Thursday, December 31, 2009

The 2009 Live Oaks Awards, Part 3

For the past two days I have discussed some of the highlights of my year. Today I conclude that discussion.

The Power of Lyric Poetry
My wife made her first presentation to the Houston Objectivism Society this year. Her topic was the power of lyric poetry, and it was one of the best presentations made to the group in 2009. Her talk renewed my appreciation of poetry, and her.

Tea Parties
While I have very mixed thoughts about the future of the Tea Party movement, my participation in two Tea Parties was a bright spot in the year. We distributed nearly 200 copies of Atlas Shrugged, and hundreds of copies of other Objectivist literature. At a minimum, hundreds of people were given a chance to learn more about Ayn Rand. And that is always a good thing.

Favorite Posts
I had several posts this year that rose above the others for one reason or another. Some were more challenging intellectually, some were simply more fun to write, and some gave me more insight into the subject. Below are several that I particularly enjoyed.

My Virtual Platform: Statement of Principles--This was probably my favorite post of the year, though I enjoyed the entire "virtual platform" series. These posts proved to be a challenge, as it is easy to criticize politicians but another thing entirely to put forth suggestions that could move us towards greater freedom. I learned a great deal in thinking through this issue.

An Interview with Gus Van Horn
--I have known Gus for many years and I long enjoyed his intelligent insights and his serious approach to ideas. It was a delight to interview him. Unfortunately, he no longer lives in Houston, but I still get to partake of his wit and intellect via his blog.

If I Can't Park in My Yard, Can I Park in Yours?--More than anything, the title of this post cracks me up every time I read it. I love to amuse myself.

A Lovely Surprise--This post tells the story of a wonderful surprise supplied by my wife, and why we do such things for one another.

Peter Brown: Then and Now--Mayoral candidate Peter Brown repeatedly claimed that he had not supported zoning in the 1990s. In this post, I called him on his dishonesty. What I enjoyed about this post was the fact that I had to do some digging to find documentation to support my claims.

As previously noted, I enjoy amusing myself. Thus I write the occasional satire piece. I had two satirical pieces that I particularly enjoyed--My "Green" Initiative and They Don't Wear No Britches. In the former I discuss my efforts to make my yard greener, including the rambunctious use of man-made pesticides. In the latter, I discuss a fictitious lawsuit against the nude gardeners who have been fighting the Ashby High Rise.

I could probably cite several dozen more posts that I particularly enjoyed, but the above will have to suffice. As I said at the start of this review, I have had a good year. This recap has reminded me of many events and experiences that I had forgotten about, which leads me to conclude that my year was even better than I originally thought. And that is not a bad thing.

Thanks for reading. I wish you and yours a very Happy and Prosperous New Year.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The 2009 Live Oaks Awards, Part 2

Yesterday I discussed some of the highlights of my year. I continue that discussion today.

Home Remodeling
In keeping with my long held belief that if I am not engaged in some form of home improvement project then the world--or at least Home Depot and Lowes--will face imminent financial collapse, I remodeled three rooms in my house this year. These projects included re-texturing and painting the walls, putting new tile in our laundry room, replacing nine doors, replacing light fixtures, and building a new dining room table. The highlight is our living room, which features faux bricks and a new laminate floor.

My wife was initially unexcited about my idea to create an "old world" look with faux bricks and broken plaster, but she warmed to the idea after I did a number of samples. She pointed to one "brick" and said, "I like that one. Can you make them all look like that?" I realized that I was heading for weeks of agony attempting to create the look she wanted and suggested that she be responsible for painting the "bricks". She eventually spent dozens of hours on that project, and the results are spectacular. And our new sofa turned our formerly drab living room into a very enjoyable area of our home.

Real Estate
When the year began our goal was to own four rental properties by the end of 2009. Despite our constant and diligent efforts, we entered November with zero properties and we were wondering if we would own any. Our perseverance paid off, as we closed on two properties during November and will own a third in early January.

Mother's Day
In May I visited my mother for Mother's Day weekend. My brother, sister-in-law, and nephew also made the trek to Ohio, which made for a wonderful weekend for all. Shortly after arriving we took a walk in the woods behind my mother's house in search of morel mushrooms (pictured to the right are two that we found). After some time my mother announced that she needed to return to prepare dinner. Being the experienced city-slickers that we are, we assured my mother that we could find our way back. It wasn't like we had wandered for hours into some dark, forbidding forest.

It soon began to rain, a development for which I was not properly dressed. We started back to my mother's but soon found ourselves in unfamiliar territory as the rain increased in intensity. Wandering rather aimlessly we managed to lose my nephew for a short period of time. We came upon an old farm house that we knew was not anywhere near my mother's house. It was at that point that we officially declared ourselves lost. None of us had our cell phone--we thought we were just taking a casual stroll through the woods--so we had to rely on our wits to return to civilization.

We eventually stumbled back to my mother's neighborhood, cold and wet. A kind neighbor gave us a ride back to the welcoming arms of our worried mother, which was fortunate because we were more than a mile away. My mother had been concerned, and was curious why she hadn't seen us emerge from the woods. "I was afraid that you got lost," she said. After feigning indignation at such a suggestion, we confessed and everyone enjoyed a good laugh.

On Saturday the Phillips brothers prepared a barbecue feast for my favorite aunt and uncle. My uncle is always a delight to be around. He has always been a "tinkerer". He flies radio controlled airplanes, rebuilds old farm equipment, and has built a few cars from scratch. Perhaps the most enjoyable thing about him is the enjoyment he gets from these activities. It is an enjoyment that he can't contain and it is very infectious.

The weekend concluded with us cooking Mother's Day dinner . The meal featured steak, sweet potato fries, roasted vegetables, and morel mushrooms. It was one of the best meals I had all year, and to prepare it for my mother made it even more special.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The 2009 Live Oaks Awards, Part 1

I have had a very good year. I didn't meet all of my goals, but I never do. I always want to accomplish more than I can. That doesn't discourage me, but drives me forward, trying to cram more into each precious year. Over the next three days I will present some of the highlights of my year.

Happiness Journal
At the beginning of the year I started keeping a Happiness Journal. Each day I write down three things that brought me pleasure. These ranged from significant accomplishments--such as having an article published in The Objective Standard--to the mundane--such as cooking a particularly enjoyable meal. But this exercise reminded me, each day, how much enjoyment life offers. And when I did not have a good day, it also reminded me that even the worst of times can hold nuggets of joy if one chooses to focus on the positive.

My Wife's Train Set
My wife received her first train set--the North Pole Express--for Christmas this year. It was a gift from her daughter and son-in-law, and I will admit that I thought it was a strange gift. But after my wife set it up, and beamed with delight as the train chugged around the track, I realized that it wasn't so strange after all. Even though the train set is recommended for children aged 3 to 6, her reaction showed me (once again) that one is never too old to delight in some of life's simple pleasures.

Fantasy Football
For a long time I thought fantasy football was a silly activity--until I tried it last year. I did not expect to do well, and thoroughly lived up to that expectation. But I enjoyed the experience and had fun plotting strategies and player moves. I also found that by being more interested in particular players and their opponents each week my enjoyment of the NFL also increased. This year my team--named for the alter ego of one of my cats--won its league. Vince Lombardi once said, "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing." I don't agree with that sentiment, but winning is certainly more fun than losing.

OPAR Study Group
In March I began hosting a study group for Leonard Peikoff's Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand. Based on a similar study group I had hosted shortly after the book was published, I expected us to take about a year to go through the material. After nine months, we are approximately one-third of the way through the book. This slow "chewing" of the ideas has greatly enhanced my understanding of the philosophy. Perhaps most enjoyable has been renewing old friendships and developing new ones through our discussions.

Monday, December 28, 2009

A False Alternative in The Woodlands

On January 1 the Houston suburb of The Woodlands will become a quasi-government entity. This move, which will replace the collection of homeowner associations that have been in place for thirty-five years, is intended to avoid annexation by the city of Houston.

