Saturday, January 31, 2009

You Asked for It

In response to a query from a reader, I now have some audio files and old articles available at I will likely be adding more articles and audio as I locate these items.

Don't Sweat the Small Stuff 12

An Ironic Lesson
Barack Obama's stimulus package includes about $120 billion for education. There is a certain irony in this.

As an advocate of privatizing the educational system, I believe that the consumer--the student and his parents--should pay the bill. Education is not a proper function of government. Forcing non-parents to pay for the education of children not their own is morally wrong. But in a strange way, Obama is getting around this.

The massive deficits being run up will be paid someday, either through higher taxes or inflation or both. Pundits are claiming that our children and grandchildren will get stuck with the bill. Which means, our children and grandchildren will get to pay for their own education.

Getting it Out There
Gus Van Horn has commented on the value of getting the right ideas out in the blogosphere. Often, old posts draw attention from unlikely sources.

It is interesting to observe the searches that draw visitors to Live Oaks. For example, search phrases such as "Dr. Phil", "David and Goliath", or "tortoise and the hare" have drawn visitors. While these visitors may not have been looking for intellectual arguments in favor of freedom and property rights, if they spend any time reading they do get exposed to ideas that may be new. Occasionally, some of those ideas might stick and/ or provoke further investigation.

Has He Been Paying Attention?
Steven Malanga wonders if free markets can survive in a secular world? The fact is, free markets cannot exist except in a secular world. The ethical base of religion is altruism--service to others. The ethical base of capitalism is egoism--the pursuit of one's self-interest. The failures of the Republicans are due, in large part, because of their attempt to defend capitalism on altruistic grounds.

Malanga laments Ponzi schemes, corporate hi-jinks, and other manifestations of "materialism".

The meltdown of the financial markets in the last few months has left us grappling with how we can keep markets free and principled at the same time. The only debate so far is between those who want more government regulation—who want to impose from the outside via the regulator’s eye the restraint that our institutions once tried to instill in us--and those who think that more government will only undermine our prosperity. Neither side seems to be winning the public debate because most Americans are probably equally as appalled by the shortcomings of the markets as they are by the prospect of more government control of them. [emphasis added]

The reason Republicans aren't winning is because they aren't really engaging in a debate. They accept the same altruist/ collectivist premises as the left, and all they can do is complain when things "go too far". If they want to win the debate, they must first take a counter-position, and that requires rejecting altruism. Only then can they offer a real alternative--egoism.

Is This a Start?
On Thursday I happened to catch a bit of Rush Limbaugh's show. One of his monologues was startling and refreshing--for nearly fifteen minutes he derided the economic stimulus package as immoral. He used the word "immoral" or the phrase "morally wrong" repeatedly during the tirade. While he did not attack the package as altruistic, he did say that it was taking from productive individuals and giving to the non-productive. It could have been better, but I regularly hear far worse.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Fish Farming and Property Rights

Wednesday's Chronicle had an interesting article on fish farms. A proposal to establish large mesh cages in the Gulf of Mexico is being considered by the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, a federal agency that manages fisheries in the Gulf. Currently, about 84% of the nation's seafood is imported, and about 40% of that comes from fish farms. The current plan calls for the production of 64 million pounds of seafood per year, which is about half of the annual commercial catch off the Texas coast.

While all of this might sound good, there are some detractors. And not surprisingly, environmentalists lead the list.

But the plan has raised concerns from environmental and fishing interests about how to protect the Gulf’s wild fish stock and waters from disease, pollution and other threats that have troubled fish farms in other countries.

What’s more, some of the plan’s critics contend that the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, which is responsible for the Gulf’s fish population, shouldn’t act before Congress establishes federal regulations for the emerging industry.

In other words, critics want to put the industry in handcuffs from day one. In this era of regulate everything that moves, a large part of the population can't imagine anything occurring without the oversight, control, and blessings of Congress. I suppose that in some sick, perverted way this is understandable given the dandy job Congress did in creating the economic crisis, and the even more impressive job it has done in "solving" that crisis.

For decades, the nation's fisheries have been regulated and controlled by the federal government. Because the oceans are "common property", fish populations were depleted because each individual had an incentive to maximize today's catch. This is the "tragedy of the commons"--when a value is owned communally, nobody takes care of it and protects its long-term value. The value is quickly used up or falls into disrepair. Privatizing any communal property eliminates this problem because the owner has an interest in preserving the value over the long term.

