning is only approximate. Thus, Nelson can argue for the contradictory position of using force to promote "voluntary" associations. He can argue for the further contradiction of collective "rights".

This is where an attempt to ground rights in any form of subjectivism--whether supernatural, individual, or social--must lead. In the end, they do not defend rights, but their abrogation.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Cracking Down on Contractors

I have recently stumbled across a number of stories regarding various states cracking down on unlicensed contractors. In several of these stories the state set up a sting to attract contractors to bid on a job, and then arrested those who did not have a state license.

The alleged purpose of state licensing of contractors is to protect consumers from poor quality work. Most of the stories I read imply that unlicensed contractors are inherently dishonest crooks who will take the customer's money and then disappear. The headline from a 2006 story captures this attitude: "Unlicensed Contractors Will Rip You Off".

Such implications are grossly fallacious--they label all unlicensed contractors on the basis of the actions of a few. And even if such claims were true in general, they would tell us nothing about the character of any particular contractor. Indeed, I have been an unlicensed contractor for more than twenty years (licensing isn't required for my particular trade).

Certainly, nobody wants to get ripped off by a contractor. However, licensing does not prevent an individual from engaging in fraud, performing poor quality work, or insure customer satisfaction. All licensing does is breed a false sense of security for consumers, raise costs for everyone, and violate the rights of consumers and those in the licensed profession.

While the details vary, licensing imposes additional costs--such as the license fee and insurance requirements--on the contractor and those costs must ultimately be passed on to the consumer. Further, by limiting entry into the profession, licensing reduces competition, which also imposes upward pressure on prices.

For consumers, licensing limits the options available. They do not have the choice of hiring a hard working, conscientious individual to paint their living room if he lacks the credentials required by the state. They cannot choose a contractor who has not been anointed by the state--in many states it is illegal to hire an unlicensed contractor. For example, in Nevada a contract between a consumer and an unlicensed contractor is not recognized as valid:
Homeowners who use unlicensed contractors are not eligible for the Residential RecoveryFund, and by law their contracts are null and void.
Even though both parties entered the agreement voluntarily, the state refuses to recognize or enforce that agreement. Rather than protect the right to contract--the right of an individual to offer a service and the right of others to hire him to perform that service--the government is dictating the terms of a voluntary interaction between individuals.

Individuals can have many different needs and desires when hiring a contractor. Some are willing to pay more for high quality work, an exceptional service experience, or the peace of mind that comes with hiring an established company. Others may be more concerned with budgetary considerations, prefer a quick fix, or have other reasons for hiring a less qualified contractor. But these decisions are properly made by the individuals involved, not some bureaucrat. Licensing prevents individuals from acting on their own judgment.

If you think that licensing truly protects consumers, then consider the fact that the state also licenses drivers. Such licensing does not, and cannot, keep incompetent drivers off the roadways. If the state does such a miserable job in that regard, what makes you think that they can do any better when it comes to licensing contractors?

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Hazards of Walking

The headline on the front page of Tuesday's Chronicle sounds alarming: "Why walking in Houston is hazardous to your health". The story goes on to tell us that an average of 100 pedestrians die each year in the eight-county Houston region. The city's development practices is cited as the causal factor:

It can also be extremely hazardous in the Houston region, where car-oriented development and wide, busy commercial strips create a hostile environment for foot traffic.

Houston ranked eighth on a new list of the most dangerous urban areas for pedestrians.

And the hundreds of deaths and injuries to pedestrians can’t all be written off as mere accidents, according to a report released Monday by two advocacy groups. Poor roadway design and lack of safety features like sidewalks and medians contribute to the death rate.

On the surface the story seems innocent enough. Pedestrians are getting hit by cars and that isn't a good thing. No reasonable person would argue otherwise. Citing the report issued Monday, the article states:
The report calls for communities to adopt better road design standards that also include the needs of pedestrians and bicyclists, not just cars.
If we consider this issue in isolation, divorced from any other discussion of development in Houston, suggestions for road designs that better accommodate pedestrians might seem reasonable. However, to do so is to drop the context and that isn't a good thing.

For years politicians and assorted activists have been pushing Houston towards "form-based code"--a type of land-use regulation. Unlike traditional zoning, "form-based code" does not dictate how a parcel of property may be used, but does dictate certain aspects of its design and functionality, i.e., its form. For example, building set backs, "public" areas, and similar features are often a part of such mandates. Two popular versions of "form-based codes" are Smart Growth and SmartCode. Both aim to create "walkable" neighborhoods.