According to the Chronicle, the new body--The Woodlands Township--is a special creation of the Texas legislature and will have some of the powers of a municipality:
The township, for example, can collect property and sales taxes to provide services, but it can't adopt ordinances. It can maintain parks and trails, but it can't fix potholes or build new streets.
I will admit that I have not given much thought to the issue of forming new government bodies. But there are specific principles that we can apply to this situation to determine its appropriateness. What follows is an exercise in "thinking on paper", and I won't claim that these are my final thoughts on the subject.

I will begin by stating two premises:
  1. The proper purpose of government is the protection of individual rights, including property rights. This is true at every level of government--local, state, or federal.
  2. Individual rights can only be violated through the initiation of force or the use of fraud. Such actions compel an individual to act contrary to his own judgment; they force him to act against his own values. Government protects our rights by identifying those actions that constitute a use of force or fraud, and then prosecuting those who engage in such actions.
On the local level, a proper government's functions are limited to the police and the courts. Government should not be in the business of building or maintaining roads, parks, schools, or anything other than the police or courts--these goods and services should be provided by the private sector. Residents then have the choice of paying for those services they wish to use, and non-users are not forced to pay for parks, schools, roads, etc. that they do not use.

In a free society--one in which government is restricted to its proper functions--the formation of a new government body (as well as annexation) is a relatively minor issue. Barred from initiating force, government could not forcibly take money from citizens. It could not use taxation to build roads or maintain parks. In fact, it could not use taxation for any purpose, including the provision of police or the courts.

Cities such as Houston often use annexation to expand their tax base. In a free society this motivation would be non-existent. Annexation then would not be forced upon a community, and even if it were somehow done, it would have no financial impact on the annexed citizens. For a city to do so would be to increase its expenses without the ability to compel payment. In a free society annexation would likely be initiated by those outside of the municipality. And if a community wished to be annexed it would likely need to demonstrate that its residents would voluntarily pay for the provision of police and the courts before the municipality would agree to annexation.

In other words, in a free society annexation would have to be mutually beneficial, and neither party would be forced to act contrary to its judgment.

Similarly, a new government body would not have the ability to levy taxes. If citizens did not provide the necessary funds for police and courts, the new body would essentially be pointless. In a free society, the situation in The Woodlands would simply not exist.

Some may argue that this is unrealistic, that we have to deal with things the way they are and can't be positing some Utopian society that does not exist. The fact is, The Woodlands faces the choice of annexation or the formation of a new government body now, and dreams of a perfect society will do the residents no good.

While it is true that the dilemma faced by The Woodlands exists now, we cannot address problems by embracing false premises and abandoning principles. The options available to The Woodlands are the result of a false view of government's purpose. If we wish to resolve that issue and not slap a band aid on it, then we must begin by rejecting the cause of the problem. To do otherwise is to merely treat the symptoms. Just as we cannot cure the flu by stopping the sneezing, we cannot cure societal ills by masking the effects. It might make us feel better in the short term, but it does little to return us to health.

A healthy government, one that fulfills its proper purpose, is the consequence of of healthy principles. (Health being the state necessary for an organism to live according to its nature.) It is the result of recognizing the source of rights--man's rational mind. It is the result of identifying the fact that each individual has a moral right to pursue his own values and happiness without interference from others, so long as he respects their mutual rights.

A physician treats his patient by recognizing the nature of the human body and the nature of the particular ailment. He recognizes the fact that the health of a human is determined by man's nature. He recognizes the fact that he must take a specific course of action to cure the disease. He recognizes the fact that reality, not his wishes, desires, or intentions, determines what is proper. The same principle applies to every realm of life, including politics.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Now That We Have Your "Attention-Getting Devices"

When Metro tore up Main Street for its light rail line, many small businesses suffered a significant drop in revenues, resulting in many closing for good. Vowing that it has learned its lesson, Metro plans to provide grants up to $25,000 for businesses along Richmond Avenue while work is in progress on the light rail line there. However, the grants will be available only to approved businesses--national chains, liquor stores, and sexually oriented businesses (SOBs) need not apply. Nor are businesses with more than 20 employees or more than $1 million in annual revenues.

It is bad enough that Metro is robbing taxpayers to build rail lines that nobody uses and disrupts business. But now Metro wants to take more of our money to subsidize certain businesses.

According to the Chronicle, Metro also plans to provide flags, signs, and banners to help the businesses inform drivers that they are open, as well as how to navigate the construction zone. But as the paper reports, there is a little snag:

[S]ome of the proposed flags would flutter afoul of the city's newly tightened sign ordinance, which bans certain types of “attention-getting devices.”

City Council may have to approve a small change in the city's sign law to allow temporary banners to stay up for longer than the allotted seven out of 30 days, according to city public works official Andy Icken. The city is also advising Metro on a design for the banner to make it uniform in shape and color.

So it seems that "attention-getting devices" aren't so bad after all. At the time city council banned "attention-getting devices" council member Sue Lovell justified the move because such devices are distracting to drivers. So, as one government agency seeks to remove distractions, another seeks to use them. And apparently the city will comply.

This entire story is more than blatant hypocrisy. It demonstrates the arbitrary nature of the city's, and Metro's, policies.

Why, for example, are businesses with more than 20 employees exempt from receiving a grant? Are we to assume that a business with more employees or national chains won't be negatively impacted by Metro's destruction of Richmond Avenue? And why are liquor stores and SOBs exempt? Could it be that they are politically unpopular? Could it be because the city has already been engaged in efforts to shut down such establishments?

For the city's part, if "attention-getting devices" are such an evil, why will it tolerate them along Richmond? Why is the city willing to make exceptions? Could it be an attempt to buy the support of opponents to rail along Richmond?

Regardless of the pathetic excuses that the city and Metro will offer for exceptions to their rules, both government entities are demonstrating that their policies and rules are founded only on the expediency of the moment. What is true today won't necessarily be true tomorrow. What applies to one block of Richmond doesn't necessarily need to apply to another block. In short, the rules can--and will--be changed to fit the whims of politicians and bureaucrats.

The more cynical among us might simply dismiss this as politics as usual. But the fact that it is politics as usual is what should concern us. When politicians can casually contradict themselves without reproach from their constituents, something is very wrong.

In the end we get exactly the government we deserve and demand. If the citizenry wants principled statesmen, then it must accept nothing less. Until that occurs, we will continue to be subject to the caprice of of politicians.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Do Unto Others

Gus Van Horn points out the spiritual bankruptcy of Anglican priest Father Tim Jones, who recently encouraged desperate parishioners to shoplift rather than resort to burglary, prostitution, or robbery:
The inexorable logic of Father Jones's altruism thus blinds him to achievers as human beings. If you are able, particularly is you are "big" (i.e., successful), you are fair game to legions of people down on their luck. Perhaps, if you're driven out of business as a result, he'll spare you some sympathy and tell you whose pocket you can pick.
As Gus points out, the altruist loves misery. And the greater one's misery--or desperation--the greater one's claim on the property of others.

Altruism holds that the standard of morality is self-sacrificial service to others. The standard of virtue is not the production of values, but their renunciation. The altruist believes that those who refuse self-abnegation are "selfish", and one's own personable happiness is achievable only at the expense of others.

Altruism encourages misery by positing the false alternative of self-sacrifice or the sacrifice of others. Or, to put it in Christian parlance: Do unto others before they do unto you. One should pursue his own misery, or get into the trenches and make others miserable.