I rarely say this, but Congress does have a legitimate role to play in this issue. However, that role does not involve regulations--it involves establishing property rights.

The oceans are much like a wild berry patch or orchard. The plants produce fruit with no effort from man, but the individual who picks the fruit--or catches the fish--owns the product of his labor. But he does not own the source of that fruit. However, if he begins to prune the plants, provide them fertilizer and water, and take other actions to increase their productivity, he has given more value to those plants and has a rightful claim of ownership. The same applies to the oceans.

The individual who increases the productivity of the oceans has a moral right to the products of his efforts--he has a moral right to the increased value he has created. Congress must establish objective criteria by which this right is recognized and protected.

In the case of a fish farm, this is relatively easy. The farmer who places a mesh cage in the ocean, fills it with fish, and raises those fish to maturity has a right to those fish. He has a rightful claim to the area of the ocean he is utilizing--he has given that area greater value than it previously held. There are certainly other issues to be considered and addressed, such as the status of an area that is abandoned, how property rights need to be claimed and documented, etc.

This is essentially the process by which property rights were assigned in the west. The Homestead Act established the criteria that had to be met in order for an individual to claim ownership of the land-- he had to make improvements and occupy the land for a specific period of time.

Congressional regulation of fish farms will likely stop them in their tracks. The controls and mandates imposed will significantly drive up the costs for what is already a risky endeavor, if they are even allowed to proceed. By the time Congress is finished appeasing the myriad envrionmental groups and other special interests, the regulations will likely be so immense that no rational person would consider the project further. Which means, either a reliable source of seafood will never be developed, or the price of the final product will be significantly higher in cost than it would be without Congressional interference.

The entrepreneurs considering this project have a moral right to act on their own judgment without the meddling of Congress. Congress has no moral justification for erecting arbitrary barriers or telling them how to run their business. Sadly, I have no hope that Congress will do the right thing and stay out of the way. Congress will probably destroy a fledgling industry before it ever gets started. And they will do so in the name of protecting the public.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Principles and Fools

Paul Krugman's column on Tuesday is an interesting read, partially because of the flawed arguments he presents, but primarily because of his cavalier dismissal of principles. Krugman's primary argument is that opponents of Obama's stimulus plan aren't arguing in "good faith".
Conservatives really, really don’t want to see a second New Deal, and they certainly don’t want to see government activism vindicated. So they are reaching for any stick they can find with which to beat proposals for increased government spending.

There may be an element of truth in this claim. The spending orgy by Republicans over the last eight years has amply demonstrated that they are not opposed--as a matter of principle--to increased government spending. Having rejected principles themselves, Republicans have been reduced to "me tooing" the Democrats and then quibbling over details. In that context, there is some justification for dismissing the Republicans.

But Krugman isn't just dismissing Republicans--he is dismissing principles. He cites critics who claim that taxpayers are a better judge of how to spend their money than bureaucrats, and then presents a straw man rebuttal:

Here’s how to think about this argument: it implies that we should shut down the air traffic control system. After all, that system is paid for with fees on air tickets — and surely it would be better to let the flying public keep its money rather than hand it over to government bureaucrats. If that would mean lots of midair collisions, hey, stuff happens.

It is true that the air traffic control system is not a proper government function. But this does not mean that it should be abolished, nor does it mean that the private sector cannot and would not develop such a system. Krugman implies that without government, private businesses would take no actions to protect their property or their customers.

Krugman presents us with the false alternative of massive government spending or destruction and death. He concludes that no reasonable person could be in favor of destruction and death, and therefore anyone who argues against government spending is simply being dishonest.

The point is that nobody really believes that a dollar of tax cuts is always better than a dollar of public spending. Meanwhile, it’s clear that when it comes to economic stimulus, public spending provides much more bang for the buck than tax cuts ... because a large fraction of any tax cut will simply be saved.

For a Nobel Prize winning economist, Krugman seems rather clueless about the role of savings. Unless an individual saves his money by putting it under the mattress, his savings are invested in productive endeavors through bank loans. But Krugman doesn't like individuals making such decisions, and prefers that politicians and bureaucrats dictate such matters.

Further, if public spending is the road to Shangri-La, then why not allow the government to control all spending? If, in principle, public spending "provides much more bang for the buck" then why limit government spending at all? Why not emulate the Soviet Union, Cuba, or other totalitarian regimes, since they have taken public spending to new heights? Not surprisingly, while Krugman can cite false implications regarding the opponents of massive government spending, he ignores the implications of his own position.