I do not know if the author of this piece is an advocate of "form-based code". But her article plays right into the arguments presented by those who are. The web site for states:
Walkable communities are desirable places to live, work, learn, worship and play, and therefore a key component of smart growth.
If walking in Houston is hazardous to one's health, then creating "walkable" neighborhoods suddenly becomes a public health issue. The debate is no longer framed in terms of land-use regulations or controls on private development, but as one of protecting the welfare of the citizenry. And who would be opposed to that?

For starters, I am. Government's purpose is not the protection of our welfare, but of our rights. Anything and everything could be "justified" under the pretense of protecting our welfare. Making poor investments, or eating an unhealthy diet, or playing video games all day long could be considered harmful to our welfare. If government should be protecting our welfare, then anything harmful--real or potential--could be prohibited.

If it seems like a stretch that land-use regulations would be enacted as a means of protecting the "public's" health, consider the history of zoning, which is the most egregious form of land-use regulation. In city after city, zoning has been used as a tool to promote virtually every special interest imaginable, including mandates for "public" art, green space requirements, prohibiting "unwanted" minorities, and more.

Those who want more stringent land-use controls in Houston will seize upon anything that will promote their cause. Historically, they have had no reservations about hiding their intentions, misrepresenting their goals, or smearing their opponents. They will use whatever they believe will resonate with the public in an attempt to emotionalize the debate.

The sad thing is, while walking in Houston may be hazardous, more stringent land-use regulations will be far more devastating. As tragic as 100 pedestrians death a year are, they will pale in comparison to the destruction wrought by more government control over our property.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Don't Sweat the Small Stuff 39

And Then There Were Two
Last Tuesday's mayoral election was like elimination night on Dancing with the Stars. We knew that somebody was going to get the boot, but we weren't sure who it would be. I must admit that I was pleasantly surprised that it was Peter Brown who did not make the runoff, because now I won't have to put up with any more of his television commercials.

So now we are down to Annise Parker and Gene Locke, who will now meet in a runoff on December 13. Virtually indistinguishable in their positions, victory in the runoff will require that each seek new supporters among those who voted for Brown and Roy Morales. The conservative vote, which gave Morales his surprisingly strong showing, will likely be the primary target of the candidates. And how will they appeal to these voters? Locke provided an insightful answer during an interview with Matt Stiles:

You look to the candidates who did not make the runoff. You look at the base of their supporters, and you try to see what it is that you can say that is appealing to them...
For Locke, the runoff is about saying the "right" things. And what are the "right" things? Whatever will appeal to voters. Whether Locke actually believes those things or not seems to be entirely beside the point--his goal is to collect votes. If he needs to bend his position a little (or a lot), so be it.

In their zeal to collect votes both Locke and Parker will attempt to broaden their appeal, which ultimately means being all things to all people. They will tailor their message to whatever group they happen to be speaking to at the moment, and then deliver an often contradictory message to the next group. They will state vague generalities about making government more efficient and cutting waste, fighting crime, and making the skies bluer, but they will refuse to provide concrete details how they will accomplish these things. This has been their track record for the past ten months or so, and there is no reason to think that this will change during the runoff.

No matter who wins this runoff, the citizens of Houston will lose.

The Pot Calling the Kettle . . .
A few weeks ago the Chronicle reported that Kay Staley, a Houston real estate agent and lawyer, is suing the city for prayers before council meetings that allegedly promote Christianity. While such prayers are inappropriate, this probably wouldn't make my Top 100 list of important issues that should be addressed. In fact, I wouldn't have even brought this up except for Staley's argument:
She said she's offended because the praying goes against the teaching of Jesus. Heavily quoting the Bible, the lawsuit argues Jesus taught praying was not to be flaunted in public but to be done in private.
Does it strike you as more than a little odd hypocritical that Staley is protesting the promotion of Christianity by referring to a Christian document? Staley--who calls herself a "freethinker"--apparentlly didn't think this one through very well. It's people like her who give atheists a bad name.

The Deterrent Effect of Capital Punishment
Chronicle columnist Rick Casey reports on a study that shows capital punishment has a small, but meaningful deterrent effect. Whether executions deter future crimes is not--or at least, should not be--the purpose of capital punishment. Punishment is just that--punishment. Any deterrent effect is an added bonus.