The inevitable result of altruism is the belief that the rights of individuals are necessarily in conflict. Either we all cooperatively sacrifice for some alleged "common good", or we plunge ourselves into civil warfare in which we each seek to stab one another in the back. The idea that individuals can cooperatively co-exist without sacrifice on the part of anyone is unimaginable to the altruist. Or, as Father Jones puts it:
The life of the poor in modern Britain is a constant struggle, a minefield of competing opportunities, competing responsibilities, obligations and requirements, a constant effort to achieve the impossible.
Jones inadvertently exposes the dirty secret of altruism: It is a standard that is impossible to consistently achieve--if one wishes to remain alive. Altruism demands the sacrifice of one's values, while life requires the achievement of values. To the altruist life is a minefield in which individuals must seek to somehow balance the "obligations" of sacrifice and the requirements of human life, in which one seeks "rewards" beyond the grave or happiness on earth. But no such balance is possible.

To further demonstrate the hypocrisy of his ethics, Jones told his congregation that shoplifting does not break the commandment against stealing:
[I]t is permissible for those who are in desperate situations to take food that they might not starve.
And then he acknowledged that shoplifting is in fact stealing:

I do not offer such advice because I think that stealing is a good thing, or because I think it is harmless, for it is neither.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

One Small Step

News coverage of the ongoing debate over enslavement of physicians health care "reform" and the destruction of civilization global warming summit both expose an approach that has long been used by the Left--compromise on details but not on principle.

Consider health care "reform": The big news last week was all the deals being cut with various Senators in order to secure their support. Parts of the bill--such as the "public option"--that have been a critical part of the Democrat's plan to take over health care, were dropped. For now. As an adviser to Harry Reid said:
It is the true definition of a hybrid. By and large, it's not a public option, but I think the liberals felt so strongly about getting a bill that allows for comprehensive coverage and meaningful reform, it was worth accepting this. No one believes this is going to be the last word.
No, it isn't the last word. While the Left may have temporarily forsaken the "public option", passage of the bill will mean a complete victory for Democrats. They may have delayed reaching their final goal--the complete nationalization of health care--but they will have taken a huge step in that direction.

As with the income tax, Social Security, Medicare, and countless other government schemes, what starts as limited in scope and application will be expanded. Economically, these interventions create distortions in the market, which the government will use as an excuse for further interventions. Philosophically, these interventions represent a further embrace of statism--that the lives of individuals belong to the state. The only issue open to "debate" is how and to what extent the principle is applied.

Democrats clearly understand this. While they would like to kick the door open for socialized medicine, they are content to leave it slightly ajar. The door is no longer locked, and it will be much easier to completely open it at some future time. All they need do is demand consistency in the application of the principle.

Similarly with the Copenhagen summit. While aiming for an agreement that could be used to justify massive government regulation, Obama was content to settle for less. After reaching an agreement with China, an American spokesman said:
No country is entirely satisfied with each element but this is a meaningful and historic step forward and a foundation from which to make further progress.

It's not sufficient to combat the threat of climate change but it's an important first step.

Yes, it is the first step in a death march that will make Bataan look like a stroll through the park. Having taken that first step, Obama can now prod the world to continue marching.

With few exceptions, opponents to both health care "reform" and "cap and trade" are intellectually disarmed, for they accept the same moral principle as Obama--altruism. With few exceptions, they agree that morality consists in self-sacrificial service to others, that we have a moral duty to place the welfare and interests of others before our own. For decades the Left has used altruism as a bayonet to demand greater and greater government control of our lives.

This pattern is not limited to national or international politics. It is equally evident on the local level. For example, while Houstonians have rejected zoning three times, over the past three decades the city has enacted ordinance after ordinance--such as controls on billboards, sexually oriented businesses, high rise development--that would be a part of zoning in other cities. Houstonians may have rejected zoning, but they have not rejected the premise that underlies it. They have not rejected the premise that the individual must sacrifice his interests to those of "society". And so they continue to accept proposals to regulate land-use in the city.

Those who want complete government control of health care, land-use, or any other sphere of our lives, push the debate hard to the left. Opponents to these power grabs can only meekly complain that a particular proposal is too expensive or goes "too far', conceding the moral high ground. The inevitable result is a compromise that chips away at individual liberty and moves the nation or the city deeper into statism.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Real SOBs

Keep Houston Houston (KHH) has a good piece on the arbitrary nature of Houston's sexually-oriented business (SOB) laws. The laws prohibit an SOB from operating within 1,500 feet of a park, church, or school.

Using satellite maps, KHH shows that the Penthouse Club (which the city allegedly shut down for violating the law) is a mile away from the nearest church, park, or school if you travel by car. However, if you are a crow or happen to be equipped with a jet pack, then the club would fall within the 1,500 foot barrier.

I haven't kept up with the Penthouse Club and its alleged closing, but KHH tells us that it remains open. Apparently, all that was required was a minor costume adjustment:

Yes – after a protracted, years-long legal battle, the Penthouse Club was able to continue to operate simply by covering their employees’ morally offensive nipples. All that time and effort and money, to protect the citizens of Houston from the evils of the female breast. Now does this make you feel like you live in a mature, cosmopolitan, vibrant city? Or does it make you feel like you’re in some backwater town in Alabama?

Nipples. That’s what this all came down to, in the end. Female nipples.

The city of Houston spent untold tax dollars in order to force the employees of the Penthouse Club to cover their nipples. While some Houstonians may sleep better at night knowing that patrons of the Penthouse Club can no longer gawk at female nipples, I am not one of them.

My suspicion is that anyone entering the Penthouse Club is doing so precisely because they want to gawk at female nipples. And the women who are indulging them are doing so voluntarily. Nobody is being forced to expose herself, or to witness that exposure.

Some people are offended by the fact that others actually find pleasure in looking at nude women. Some people are offended by a liquor store being located within a quarter mile of a school. Some people are offended by a high rise building. Some people are offended by "attention-getting devices". Some people need to get a life.

These people believe that if they do not like something, even if it occurs behind closed doors and involves consenting adults, they have the right to march down to city hall and demand that the "offending" activity be prohibited. And city officials, ever eager to pander to noisy constituents, jump on the opportunity to demonstrate just how much they care.

Government's only proper purpose is the protection of our rights. This includes the rights of property owners to use their property as they choose. This includes the right of business to offer whatever products or services they deem appropriate. This includes the right of consumers to patronize those businesses they choose. The protection of our rights means: Government must protect the moral right of each individual to act according to his own judgment, so long as he respects the mutual rights of others.

If offending others is the standard by which laws are made, then no Houstonian is safe. I can state without reservation that someone will find something you do offensive. According to the prevailing attitude, if they can gather enough like-minded busybodies then have a right to compel you to cease your activity. They have a right to force you to act contrary to your own judgment and values. This belief offends me.

I don't visit SOBs. I do not believe that I can find any value in them, though I certainly appreciate the female form. Those who find pleasure in SOBs should be free to do so, as long as all participants do so voluntarily. Those who seek to deny this right are more disgusting than anything that might occur in an SOB. Those who seek to deny this right are the real SOBs.

Friday, December 18, 2009

"Open Source" Government

Tory Gattis offers a suggestion to Mayor-elect Parker that Houston adopt an "open source" style of government, similar to that used with software today:
...truly open up government to enable more engagement by citizens (including innovation and finding much-needed efficiency improvements)...
I often find Tory's insights on infrastructure and transportation issues interesting, but this is a bad idea. A very bad idea.

I am not opposed to citizens offering suggestions to government; I have been doing so on this blog for the past nineteen months. But my suggestions are not aimed at finding innovations or improving efficiencies. My suggestions are aimed at restricting government to its proper function--protecting our rights.

Government is an agency of force. Its prescriptions and proscriptions are enforced with a gun, and if you don't believe me, try violating one of them. Sooner or later somebody with a gun will show up at your door. When government has expanded far beyond its legitimate powers, do we really want government to be more innovative in using force? When government is poking its nose into every aspect of our lives, do we really want government to wield its clubs more efficiently? I don't think so.