To make such a connection, Krugman would have to think in principles. But thinking in principles, he makes clear, is either ignorant or dishonest.

It’s true that the normal response to recessions is interest-rate cuts from the Fed, not government spending. And that might be the best option right now, if it were available. But it isn’t, because we’re in a situation not seen since the 1930s: the interest rates the Fed controls are already effectively at zero.

That’s why we’re talking about large-scale fiscal stimulus: it’s what’s left in the policy arsenal now that the Fed has shot its bolt. Anyone who cites old arguments against fiscal stimulus without mentioning that either doesn’t know much about the subject — and therefore has no business weighing in on the debate — or is being deliberately obtuse.

Krugman acknowledges that under "normal" circumstances, the Fed would follow certain "principles" to get us out of a recession. But these aren't normal circumstances, and therefore we should abandon such ideas. More to the point, he argues that anyone who clings to those old "principles"--which clearly haven't worked--is simply a fool.

Though he shuns principles, Krugman cannot avoid their consequences. The massive government intervention that he advocates will have specific consequences, and those consequences will be destructive. He may think that election winners get the political power to implement their plans, but reality cannot be manipulated like voters. Reality is not malleable, no matter how many tax dollars you throw at it.

If Republicans wish to stop this onslaught, then they must reject the sacrificial morality of altruism. They must discover and embrace the only weapon they need--a rational, objective, and egoistic morality. They must defend the moral right of each individual to pursue his own values according to his own judgment, so long as he respects the mutual rights of others. Without such a consistent, principled argument they will continue to be irrelevant.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Business vs. the Individual

Last year I appeared on a panel to discuss a proposed high-rise project in Houston. I was the only panel member in favor of the project. The audience, which consisted primarily of home owners in a neighborhood near the project site, was almost unanimously opposed to the project. During the discussion, two comments made by audience members were interesting, and I think, quite revealing.

The first comment was that I didn't appear to care about individuals, only businesses. The comment caught me by surprise, and at the time I didn't have the luxury of giving it much thought. In retrospect, I have a better understanding of what provoked such a comment.

Throughout the discussion I had defended the right of the developer to use his property as he chose. The audience saw this as a battle between individuals and business. Since I sided with the business, they perceived that I don't care about individuals.

This is not an uncommon view. Businesses, and particularly large ones, are often seen as impersonal and exploitative. The marketplace is often viewed as a dog-eat-dog competition, in which businesses cut one another's throats for the privilege of robbing consumers. The individual is lost and helpless in this feeding frenzy.

Such a view--and its less extreme manifestations--is founded on a perverted view of a business transaction, and by implication, self-interest. It holds that advertising is manipulation, sales is deception, and self-interest is whim worship. It rejects the idea that individuals can voluntarily trade to mutual benefit.

This is the false alternative offered by altruists--one must sacrifice to others, or sacrifice others to oneself. Sacrifice is the given, and the only issue to be decided is who will sacrifice. In the context of the panel discussion, the audience saw the alternatives as sacrificing the developer, or sacrificing themselves.

The second comment comes from the same error. An audience member claimed that I was telling people how to live their lives. In a certain sense he was right--I was telling them to respect the property rights of the developer. But that isn't what he meant.

He saw my position as an attempt to impose my values on the home owners by force. Again, the false alternatives were--use force against the developer, or use force against the home owners. Even though I had explicitly rejected the use of force, he was unable to comprehend such an alternative. That individuals can, and should, interact voluntarily and with mutual consent was a completely foreign principle.

This error stems from the view that man's nature is that of a snarling, emotion-driven beast. Left to his own devices, he would rape and pillage without constraint. He would use and abuse others, limited only by the ability of others to use and abuse him.

Such a view is a confession of one's self-image, and I certainly witnessed its manifestation that night. On multiple occasions the audience tried to shout me down. One audience member asked for my removal from the panel. I was booed and insulted. The audience acted like a snarling, emotion-driven beast, willing to physically silence me because it did not like the words I spoke. Believing that man's nature is that of a brute, the audience acted like brutes.

But man is not, by nature, a brute. Man is not guided by innate ideas or seething passions, but by his mind. His choice is not to sacrifice or be sacrificed, but to think or to evade. Man does not, and cannot, live by force, but by reason.