Monday, November 9, 2009

"Smart" Roads versus Private Roads

IBM, along with the Intelligent Transportation Society of America, is offering a $50,000 prize for the best idea that will "produce smarter infrastructure." (HT: Write On Metro) According to the New York Times:

In the United States, highway problems are exacerbated because the basic federal gasoline tax used to finance roads has not been raised since 1993. The funds the tax generates have not kept up with inflation, deterioration in highways or maintenance costs, and the revenue has also been reduced by the adoption of more fuel-efficient vehicles. Vehicles that burn less fuel pay less tax, but wear out highways at the same rate. Vehicles that consume no gasoline or diesel at all, like electrics or hydrogen, will of course pay no tax.

In consequence, I.B.M. reports, more governments are looking to supplement or replace fuel taxes. I.B.M. programmers are working on systems to charge per-mile user fees as an alternative.

Traffic congestion is a result of a simple law of economics: Demand for roads has increased at a faster rate than governments can provide a supply. And demand has increased because the cost of using the roads is hidden in gasoline and other taxes.

While charging drivers on a mileage basis might appear to be a market oriented solution, it isn't. Nor it will not solve the problem. The real solution to traffic congestion is to adopt a true market solution--privatize the roads. So long as roads remain "public" property traffic congestion will only grow worse.

As with any "public" property, the "owners" of roadways have little incentive to maximize the experience of users. Certainly, government officials must listen to the complaints of citizens, and they engage in an endless process of building new roads and expanding existing ones. But clearly government has not been able to keep up with the demand.

This is seldom a problem when a product or service is provided by a private business. The exploding demand for cell phones, computers, and other technology has not resulted in shortages, but an abundance of products and choices for consumers.

Where government officials are dominated by political considerations, private businesses are guided by the desires and needs of consumers. Where government officials ultimately impose one "solution" on the entire community, private businesses offer multiple solutions and allow consumers to pick those that best fit their interests. Where government seeks to develop a consensus and appeal to the noisiest groups, private businesses seek to offer better, cheaper, more efficient products and services.

What is true of cell phones, computers, video games, restaurants, delivery services, retail stores, and countless other businesses is equally true of roadways and infrastructure. Motivated by their desire for profits, private companies seek new and innovative ways to meet demand, and they often do so in ways that no government bureaucrat could ever imagine. And importantly, private businesses cannot force consumers to purchase their offerings; government officials can.

Admittedly, privatizing the roadways would be a complex undertaking. But the complexity in applying a principle does not negate that principle.

If IBM truly wants a "smart" solution, it should begin by recognizing the fact that individuals and businesses must be free to act on their own judgment. Recognizing and protecting the right of each individual to to think and act without interference from others--including government--is not only "smart", i.e., practical, it is also moral.

Friday, November 6, 2009

The "Right" to Hot Water

On Wednesday the Houston city council approved an ordinance requiring the Public Works Department to inspect apartment complexes every four years. Rep. Dwayne Bohac, R-Houston, authored a state bill requiring the city to enact the legislation. Bohac called this "a basic human rights bill":
The basic right is to live in a structurally sound, safe environment where there is running water at the right temperature and they (the tenants) don't have to be fearful walking through their parking lot and it's lighted correctly and the balconies aren't falling down and the pools are protected.

Such claims are to be expected from Democrats, who routinely create "rights" out of thin air. That a Republican is now doing the same shows just how far to the left the Republicans have drifted.

The Founding Fathers correctly identified our fundamental rights as life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. Such rights pertain to action, not the results of actions. Such rights sanction the individual's freedom to pursue his values and interests without interference from others.

But now we have intellectual Neanderthals like Bohac asserting that we also have a right to water that is at the "right" temperature and parking lots that are lighted "correctly". "Right" and "correctly" by whose standard? And why should that standard be imposed on every apartment owner in the city?

I certainly doubt that many (if any) Houstonians desire to live in an apartment with no hot water, dark and dangerous parking lots, and a rickety balcony. But short of fraud or negligence, apartment owners have a right to offer unkempt housing. And renters have a right to accept such housing or find an alternative more to their liking.

Apartment owners will be forced to pay a fee of $4 per unit for the inspections, which the city says will only pay for half of the cost. The remainder of the cost will come from permit fees issued by the Public Works Department. Or at least, that is what the city would like us to believe.