But my objection to Tory's suggestion goes beyond this. Consider this statement from Wikipedia, regarding open source software:
Some consider open source a philosophy, others consider it a pragmatic methodology.
I am certainly not an expert on the open source movement. But what I do know is that individuals give up intellectual property rights when they participate. Once shared with the world, they have no claim to their ideas or their material consequences. On the surface this strikes me as very altruistic, but since I do not know the motivations of those involved or what material benefits they might derive, I will withhold judgment on that issue.

If open source is a philosophy, and a pragmatic philosophy at that, what are the implications for applying this idea to government? Before we can answer that question, we must first understand Pragmatism.

As a philosophy, Pragmatism holds that truth is "what works". And how do we know "what works"? We try something, and if we get desirable results, then our idea must be true. If we get undesirable results, we try something else. But we cannot judge truth until after the fact. We cannot project results, because according to Pragmatism, there are no principles. As Ayn Rand wrote:
[The Pragmatists] declared that philosophy must be practical and that practicality consists of dispensing with all absolute principles and standards—that there is no such thing as objective reality or permanent truth—that truth is that which works, and its validity can be judged only by its consequences—that no facts can be known with certainty in advance, and anything may be tried by rule-of-thumb—that reality is not firm, but fluid and “indeterminate,” that there is no such thing as a distinction between an external world and a consciousness (between the perceived and the perceiver), there is only an undifferentiated package-deal labeled “experience,” and whatever one wishes to be true, is true, whatever one wishes to exist, does exist, provided it works or makes one feel better.
If someone wrote software following this dictum, the consequences would be minimal. His program might crash or a web page would not display correctly. Nobody would use the software. But what if one applied this to government? What if a government official is faced with a pressing problem, and his solution is to "try something" and judge its validity by the consequences? We get TARP (or any number of government programs), which was government's attempt to "try something" to fix the problems caused by the Federal Reserve (and Congress), which had previously "tried something" to fix the problems caused by previous attempts to "try something".

For more than 100 years the government has "tried something" over and over again. And when problems result, which they must, the government "tries something" else. But unlike software, the "users" have no choice in the matter. Unlike Firefox users, who can freely switch to Internet Explorer, or vice versa, the citizenry must accept government's continual experimentation whether they like the results or not.

Adding an "open source" approach to government, that is, enabling more "engagement" by citizens, is simply an invitation for more lobbyists and special interest groups to twist the ears of public officials. It is an invitation for more compromise, for an ever increasing gaggle of noisy gangs to parade before government officials demanding that their ideas "be tried".

Absent the proper moral and political principles, these demands will necessarily involve using government coercion for the benefit of some at the expense of others. Without government limited to its proper function--the protection of individual rights--"open source" government will be nothing more than civil war. The "soldiers" might wear suits and ties instead of camouflage, they might brandish reams of reports instead of automatic weapons, but the results will be just as deadly. They won't be fighting for a piece of turf; they will be fighting for control of our lives.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

"Cooperation" at the Point of a Gun

I recently purchased a rental house in a suburb of Houston. (For now, the city will remain nameless.) When I called the electric company to have power turned on, I was informed that I needed a permit from the city. And in order for the city to issue a permit for me to turn on the power to my house, I had to have a licensed inspector or one of the city's goons inspect the property. (The city official didn't actually use the word "goons". That was my interpretation.)

The city official also informed me that I needed a permit to own rental property in their jurisdiction!?! Being the obsequious citizen that I am, I dutifully completed the requisite form--after all, I had inadvertently "ratted" on myself. Yesterday I received a pretty piece of cardboard that "bestows" upon me the right to rent my property. I am truly humbled that they have bequeathed such honor upon me and allow me to transform a vacant house into an attractive residence.

I am not completely certain as to the rationale behind these inane requirements. I didn't ask the city official to whom I spoke, primarily because I was afraid of what I might say in response. I don't have much experience in such matters, but it seems to me that when you are in the process of groveling at the feet of some bureaucrat for permission to use your property, it is generally wise to refrain from comments that might imply that you think you are talking to a petty little tyrant. Otherwise, they might demonstrate just how petty and tyrannical they can be. So I bit my tongue and wrapped a few more pieces of duct tape around my head to keep it from exploding.

The letter I received along with my permit stated:
Thank you for your prompt cooperation with the City of X's new Rental Registration program. By implementing this program, one of the City's goals is to identify problems that may occur in rental units and provide early notification to the owner. We hope, by doing this, the problem will be brought to your attention at the earliest stage; thus making the cost of repairs less than if the problem goes undetected for an extended period of time.
I am tempted to contact the city to point out that my "cooperation" was prompted by their not so subtle threats. As an accompanying document states, failure to register can result in prosecution in municipal court. My "cooperation" was no different from the victim of an armed robber "voluntarily" handing over his wallet. However, as I noted above, it probably wouldn't be wise to to taunt armed bureaucrats.

I am also greatly relieved to know that city officials will be keeping an eye on my property, and will alert me if any repairs are needed. I had assumed that I would be responsible for making periodic inspections of the home. After all, it is my property. But with city officials doing this for me, I can spend my time doing more enjoyable things, such as writing about patronizing public officials.

I will admit that during my due diligence on this property, I did not look into needing a permit to have the electricity turned on. I will also admit that, despite knowing that local government officials can be nasty little pricks, I did not envision that I would need to seek such permission. After all, state officials routinely try to prevent power companies from turning someone's power off.

Perhaps what annoys me most about this is that I won't have much say in city matters. Since I do not reside in this little fiefdom, I can't vote there. I suppose I could go to city council and raise a ruckus about oppression of real estate moguls, but I seriously doubt that that would have any impact. They would probably tell me to shut up and get a permit for the azaleas I intend to plant.

So, while I am trying to engage in my own economic stimulation--and I mean that literally, I am trying to stimulate my economic situation--city officials are busy making it more difficult. While I am trying to create jobs--the renovation of the property will provide work for about a dozen people--the government is making me jump through their asinine hoops.

I realize that my experience is probably small potatoes compared to what many property owners must endure. But that doesn't change the fact that city officials have arbitrarily imposed their standards and values upon me. The purpose of government is to protect individual rights, including property rights, not make us beg for permission to turn on the lights.

I had thought--obviously naively--that perhaps city officials would throw a parade in my honor after I renovated the house and helped improve the neighborhood. Instead, they welcomed me with red tape and a gun.

Note: Due to a clerical error on my part, this was not posted this morning as intended.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Clowns on the Left, Jokers on the Right

While Leftists in Washington are busy assaulting our property rights through "cap and trade", health care "reform" and massive spending, "rightists" in another Washington--Washington University (WU) in St. Louis are busy assaulting intellectual property rights. Last week the Christian Science Monitor carried an opinion piece in which the authors--WU professors David K. Levine and Michele Boldrin--called for the abolition of the patent system:
Ideas kept under lock and key are much less useful than those that are freely available. So we find Africans dying of AIDS because they cannot afford to pay monopoly prices to patent holders of certain drugs. Or, at a more mundane level, we cannot legally watch movies on our new Android phones because "rights holders" do not wish us to.
Levine and Boldrin do not like the fact that they can't do what they want without restriction. They don't like the idea that AIDS drugs or movies are not freely available, like manna from heaven. They don't like the fact that those who created these values--the "rights holders"--properly want control over their creation and want to be paid for their creations. The authors regard this as "monopolistic".

Such attacks are common among Libertarians, those alleged defenders of liberty who believe that any restrictions on their unbridled whims constitutes an attack on their freedom. I won't address their full argument against intellectual property rights--Greg Perkins has done an excellent job of this at NoodleFood--but I will address one specific point made in the article:
It is common to argue that intellectual property (IP) in the form of copyrights and patents is crucial for the creation of innovative ideas and inventions such as machines, drugs, software, books, and music. Proponents argue that IP is just like ordinary property in houses and cars. In fact, empirical evidence shows that IP does not promote innovation and that, unlike ordinary property, it is detrimental to the social good.
To Levine and Boldrin, the standard to be used is the "social good". Rights are not a requirement of man's nature, but a social convention that can be granted or withdrawn according to the "social good". When the alleged "social good" demands, the individual must sacrifice his creations and his judgment to others. The individual has no right to live for himself; he has no right to think and work for his own benefit. His work and his life may be disposed of by society. Having declared morality (and philosophy in general) irrelevant to politics, this is the inevitable result of Libertarianism.

