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.

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