At the end of the day, it will be the tenants (and their fellow Houstonians) who are paying for these inspections. Rents will increase as owners seek to recover the costs of the inspections and the repairs that the city will require them to make. Mayor White, who had already been cracking down on apartment complexes, hailed the ordinance:
We've shut down, for the first time that anyone can remember, apartment buildings that had slum conditions that are not worthy of this city.

Undoubtedly, more complexes will be shuttered, resulting in fewer housing options for low-income renters. The higher demand for the smaller housing supply will also cause prices to increase. The net economic result of the ordinance will be devastating to low-income renters.

In their rush to "help" these tenants the city tramples on the legitimate rights of the property owners, as well as the rights of the tenants. White and his cronies on city council can go home to their cushy homes, sip martinis, and pat themselves on the back for "helping" the poor and downtrodden. And when the housing supply shrinks, the city will come to the "rescue" once again and provide assistance for those who cannot afford housing.

This ordinance--like all laws that violate property rights--will distort the market. It will have repercussions that the city did not, and cannot, anticipate. And then the city will use the resulting problems to justify more intervention.

The fact is, a market exists for low-income rental housing--if there wasn't, such housing would not be available. By its very nature, such housing will be low quality. Some government officials believe that nobody should have to live in such conditions. And they are correct--short of government edicts nobody has to live in such conditions.

Rather than protect the rights of all individuals--including the right to offer substandard housing, and the right to live in such apartments--government officials want to simply make it go away. But their commandments will not make the demand for such housing disappear--they will only make the situation worse.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Houston's Tunnel System: A Lesson in Self-Interest

We are often told that infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, water, and sanitation must be provided by government. Private individuals and businesses we are also told, cannot and would not provide such crucial facilities. Houstonians can find ample evidence that such claims are false simply by looking at downtown. Or more accurately, by looking below downtown.

One of Houston's hidden gems, and to me one of its most endearing features, is the downtown tunnel system. The tunnel system, which began in 1931, is more than 6 miles long and connects dozens of downtown buildings. And perhaps the most interesting part is, the entire system is privately owned and operated.

The tunnel is essentially an underground mall with restaurants, retail stores, doctors, and other services available for downtown workers. The system also allows pedestrians to travel from building to building without confronting traffic, rain, or heat. These amenities have become so important to downtown workers that new buildings downtown consider it crucial to connect to the system.

While statists argue that large projects such as the tunnel system requirement government involvement, the tunnel system demonstrates that private businesses can and do work together cooperatively. Doing so makes each individual building more valuable and provides additional revenue to the building owner. In short, the building developers are, as a recent Chronicle story put it, "acting in mutual self-interest."

The virtue of self-interest is generally maligned. It is usually viewed as a dog-eat-dog scenario, in which each individual pursues his own interests to the detriment of others. But as the tunnel system demonstrates, the pursuit of one's self-interest is nothing of the sort. Working together often has benefits for each party involved, and when individuals are free of government controls they are able to judge each situation and act accordingly.

The view that an individual's self-interest can only be achieved at the expense of others is one of the most destructive consequences of altruism. Those who hold such a view are, as Ayn Rand put it, confessing
their own belief that to injure, enslave, rob or murder others is in man’s self-interest—which he must selflessly renounce. The idea that man’s self-interest can be served only by a non-sacrificial relationship with others has never occurred to those humanitarian apostles of unselfishness, who proclaim their desire to achieve the brotherhood of men.
To the altruist life requires sacrifice, whether of oneself to others or of others to oneself. The only issue is who will sacrifice and who will benefit. Politically, we see this made manifest in the special interest groups that clamor for government favors. We see it in restrictions on individual liberty in the name of the "common good". We see it in the growing number of schemes to redistribute wealth. All of these examples--and countless more--are the logical result of altruism. All require some individuals to sacrifice for the alleged benefit of others, with the result that the political process becomes a battle to determine the victims and the victimizers.

The tunnel system is a refutation of this view. It demonstrates that businesses that are seeking their own self-interest--more profits through higher occupancy rates and higher rents--can accomplish this without harming others. By working together they make their individual buildings more attractive to tenants and their employees, which benefits everyone, including the tenants, employees, and owners in other buildings.

These are the types of cooperative actions that are only possible when men are free of government controls and regulations. When men are free to act according to their own rational judgment, they find innovative solutions that are impossible for government bureaucrats to even imagine.