While allegedly embracing free markets, Libertarians reject free minds. But free markets cannot exist without free minds--indeed, free markets are the social consequence of free minds. Free markets are the social implementation of an individual's right to act according to his own rational judgment--the right to trade the products of his mind without interference from others.

Without an explicit moral foundation, Libertarians can only embrace the dominant morality in the culture--altruism. They can only accept the premise that the standard of morality is service to others, that the "social good" supersedes the individual, that the individual must place the welfare and interests of others--including "society"--before his own. They can only accept the premise that the need for AIDS drugs or the desire to watch a movie is a claim on those who have created these values.

Absent a rational moral foundation based on man's nature, rights are disposable when they do not serve some "practical" good. And the "practical" is determined by the morality that is accepted. According to altruism, it is not practical to withhold AIDS drugs from those who need them; it is not practical to withhold movies from those who desire to view them; it is not practical to withhold one's ideas or creations from others because they have needs and desires that you have a moral duty to fulfill.

According to altruism, those who do not "voluntarily" sacrifice for others may properly be forced to do so. Those who selfishly withhold their creations from others may properly have those creations seized. This is where altruism--and Libertarianism--must lead.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Calling the Kettle Black

Sunday's Chronicle editorial attacks Congressman John Culberson for opposing Metro's University Line:
It doesn't take a psychic to predict Houston Rep. John Culberson's future stance on light rail through his district. The five-term 7th District Republican has been predictably and consistently obstructive and dishonest in concocting an endless stream of rationales for opposing the University Line route down Richmond and Westpark.
One could make very similar statements about the Chronicle's editorial policies: It doesn't require a psychic to predict the paper's future stance on any proposed government intervention. The paper has been predictably and consistently "progressive" and dishonest in concocting an endless stream of rationales for supporting more government control over the economy and our lives.

For example:
  • The paper supported taxpayer funding for the health care of "illegal" aliens.
  • The paper supported strengthening the Texas Open Beaches Act, which allows the state to seize private property.
  • The paper has opposed the Ashby High Rise and applauded the city's efforts to institute tougher land-use regulations.
  • The paper has supported restrictions on billboards, and has called for outlawing many existing signs.
In short, the paper has yet to oppose a government proposal to impose more controls, regulations, and mandates on individuals or businesses. There may be exceptions, but they are just that--exceptions. The paper's solution to virtually every problem--real or imagined--is more government.

Such positions might be excusable if they were taken by a young adult. But when they are taken by mature adults sitting on the editorial board of the only major newspaper in America's fourth largest city, we cannot explain those positions as youthful indiscretions. The editorial board does not consist of uninformed youths.

There is an abundance of evidence that demonstrates that government control over the lives of citizens always leads to misery and suffering. The history of every communist regime shows this quite clearly. We can also look at American cities--such as Detroit--and American states--such as California--and see what government regulations and controls do in this country.

There is also an abundance of evidence the demonstrates that individual freedom leads to economic prosperity. The history of America shows this quite clearly. We can also look at American cities--such as Houston--and American states--such as Texas--to see the results of less government controls and regulations.

For example, in its editorial calling for more restrictive controls on signs, the paper stated:
Visual blight seriously damages Houston's public image, impairs quality of life and impedes economic development.
Such a claim ignores the fact that Houston has been among the nation's leaders in job growth for years. The paper refuses to identify the fact that Houston's relative freedom in land-use is a primary reason for this job growth, and wants us to believe that by emulating the decaying cities on both coasts we can somehow avoid the resulting self-destruction. Nor does the paper explain how this alleged "visual blight" impeded economic development here, or its absence in other cities explain their economic decay.

Or, consider the paper's statements arguing that all Americans should be forced to pay for the health care of "illegal" aliens:
We believe history and fairness argue persuasively that responsibility for caring for those here illegally must not be left only to the region most affected. The burden must be shared.
The paper completely ignores the meaning of "fairness". It fails to tell us what is fair about forcing anyone to pay for the health care of another. It fails to tell us what is fair about regarding one man's need as a claim on the property of another.

Honesty is the refusal to fake reality. It requires an intransigent devotion to the facts, even when those facts are uncomfortable. It requires one to draw conclusions from the facts, rather than seek out facts that support one's conclusions.

Time and again the Chronicle editorial board fails to meet this standard. Time and again the editorial board presents carefully selected facts while ignoring contradictory facts. Time and again the paper makes assertions without offering evidence. Time and again the paper attempts to justify its conclusions through misrepresentations, half-truths, and disingenuous claims.

The fact is, the paper has an agenda and it is not about to let the facts get in its way. As a typical conservative, John Culberson isn't any different in this regard. But if the paper wants to lecture the congressman about dishonesty it would be well advised to get its own house in order first.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Preserving the City's Authority

Last week the Houston city council rejected an appeal by Buckhead Development to construct its project at 1717 Bissonnet (the Ashby High Rise) as originally planned.

In August, after nearly two years of pandering to home owners near the proposed project, city officials approved an amended plan for the project. But in a display of courage and integrity that is rare among businessmen today, Buckhead's principals refused to accept that Pyrrhic victory and demanded that the city recognize their right to use their property as they choose. (They probably didn't state it quite like that, but that is the essence of their actions.)

The Chronicle report on city council's latest action inadvertently captures the essence of the issue:
Councilwoman Anne Clutterbuck, whose district includes the site and who has joined neighbors in opposing the project, said rejecting the appeal was important to preserve the city's authority to impose reasonable regulations to prevent new developments from having adverse effects such as extreme traffic congestion. [emphasis added]
The entire controversy over Ashby comes down to the city's authority. This isn't and hasn't been about "protecting neighborhoods" or traffic, despite the proclamations of Clutterbuck and her constituents. This is and has been about power--political power. This is and has been about using coercion to impose the views and values of some individuals on other individuals.

Clutterbuck implies that it is "reasonable" to declare the Ashby project illegal. She implies that it is "reasonable" to threaten Buckhead's principals with fines, jail, or both if they do not abide by her dictates. She implies that it is "reasonable" for her to wield a club and demand that others succumb to her mandates, or else.

To be "reasonable" means to use reason, to use the power of persuasion rather than the persuasion of power. Clutterbuck has rejected reason. She has substituted brute force--the coercive power of government--for the voluntary and consensual. The developers must place their plans and their future in Clutterbuck's hands, or else.

Politically, reason allows each individual to live according to his own judgment, so long as he respects the mutual rights of others. Clutterbuck has rejected this fundamental moral right, and instead demands that her judgment supersede that of Buckhead, or else.

If you think this melodramatic, consider what has actually occurred. Two men decided that 1717 Bissonnet was a good location for a multi-use high rise. They followed the arbitrary rules that were in place at the time, only to be rebuked by city officials because a noisy gang of politically connected home owners did not like their decisions. They did not lie to anyone about their intentions. They did not rape, rob, or pillage, nor did they threaten to do so. They purchased the property legally, and sought to use it under the legal guidelines existent at the time.

The city--in response to the hysteria of nearby neighborhoods--sought to stop their plans. Mayor White vowed that he would never allow the project to proceed, implying that the law was irrelevant. He led a movement to draft an ordinance specifically aimed at Ashby, but had to withdraw that egregious power grab when it became clear that it might apply to projects that he favored.

The city then drug out an ordinance that is rarely enforced, and bludgeoned the developers with a series of demands that the project be modified. Finally, after submitting 11 proposals to the city, did the developers receive permission to use their property--a permission which the city has no moral right to grant or withhold.