Projecting their own self-image onto others, the advocates of regulation believe that laws are all that prevent us from raping and murdering. If laws work in regard to rape and murder, then other controls and regulations are equally justified. They advocate controlling man to prevent him from acting according to their view of his nature. And in the process, they prevent him from acting according to his true nature--that of a rational being. They try to subdue his emotions, and in the end, subjugate his reason.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Economics versus Morality

Wendell Cox (Demographia) & Hugh Pavletich (Performance Urban Planning) recently released their 5th Annual Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey. (HT: Freedom is the Solution) This study offers a comprehensive view of housing affordability around the world.

Much of the study addresses land use regulations and the impact on housing affordability. The authors identify to types of land use regulations:

The Difference: There are substantial differences between metropolitan markets in one factor of market influence: land use regulation. Generally, land use regulation falls into the following two categories:

Responsive land use regulation: Liberal or traditional regulation is referred to as responsive land use regulation because it responds principally to the market as revealed by people’s preferences. Under responsive land use regulation, there is a substantial interplay between buyers and sellers of land, resulting in generally lower land (and house) costs.

Prescriptive land use regulation: The newer regulatory systems are referred to as prescriptive land use regulation because they are based on “visions” or plans, which prescribe where development is to occur. Under prescriptive land use regulation, the interplay between buyers and sellers of land is substantially interfered with, resulting in generally higher land(and house) costs.

These two categories of land use regulations may differ in detail, but they do not differ in principle. The latter may be more restrictive than the former, but both violate property rights and distort the market. While the authors make a very strong case against prescriptive land use regulations, their silence on the underlying principles implies that responsive land use regulations are acceptable.

The authors cite a long list of economists who have expressed concern about prescriptive land use regulations:
• Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman of The New York Times noted that the house price
bubble has been limited to markets with strong land use regulation.
• A United Kingdom government report by Kate Barker, a member of the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England, blamed that nation’s loss of housing affordability on its prescriptive land use policies under the Town and Country Planning Act of 1947.
• In last year’s Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey, former Reserve Bank of New Zealand Governor Donald Brash wrote that the affordability of housing is overwhelmingly a function of just one thing, the extent to which governments place artificial restrictions on the supply of residential land.
• Theo Eicher of the University of Washington produced a working paper placing much of the blame for house price escalation on land use regulation United States municipalities.
• A New Zealand government report by Arthur Grimes, Chairman of the Board of the
Reserve Bank of New Zealand blamed the loss of housing affordability in the nation’s
largest metropolitan area, Auckland, on prescriptive land use policies.
• Reserve Bank of Australia Governor Glenn Stevens told a parliamentary committee that “An increase in state government zoning regulations is a significant factor driving up the cost of housing.” He also noted the increase in local and state government levies on new developments as a driver of higher housing prices.
• An Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) report noted an association between strongly regulated land markets and higher housing prices.
• Research by Harvard University’s Edward Glaeser the University of Pennsylvania’s Joseph Gyourko others shows a strong relationship between prescriptive land use policies and higher housing prices.
• William Fischel of Dartmouth University Fischel shows that the diversion of house prices between California and the rest of the nation from 1970 to 1990 was associated with stronger land use regulation
Glaeser et al at Harvard University further show that Boston’s house prices had
been inflated 60 percent by scarcity created by prescriptive planning that relies heavily on large lot zoning (rural zoning).

While all of this evidence is indeed damning, it has failed to stop politicians and bureaucrats from enacting land use regulations. And it has not deterred citizens from demanding such restrictions. Why? With so much economic evidence that land use regulations are destructive, why does a single city still have any regulations regarding land use?

The answer cannot be found in economics. It can be found in morality.

The premise underlying all land use regulations is that the individual must place the "public good" or the "general welfare" before his own interests. This premise holds that the individual is subservient to the community, and that the individual must sacrifice his values to others. This premise holds that service to others--altruism--is the standard of morality. According to altruism, land use regulations are moral.

While citizens may lament unaffordable housing, their actions are dictated by their moral code. Practical arguments like affordable housing fall on deaf ears, because at the end of the day, individuals do what they believe to be moral. Appeals to economic statistics are impotent compared to the power of morality.

Making the situation worse is the fact that defenders of property rights have shunned the only effective weapon--morality. They concede that altruism is moral, and thereby abandon the entire realm of morality to their enemies.

Harvard Professor Edward Glaeser, who has written extensively on the destructive consequences of land use regulations, is quoted in the survey:

Localities tend to put their own interests ahead of the national interest by restricting building in order to keep prices up and reduce congestion. The federal government should increase its efforts to counter this tendency. After all, stopping building in one area just leads to building and more congestion somewhere else.