As an example, and in stark contrast to the private tunnel system, numerous downtown government buildings are also connected by tunnels. Unlike the private system, these tunnels are not well maintained, are drab and unattractive, and are completely empty of retail shops and restaurants (this may have changed since my last visit several years ago, but I doubt it). They serve a single purpose and offer no amenities.

I love Houston's glorious skyline, and my adoration goes much deeper--both literally and figuratively. The majestic skyscrapers throughout downtown rest on more than concrete foundations. Their construction was made possible by the ethical principles demonstrated below street level--free men pursuing their own self-interest.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

"Obama Phones" and Altruism

On Monday several conservative talk show hosts were in a tizzy over a "new" program from Obama. According to these talking heads, Obama is now using tax money to provide free cell phones to welfare recipients. KTRH radio reports the following:

Low income Americans may have new rights under an old federal program. Welfare recipients and those who meet certain income requirements will be able to get a cell phone and free minutes through a modified federal program. David Williams with Citizens Against Government Waste is outraged. "Right now, it looks like it's being completely government funded."
This would be an outrage, if it were true. But it isn't, at least as it is being presented by the talk show hosts. And it would be rather easy for them to discover this fact. The program, which was mandated by Congress in the Telecommunications Act of 1996, is funded by telecommunications companies. From the FCC web site:
All telecommunications service providers and certain other providers of telecommunications must contribute to the federal USF based on a percentage of their interstate and international end-user telecommunications revenues. These companies include wireline phone companies, wireless phone companies, paging service companies, and certain Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) providers.

Of course, these "contributions" are extracted at the point of a gun, and amount to a tax on telecommunications providers. Unless...

Some consumers may notice a “Universal Service” line item on their telephone bills. This line item appears when a company chooses to recover its USF contributions directly from its customers by billing them this charge.
Whether a company recovers the "universal service" as a line item or build it into their pricing structure, the fact remains that consumers are paying this fee. And since this "fee" is imposed by the government, for all intents and purposes it is a tax, albeit a hidden tax.

I can only speculate as to the reason conservatives are presenting this in the manner they are. (The extension of the program to cell phones is new, but that is merely a detail.) My suspicion is that they see it as another opportunity to malign Obama, though there is already no shortage of such opportunities. Regardless of their motivation, they are ignoring the real issue. Host Michael Berry asked his listeners:

Is being wireless a want or a need?

Apparently, if cell phones are a "want" they Berry has a problem with this program. But if cell phones are a "need" then it is a different issue. We should provide for "needs" but not for "wants". And this is the heart of the issue.

According to altruism--which conservatives embrace as eagerly as liberals--one man's need is a claim on others. If one man has a need, others are responsible for providing that need. This is true in regard to food, shelter, health care, and cell phones. Refusing to question altruism, conservatives can only whine that cell phones are not a need.

So long as they refuse to question altruism conservatives will remain powerless to stop the growth of government. They can only argue that a particular program goes "too far" or a particular claim is not truly a need. They cannot defend individual liberty on moral grounds, because they have ceded morality to their opponents.

The issue is not whether cell phones are a need or a want. The issue is that such programs violate individual rights by forcing individuals to act contrary to their own rational judgment.

Until conservatives reject altruism they cannot defend individual rights. Until they reject the premise that the individual must live in service to others, they cannot defend the moral right of the individual to pursue his own values and interests. Until they reject altruism, they will remain accessories to the crime.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Individual Rights and The Houston Tea Party Society

To date I have been an avid supporter of the Houston Tea Party Society (HTPS). I attended an organizational meeting and have participated in two tea parties in Houston.

At the organizational meeting I expressed concern that the tea party movement would become irrelevant if it did not explicitly embrace individual rights. Without this unifying principle, the movement would become nothing more than a collection of interest groups, each promoting some specific cause under the banner of "liberty".

It appears that HTPS has not taken my advice. Their web site states:
We’re not contained by any particular ideology or party, but strive to be a pluralistic and populist movement committed to Liberty, especially economic liberty.
This might sound appealing to those who are disgusted by politicians in both parties. However, its deeper meaning is very troubling. "[Un]contained by any particular ideology" really means not guided by any particular principles. It can be appropriate for an ad hoc movement such as HTPS to include individuals who do not necessarily agree on every issue. But without a unifying principle there is no unity--there is only a collection of individuals rallying against a common enemy.