Throughout this ordeal city officials have made one point abundantly clear to the developers: Your plans, your business, your life is within our control. We have the authority to demand and dictate what you may do and you will obey, or else. Clutterbuck just stated the obvious.

Friday, December 11, 2009

"By and Large", You are Guilty

Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos has announced that her office will no longer file state jail felony charges against anyone caught with trace amounts of illegal drugs. Gary Blankinship, president of the Houston Police Officers' Union criticized the plan:
It ties the hands of the officers who are making crack pipe cases against burglars and thieves. A crack pipe is not used for anything but smoking crack by a crack head. Crack heads, by and large, are also thieves and burglars. They're out there committing crimes.
Mr. Blankenship implies that police officers can't make a case against burglars and thieves, but instead must rely on other offenses to get a conviction. And this raises a more important point.

Since, "by and large", crack heads also commit other crimes, Blankenship concludes that anyone caught with a crack pipe is guilty of other crimes. Possession of a crack pipe, he implies, is evidence of those crimes.

It doesn't take a doctorate in logic to identify the logical fallacy in this argument. What is true "by and large" of a particular group is not necessarily true of each member of that group. For example, while it is true that blacks are more likely to develop sickle cell anemia than other races, it is not true that every black will develop the disease.

Blankenship is proposing a very lazy--and non-rational--approach to law enforcement. He "knows" that anyone caught with a crack pipe is guilty of other crimes. And how does he prove it? He can't, and so he must rely on applying a generalization to each individual. He can't prove that a particular individual committed a burglary, and so he must bust them for some other "crime". (I'm not going to bother addressing the fact that smoking crack should not be a crime--that particular action does not violate anyone's rights.)

It may be true that 99.9% of crack heads commit burglaries (I don't know that this is actually true), but that tells us nothing about a particular individual's guilt. And the purpose of the criminal justice system is to determine guilt based on the facts of the case, not broad generalizations. If general truths about a group are sufficient to charge a particular individual with some crime, we are all in grave danger. Any of us could be hauled off to jail, not because of anything we actually did, but because we happen to belong to some group.

Such an approach allows the arbitrary to become the basis for criminal charges. No evidence is necessary to charge an individual with some offense.

After making her announcement, Lykos met with police officials and decided to study the issue for six months. According to the Chronicle, the police department issued a statement:
Addicts may become so addicted to the drug that they engage in thefts, burglaries, prostitution, and other crimes in an effort to support their habit. By arresting a suspect for a small amount of crack cocaine, HPD may be preventing that suspect from committing a burglary later, for example. [emphasis added]
The same could be said for arresting anyone for anything--if someone is in jail it is very unlikely that he will be committing a burglary later. According to this line of thinking, it is proper to arrest someone to prevent him from later committing a crime. The mere fact that an individual is capable of criminal activity is sufficient cause to throw him in jail.

The purpose of the police force is to protect our rights from those who initiate force against others. This requires a commitment to the actual facts, a devotion to reason, and objectivity. It cannot be based on conjecture, wild assertions, or generalizations. To do otherwise is to subject the citizenry to the whims of those charged with protecting us.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Welcoming the ETs

Jeff Peckman of Denver, CO wants the city to throw out a welcome mat for visitors--from outer space. He has successfully led a petition drive to get an initiative on the ballot in August 2010 that would require the city to create an Extraterrestrial Affairs Commission. The commission will be charged with the task developing protocols for welcoming space aliens should they decide to visit the Mile High City. (No matter how hard I might have tried, I could not have made up something like this.)

I am certainly one who believes in planning ahead, so from that perspective I guess Peckman has a good idea. Imagine how embarrassing it would be if a ship full of extraterrestrials landed in your fair city and you didn't have a welcoming committee. I suspect that the aliens would hop back aboard their space ship and find a more friendly locale. Kind of like what the Mexicans and El Salvadorans do now.

For those of us who don't live in Denver, we may have an opportunity to obtain a seat on the commission. According to Peckman's proposed ordinance:
The commission shall consist of seven (7) regular volunteer members approved by the mayor who shall give preference to four (4) residents of Denver, Colorado who satisfy the selection criteria.... Members who are not Denver residents may participate from anywhere in the universe by any means available.
Since three members of the commission can reside outside of Denver, I would propose that the mayor approve Mork (who lives in nearby Boulder), Spock, and Alf. Mork may be able to add some comedy to what will surely be very serious discussions. Spock will be able to add some logic, which will certainly be missing. I am uncertain what Alf will add, but I doubt the mayor would want to appear to be biased in favor of sentient creatures. Maybe a Chia Pet will suffice in place of Alf.

If you are among the skeptics who do not believe in UFOs, you should consider this little tidbit from Peckman's web site:
Even Matt Lauer and Al Roeker stated on Good Morning America this year that they believe in the presence of UFOs and other intelligent life in our universe. If Matt & Al tell us it’s OK to think this way maybe some Americans can finally start accepting it.
According to Peckman, if two television personalities believe something, then that is proof of its truth. This is nothing more than an appeal to authority--that we are to suspend our own independent judgment because Matt and Al say that they believe something. (If I remember correctly, Al once said that he makes the best ribs in the country, but until he sends me about 10 pounds to try I ain't gonna believe him.) And whether we believe it or not, Peckman thinks that it is perfectly acceptable to force us--through our tax dollars--to support his pet project.

I suspect that most people who hear about this would dismiss Peckman as a loony. And they will go merrily about their day making their own plans for a visit from an "extraterrestrial"--the second coming of Jesus.

I am not a Biblical scholar, nor do I play one on the Internet. However, I seem to hear an increasing number of references to the Book of Revelation these days. According to my limited knowledge of things pertaining to the Bible, the Book of Revelation portends to tell of the final days of Earth, when the righteous will be swept away by Hale-Bopp to eat prime rib and sip a fine Cabernet. And depending on your particular interpretation, I hear that you may also get to frolic with 72 nubile virgins.

If Peckman wants his initiative to be successful, he really needs to take some lessons from the masters of asserting the arbitrary. He needs to make promises of eternal life, or incredible sex, or even a condo on the coast of Oahu as an enticement. Simply asking voters to be nice to a bunch of aliens isn't going to cut it. Just ask the Mexicans.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Why I Can't Operate a Taxi in Houston

During this era of job losses and exorbitant government spending to "create" jobs, it is interesting to note the lengths to which government goes to prevent job creation. This is worse than just another example government hypocrisy--it harms consumers, discourages entrepreneurial activity, and destroys lives. Consider Houston's taxicab regulations as one example.

Like most cities, Houston regulates taxicabs. In order to operate a cab in Houston, you must first secure the city's approval. In order to obtain that approval, you must meet a litany of criteria. From the Houston City Code:
Sec. 46-18. General prerequisites to putting vehicle into service.
(b)The director [of the department that enforces the ordinance] shall not authorize a vehicle to initially be placed into service unless it is equipped with an air conditioning system that was factory-installed by the manufacturer and has sufficient interior passenger space to qualify in the United States Environmental Protection Agency's annual fuel economy guide as a mid-size car, a large car, a mid-size station wagon, a large station wagon or a van, passenger type, provided that the director may also allow vehicles classified for purposes of the fuel economy guide as special passenger vehicles if the vehicle has passenger seating and space accommodations at least equivalent to those of a vehicle rated as a mid-size car.
In other words, only specific types of vehicles are eligible to be used as cabs. The fact that a wide range of vehicles are used on Houston's streets, and are perfectly capable of transporting individuals is irrelevant. City bureaucrats have decreed that certain vehicles are illegal as cabs. But it is not merely the type of vehicle that matters, it is also the color:
Sec. 46-22. Vehicle color scheme.
(a) No driver or permittee shall drive or cause to be driven any taxicab in the city until the permittee has filed with the director, for approval, the color scheme that he proposes to use under his ownership or radio service.
The alleged reason for controlling color schemes is to prevent confusion. Supposedly, if "Liberty Cab" and "Slavery Cab" both have yellow cabs, consumers will not be able to tell them apart. Apparently, the city believes that users of cab services are unable to read the name of the cab company on the side of the vehicle and cab owners are unable to do anything to distinguish their vehicles from competitors.