In other words, let's expand the definition of community to include the entire nation. Rather than compel the individual to serve the community, we should compel him to serve the nation. Rather than allow the individual to pursue his interests, he should be forced to serve the "national interest".

I will agree with Professor Glaeser that the federal government should do something to counter the tendency to restrict building--it should declare all land use regulations unconstitutional. It should return to the nation's founding principles--the right of each individual to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness.

But before that can occur, those who profess to support those principles must reject the idea that the individual must serve anyone. More importantly, they must embrace a new morality. They must embrace egoism.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Principles and Property Rights

There are dozens, if not hundreds, of organizations across the country defending property rights. Interestingly, they have more in common than just defending the right to property. Few, if any, of these organizations defend property rights on moral grounds. While these organizations might make some valuable contributions to the cause of individual freedom, much of their work actually undermines the cause they advocate.

These organizations take difference tactics in their defense of property rights. While their arguments may win individual battles, they will ultimately lose the war. Their arguments invariably concede the moral high ground.

One example is the Property Rights Foundation of America (PRFA). Their goals include:

We stand for private ownership of land and resources.

We stand for the constitutionally guaranteed protection of the private property owner’s right to use his property unencumbered by unjust regulation. [emphasis added]

Apparently, PRFA does not oppose "just" regulations, as if such a thing is even possible. Such a position implies that regulations are appropriate, and they only oppose those that "go too far". But every regulation goes too far--every regulation forces some individuals to sacrifice their values to others and act against their own judgment. Every regulation has victims.

Any attempt to distinguish between just and unjust regulations is a concession to the enemies of property rights. Such a position accepts the "need" for regulations, and the only remaining issue is a matter of details. Either one is opposed to land use regulations as a matter of principle, or one is not. To bicker over what "goes too far" is to concede to a bank robber the right to take money and then complain when he takes "too much". By then it is too late.

PRFA is not alone in taking such a position. The Property Rights Alliance (PRA) makes a very similar argument:

As a matter of principle, property rights should be protected by recognizing the right of citizens to utilize and prosper from the land in this country. Legislation should never arbitrarily attempt to seize land from the public and restrict its use, as the omnibus package would. [emphasis added]

PRA is not opposed to land seizures, just those it deems arbitrary. As with regulations, making such a distinction concedes the principle that seizures are sometimes acceptable. They can only bicker over what is arbitrary and what isn't.

Dr. Leonard Peikoff defines the arbitrary:

"Arbitrary” means a claim put forth in the absence of evidence of any sort, perceptual or conceptual; its basis is neither direct observation nor any kind of theoretical argument. [An arbitrary idea is] a sheer assertion with no attempt to validate it or connect it to reality.

If we take PRA's position at face value, they would not be opposed to seizures for which some type of validation is offered. That "validation" could be an appeal to the "public welfare", or majority rule, or the dictates of a tyrant. All are based on false premises; all can be and are used to seize property and/ or control its use.

The Coalition for Property Rights (CPR) repeats the same argument as PRFA, with an added utilitarian twist. Their web site states:

Property rights provide the foundation for individual freedom and economic opportunity and are absolutely vital to the prosperity of our local, state and national economies.

Excessive regulation restricts the creative and constructive use of property, impedes the ability of property owners to respond to free market demands, and ultimately, limits the economic potential of ordinary citizens who are seeking to realize their individual American dreams. [emphasis added]

Again, CPR accepts regulations and just opposes those that are "excessive". CPR also argues that property rights are necessary for economic prosperity. While this is true, such an argument implies that if economic prosperity could be achieved by violating property rights, then so be it. But since property rights are the best means for achieving prosperity, then we should protect property rights.

These organizations do not view property rights as a moral imperative. They do not view property rights as sacrosanct. Under certain conditions, they accept regulations as acceptable, and can only complain when the controls are viewed as "unjust", or "arbitrary", or "excessive". They are not opposed to regulations as a matter of principle.

I would imagine that these organizations would argue that they do defend property rights on principle. In the quote above from PRFA, they say that "[a]s a matter of principle, property rights should be protected..." But in their very next sentence they contract that statement by opposing only "arbitrary" seizures of land. In other words, sometimes seizures are acceptable, and sometimes they are not. This is not a principle--it is in fact a rejection of principles.