HTPS might claim that its unifying principle is "liberty". But what does this mean? Some claim that "liberty" means a government that responds to the "will of the people". Others claim that "liberty" means an absence of government. Still others claim that "liberty" means limited government--but limited to what? Each of these has entirely different meanings, and leads to vastly different results.

With no point of central agreement--other than the undefined "liberty"--anyone with a bone to pick with the government is perceived as an ally. But the truth is, the enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my ally.

For example, the "will of the people" means unlimited majority rule--that the majority may do as it pleases simply because it is the majority. This is nothing more than a tyranny of the masses, which is no friendlier to liberty than a tyranny of Washington bureaucrats. An absence of government is anarchy, which means gang warfare. This too is inimical to liberty.

Liberty--or freedom--means an absence of coercion. It means that each individual has the right to act according to his own judgment, free from interference from others (so long as he respects their mutual rights). Government's only legitimate purpose is the protection of this right. This is the proper meaning of "limited government"--government limited to the protection of individual rights.

HTPS should reconsider its position of being "[un]contained by any particular ideology". It should require that anyone who wishes to operate under the HTPS umbrella embrace the principle of individual rights. For while individuals may disagree on many issues, if they agree on that principle, they can work together and deliver a unified message. The principle of individual rights is not a "particular ideology", but the recognition that each individual should be free to think and act according to his ideology. (Again, he must respect the mutual rights of others to do the same.)

If the tea party movement is to remain relevant it must do more than fight against expanding government. It must fight for something. It must fight for the inviolate moral right of each individual to his own life, his own liberty, his own property, and the pursuit of his own happiness.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Buckhead's Sanction

Sunday's Chronicle contained an OpEd article from Kevin Kirton, one of the principals of Buckhead Investment Partners. (Buckhead is the developer of the project at 1717 Bissonnet, which I and others have referred to as the "Ashby High Rise".) The article demonstrates precisely what I argued against in last week's open letter to Kevin and his partner--the sanction of the victim.

In the article, Kevin calls for "predictable rules" governing development in Houston, and points out that the city presently has such rules. The problem is, he argues, is that those rules are applied unfairly and unevenly. I would agree that developers, and indeed all businessmen, need objective rules under which to operate. However, the very nature of the rules to which Kevin refers cannot be applied fairly, evenly, and objectively.

The principle underlying those rules is that government has a "right" to regulate the actions of developers, that developers may act only with the permission of city officials. The developer's actions then, are not determined by his judgment, but by that of city bureaucrats. As evidence, consider Kevin's own words:
Here's some background. We finally received initial approval after 11 attempts, which were necessary because the city wanted a result that was unattainable without arbitrarily applying the existing rules. After first determining that traffic was the only potential regulatory mechanism, the city eventually contrived a “trip number” that was totally unsupported by any nationally recognized traffic engineering standards.
Having ceded to the city the "right" to determine what standards must be met, Kevin can only complain when those standards are arbitrary. Having accepted the premise that he must first secure government permission to build, he can only complain that the verdict is unfair or uneven. He cannot complain that it is morally wrong--which it is.

Kevin claims that the city ignored its own rules because of "a few influential constituents." Certainly, political considerations have played a significant role in the city's opposition to his project. But this shouldn't come as a surprise.

City officials do not operate in a vacuum. Eager to secure votes they exchange political favors for campaign support. And if government has the "right" to regulate and dictate to businesses, they will ultimately do the bidding of their constituents. Just ask Spec's Liquor or the sign industry.

City officials will justify their mandates and prohibitions on the grounds of the "public welfare" or the "common good" or something similar. But the public does not speak with one voice (as the Ashby project amply demonstrates) and city officials must decide whose voice they will follow. And despite their claims, they will typically be guided by political expediency--by the loudest, most persistent voice (as the Ashby project amply demonstrates).

The only moral and practical solution is to recognize and protect property rights, completely, consistently, and without exception. This is the only truly objective, fair, and predictable rule that is possible or necessary.

When property rights are recognized and protected, issues such as Ashby simply do not occur. "Influential constituents" cannot lobby government officials for special favors or laws directed at one individual because government officials cannot violate the property rights of citizens. Government officials cannot establish arbitrary standards for using one's property--property rights sanction one's freedom to act without government permission.

If Kevin truly wants predictable rules for development, he should call for the city to recognize and protect his property rights. Anything less leaves him and his partner vulnerable to further controls and arbitrary standards from the city.