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.

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