The meddling goes even further. Not only do the colors of the vehicle require city approval, the city wants to make sure that potential cab customers can tell the difference between a cab that is available for hire, and one that is not:
Sec. 46-24. Stool light.
No permittee or driver shall operate or cause to be operated any taxicab within the city unless it is equipped with a stool light that is illuminated when the taxicab is vacant and available for hire. The stool light shall be controlled by the taximeter. When the taximeter is in the recording position, the stool light shall be off, and when the taximeter is not recording, the stool light shall be on and shall illuminate a "vacant" sign contained thereon.
If all of this strikes you as incredibly patronizing on the part of the city, you would be right. Apparently, the city thinks that cab owners are incapable of properly indicating to potential customers that they are operating a cab for hire. Apparently, the city thinks that consumers can't tell the difference between a cab for hire, and any other vehicle on the road.

On a typical day, I do business with many different companies. I don't need the city telling me how to recognize the service or products they offer. And I seriously doubt that they need the city telling them how to advertise their products or services. Indeed, as a small business owner, I spend a great deal of time trying to determine the best way to advertise my services, and the last thing I need is some government bureaucrat telling me what colors or lights to use.

When we consider the fact that the city has been on a decades long crusade to wipe out certain forms of advertising, such as billboards and "attention-getting devices", this hypocrisy reaches levels that no satirist could portray.

While telling taxi owners what they must do, the ordinance also tells them what they can't do:
Sec. 46-40. Preferences and soliciting of business prohibited.
(a) It shall be unlawful for any person to seek or solicit a passenger or passengers for any vehicle for hire, whether or not the vehicle is identified as a taxicab, at, in or near any passenger depot, hotel, airport, ship or ferry landing, bus stop or station, or upon any sidewalk or street or any other place in the city. It shall be unlawful for any person to call out "taxicab," "limousine," "auto for hire," "carriage," "bus," "baggage," "hotel," or any other words or gestures that could be construed as soliciting a passenger for hire. Violators of this section, upon conviction, shall be fined not less than $50.00 nor more than $500.00.
It is literally a criminal act to call out "hotel" in front of a hotel in Houston if it "could be construed as soliciting a passenger for hire." What exactly "could be construed" means is anyone's guess. So I would suggest that if you are in Houston, do not shout out "ship" if you happen to be at, in, or near a ship. Do not call out "bus stop" if you happen to be at, in, or near a bus stop. In fact, just to be safe, do not identify any place that you are at, in, or near if others might hear you. Doing so might make you a criminal.

Lest you think all of the provisions in the ordinance border on lunacy, city officials come to our rescue:
Sec. 46-43. Passenger comfort; courtesy.
(3) Create by chemical means any noxious and unreasonable odor...
I have lived in Houston for nearly thirty years, and I have hired a cab a grand total of one time. But it was a great relief that the cab driver was not conducting chemistry experiments in the front seat. And I'm even happier to know that city officials anticipated such an egregious affront and prevented such from ever occurring so that I did not have to exercise any judgment when deciding whether to get into the vehicle or not.

What does it really take to operate a taxicab? A running vehicle and a reasonable knowledge of the city pretty much covers it. Let's say that I live in a neighborhood with a large number of individuals without a car or who are unable to drive. Let's say that I decide that I will take them to the grocery store, the doctor, the library, or any place else they desire to go. Let's say that I want to be paid for my time, gas, and wear and tear on my vehicle. Let's say that I offer this service to my neighbors, and they voluntarily agree to my terms. They are happy with the flexibility and prices I offer, and I am happy to make some extra money. And the city of Houston would declare me a criminal because it hasn't approved my vehicle, my colors, nor awarded me permission to do so.

If that isn't a gross injustice, nothing is. Nobody would be harmed by my offer or my neighbor's acceptance. Each party is acting according to his own judgment in the pursuit of his own self-interest. Yet the city would want to fine me for violating its rules. Such is the nature of government regulations--they treat all individuals as potential criminals. And unless I follow their rules, no matter how arbitrary, I will in fact be a criminal.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Kiss My Ashby

Monday's Chronicle contained an OpEd titled "What Ashby high-rise teaches us" from two members of the Stop Ashby High-Rise Task Force. Unfortunately, they have learned the wrong lesson:
Southampton and Boulevard Oaks surround the site and are protected by deed restrictions, but the Ashby high-rise site is unrestricted. And there are dozens of established Houston neighborhoods whose deed restrictions have lapsed or that were never protected by deed restrictions. Deed restrictions, by themselves, have been demonstrated time and again to be a weak and inefficient mechanism for protecting neighborhoods.
Such a claim ignores the entire context in which deed restrictions are enacted and enforced. Because their deed restrictions do not provide the protection they desire, they dismiss the entire concept.

Deed restrictions are voluntary, contractual agreements between property owners. They limit how a property owner may use his property, and those limitations are consensual. By their very nature, deed restrictions will have boundaries--they extend only to the edge of the neighborhood which has enacted them. Properties beyond the neighborhood are not subject to those deed restrictions.

The residents of Southampton and Boulevard Oaks do not find this acceptable. They are unhappy that the voluntary agreement to which they subscribed is not applied to those who did not agree to it. In response, they seek to use government coercion to impose their desires upon the Ashby developers.

The article concludes:
Recent surveys show that large majorities of Houstonians want better land-use protection for their neighborhoods. Isn't it finally time for the city of Houston to decide that the fate of its neighborhoods cannot be left to the hubris of irresponsible developers? Isn't it finally time for rules to protect the interests of both developers and homeowners?
The authors imply that because "large majorities of Houstonians" allegedly want "better" land-use controls, the only solution is the heavy hand of government. They imply that the city must dictate how property may and may not be used, and any use contrary to the city's mandates should be a criminal act. This, we are to believe, will protect the interests of both developers and homeowners.

While decrying the hubris of the Ashby developers, the authors display their own patronizing arrogance:
No one except the Ashby developers believes that this makes sense. Even Bob Lanier, the tireless champion of Houston developers, agrees this project is misplaced.
Since no one--not even former mayor and developer Bob Lanier--thinks the project makes sense, then the city has a right to force the Ashby developers to act contrary to their own judgment. Imagine what the world would be like if that same attitude had been taken towards Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and the Wright brothers. Whether the project makes sense is not an issue for the authors, city officials, or anyone other than the developers to decide.

The proper purpose of government is the protection of individual rights, including property rights. Government's purpose is to create and protect a social environment in which individuals can act according to their own judgment in the pursuit of their own values. But nobody--including government--has a moral right to force anyone to act contrary to his own choice (so long as he respects the mutual rights of others).

Apparently, the only lesson the "stop Ashby" gang has learned is that they do not have enough political muscle. And so they seek to enlist like-minded thugs from around the city to join them in their crusade to clamp down on anyone who has the hubris to go against the mob.

The great innovators and independent thinkers of history did not succumb to the mindless threats of the hordes. Christopher Columbus, Robert Fulton, and Ayn Rand did not surrender their own vision merely because some authority did not see the truth that they saw. They simply sought the freedom to pursue that truth. They did not want or need the permission of others to determine what to believe, what values to pursue, or what actions to take.

The developers of Ashby believe that their project makes economic sense. If they are wrong, their project will go bankrupt, their reputation will be damaged, and they will suffer the consequences of their decisions. Nobody--not Bob Lanier, not the city of Houston, not the meddling residents of nearby neighborhoods--has a right to make that decision for them. And I sincerely hope that they develop the courage to tell anyone who tries to do so to "kiss my Ashby".

Monday, December 7, 2009

Regulations and Lobbyists

A comment to last week's post on "booting" stated:
Properly crafted regulations go a long way towards keeping consumers safe from predatory businesses that are motivated solely by unethical profit seeking.
This is a common justification for government regulation of businesses, and while it might seem plausible to some, the very nature of regulations makes this an impossible goal.

What is a "properly crafted" regulation? While the commenter doesn't tell us, it can only mean one in which every possible situation and action relevant to the object of the regulation is addressed. This would mean anticipating the ingenuity of those who would seek to skirt the law. In short, it requires omniscience on the part of politicians and bureaucrats, which is beyond any human being. The result is that the regulation ultimately falls short of its stated intention, which then is used to justify further regulations to correct the problems created by the first regulations. The "booting" ordinance is only one example.

Businesses that desire to cheat their customers--such businesses are relatively few in number--will find ways to do so, regardless of the mandates and controls dictated by government. The law will not stop a crook.

This does not mean that we should throw up our hands and surrender to the small number of criminals. It doesn't mean that we must passively allow criminals to trample on our rights. It does mean that government must enact objective laws that clearly define what actions do violate individual rights, and then prosecute those who violate those laws.

Some may argue that this is what regulations do--they identify and prohibit those actions that violate rights. Such arguments are naive at best. Regulations do more than simply dictate what can't be done; they dictate what must be done. Through prescription and proscription they prohibit individuals from acting according to their own judgment.

The result is a steady stream of individuals and groups parading before government officials, each declaring that some law or regulation must be enacted or tweaked to to fulfill its agenda. Each declares that its pet project is in the "public interest", and the "common good" requires more controls on the citizenry. At the same time, their intellectual brethren are making similar demands for their pet project.

Consider a Chronicle editorial on Saturday. Decrying the influence of lobbyists in Washington, the paper writes:
[A] lobbyist on a powerful committee can always find clients willing to underwrite his efforts — a process known delicately as “representing a client's interests.” Or, indelicately, as “influence peddling.”
The editorial doesn't address why lobbyists are a problem. It doesn't address the cause of "influence peddling". The cause is the government's power to mandate and dictate, to control and regulate the actions of individuals. So long as government has this power there will be those who seek to use it for their own purposes. So long as government can stick its nose into every nook and cranny of our lives there will be those who seek to influence politicians and bureaucrats.

This is the nature of government regulation. To blame lobbyists, or politicians, or bureaucrats is to ignore the cause of "influence peddling". Certainly they use the system to promote their ideas and agendas; however, the fundamental cause is not the character of those individuals, but the system itself. The fundamental cause is government regulation.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Forrest Gump for Mayor of Houston

On Tuesday mayoral candidates Annise Parker and Gene Locke engaged in a round of name calling and finger pointing as they desperately position themselves for the upcoming runoff. As is usually the case in these types of "debates", both candidates danced all around the real issues.

For example, Parker raised the issue of Locke's association with the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority. This is certainly a legitimate issue, but Parker limits herself to its superficial aspects, rather than addressing the underlying premise.

Locke has apparently made a very healthy living representing the sports authority in its efforts to build a number of sports arenas. More recently, he has been pushing for a new stadium for the Dynamos soccer team. Parker does not question government involvement in building these stadiums--as a member of city council she supported bonds for Minute Maid Park and the Toyota Center. She merely questions the city's involvement in specific projects. In other words, she has no principled opposition to the use of tax money for the purpose of building glorified playgrounds.

Consequently, all she can do is argue that a particular project is a bad deal, and this is precisely the tact she has been taking in regard to the Dynamos stadium--it isn't prudent now. The Chronicle reports on an exchange between the two during a debate on Tuesday night:

When Parker blamed Locke for the sports authority's financial challenges, he said the stadiums are “crown jewels” for the city and said she was “hypocritical” in attacking him because she approved the plan to build them as a council member.

“Your name is actually on the plaque at one of the stadiums,” he said.

Parker claimed she never voted to approve bonds for Reliant Stadium, only the more financially sound Minute Maid Park and Toyota Center, an assertion Locke immediately challenged.

This concrete-bound bickering might be entertaining in a different context, but one of these people will be the next mayor of Houston. While Locke offers to steal our money for the purpose of building large tiaras, Parker can only meekly complain that sometimes that isn't a good idea. And sometimes it is.

This absence of principles leaves both candidates continually flapping in the political wind trying to determine what position to take. Of course, the politically "safe" (and typical) thing to do is to say whatever will please the particular group you are speaking to at the moment. Consider their joint appearance at The Metropolitan Organization (TMO) on Monday. The Chronicle tells us:
Mayoral candidates Gene Locke and Annise Parker took turns making promises Monday night to a local community activist group that presented them with its wish list of priorities for the next administration.
Ignoring the fact that their sole purpose as mayor is the protection of individual rights, both are eager to spend our money for the "wish lists" of politically powerful groups such as TMO. Ignoring the fact that these wishes are paid for by tax paying individuals, they gleefully stick their nose up the butt of anyone who offers the potential of political support.

While both candidates have vowed to "do something" about flooding, crime, transportation, and myriad other issues, neither has offered much more than vague generalities. On occasion they have accidentally offered a few details, but who can be assured that these aren't subject to change. Both are like a box of chocolates--you never know what you are going to get.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

When Looters Become Booters

Government intervention often becomes a magnet for looters--those who use political connections for economic gain at the expense of others. Consider the case of Joe Martin, Chief Executive Officer of Equipark, a company that provides a "booting" service for private parking lots downtown. KPRC reported on this several weeks ago (HT: blogHouston):
He [Martin] admitted that he helped craft the city's boot ordinance while serving on the city of Houston Parking Commission.

"It kind of dawned on me that there may be a business opportunity here," he said.

Martin said he stepped down from the Parking Commission before the City Council passed the law to avoid a conflict of interest.
According to Martin, there is no conflict of interest if one helps draft an ordinance and then sets up a business to profit from the new law. What difference does it make when he resigned? He helped draft the law, and resigning before it was passed does not change that fact.

More importantly, why is the city writing ordinances regarding what private businesses may or may not do on their own property? Government's purpose is to protect our rights, not dictate what is permissible. My question of course, is rhetorical.

When the city formed the citizen-led Public Parking Commission in 2006 it was intended to be forum to resolve parking issues, that is, protect consumers. Protecting consumers is a typical justification for badgering private companies and forcing them to act as government officials declare proper. And what has followed from this consumer "protection"? According to KHOU and KPRC, a litany of complaints: those who have paid a parking fee are still getting "booted", and even when they can prove that they have paid the parking fee, they get to pay another $25 to have the "boot" removed. KPRC's story states:
An HPD spokeswoman said that unit [the police department's Auto Dealer's Detail, which enforces the city's boot law] is constantly fielding complaints and is working to make sure private boot companies are following the law.
The city has made this vehicular hostage-taking legal, and Mr. Martin was quick to realize that he could benefit. And since his customers are the parking lot owners, he could care less how many drivers he improperly "boots. At a minimum he gets $25 every time an employee immobilizes a vehicle, even if they do so with absolutely no justification.

Indications are that Martin made a conscientious effort to avoid violating the city's ethics laws--he disclosed his business idea to the city while he sat on the parking commission. But government intervention makes it impossible for anyone involved to act with complete integrity. When government forces individuals to act against their own judgment, neither the victim nor the victimizer can act in accordance with rational principles.

The fact is, city council should not be involved in this issue. If parking lot owners want to use "boots" on their property, that is between them and their customers. If they want to use "boots" with reckless abandon, they will face the consequences in civil court. But as it stands, companies like Equipark, as well as the parking lot owners, can hide behind the law, claiming that they acted with complete probity.

The city's meddling has created a political issue where none should exist. It has allowed political insiders to financially benefit under the protection of the law. It has allowed looters to become "booters".