Such arguments may be successful at times. But they are doomed to ultimately fail because they concede the fundamental issue. If these organizations truly wish to defend property rights they must understand and embrace the principle that property rights are inviolate. They must reject land use controls and seizures under any condition. They must seize the moral high ground.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Don't Sweat the Small Stuff 11

When Jail Won't Work, Try Begging
Houston City Council Member Sue Lovell proposed an inane approach to stopping graffiti in last Sunday's Chronicle.

More than ever before, we call on people who mar our buildings with graffiti to cease and desist and channel their efforts to more constructive areas. Volunteer in your neighborhood. Work with a school to help younger students paint their classrooms in an appropriate way. Teach painting techniques to kids or senior citizens.

Those who deface property should be thrown into jail and fined. Lovell has no problem using the police to apprehend such vicious criminals as taco truck owners and businesses that use "attention-getting devices", but actual criminals can be dealt with simply by begging them to cease and desist. For some reason, I don't think graffiti "artists" are going to pay much attention to her.

But property owners who get "tagged" had better pay attention to Lovell, because they only have ten days to abate the graffiti or face fines from the city. In other words, Lovell resorts to begging criminals to stop their activities, and then threatens the victims with criminal sanctions if they don't respond quickly enough. Government is supposed to protect our rights, not threaten to make us criminals after we are victimized.

A Shell Game
Former Shell President John Hofmeister appeared on Neil Cavuto on January 20. While I avoided the television and radio most of that day, Hofmeister seemed to the echo general sentiment of the day. Referring to the problems on Wall Street, he said that individual decision making might have been good for the individuals, but not for the country.

He is claiming that the people running the large financial institutions made "good decisions" despite the fact that many ran their companies into the ground. Oh, but he did say "good for the individuals", which means, the leaders made tons of money while running the companies into the ground.

Hofmeister is playing right into Obama's hand. He is painting the leaders of Wall Street as bandits, who raped and pillaged the nation and made millions off the back of Joe Six-Pack. What we need, he implies, is more regulations. What we need is for individuals to put aside their own judgment for the sake of the country. And if they won't do it willingly, by Obama we'll make them.

An Observation on Mass Transit
I spend a significant amount of time on Houston's highways and roads, and for years, one observation has gnawed at me-- METRO buses impede traffic. Maybe someone has done a study on such things, but it seems to me that they slow traffic flow significantly.

Consider the following: A bus must make regular stops to let passengers on and off. They do this regardless of the traffic or the presence of signals. They often stop in the middle of a block. In any case, while they are stopped they block one lane of traffic, which creates a bottleneck and reduces traffic flow.

A stretch of road near my office seems to be particularly bad for this. I am often caught behind a bus that stops just before my turn. If I pass the bus and attempt to turn in front of it, I could be cited for an illegal turn and possibly smashed by the bus--a bus that I partially own. So I patiently wait, burn gas, and ponder my tax dollars at work.

Name that Bridge
The Chronicle reports that the "Tolerance Bridge" will be getting a new name.

“It has too many hints of negativity,” said Councilman Jarvis Johnson.
The $7 million pedestrian bridge, which will be built primarily with public funds, is supposed "to celebrate Houston’s cultural diversity and the cosmopolitan sensibility and mutual respect". Personally, I think that city officials are asking an awful lot of a bridge. It seems like all that they should really ask of a bridge is to provide a safe walking path, but they are adding a lot to this bridge's job description. But I digress.

Local artist Bill Davenport offered some insight into the behind-the-scenes politics of public art.

Public art is “always ripe with opportunities for ridicule,” he said. “There are just so many constituencies to satisfy: the funders, the city, the public, the art people. It’s just a glacial morass of bureaucratic fumbling and bumbling around. And sometimes it works anyway, and sometimes it doesn’t.”

The same can be said about a lot of other public projects. Anytime something is done with public money, a stampede ensues to exert influence on how the money is spent. It becomes a turf war as competing groups vie for the right to speak for the public.

But the issue of the name for this monstrosity still remains. A few ideas I've come up with are:

  • A Big Pile of Crap Bridge
  • The Bridge with No Name
  • A Waste of Taxpayer Money Bridge

I'd submit these ideas to the naming committee, but I suspect that they would regard me as being less than tolerant.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Trump Wins Right to Build in Scotland

The following article was written by Joe Meuth. Joe is a student of Objectivism looking to apply and to promote rational ideas in our culture. His areas of particular interest include economics, corporate governance, ethics, and politics.

Donald Trump’s long fight for permission to build a golf course and resort north of Aberdeen, Scotland offers a depressing look into how low debates concerning property rights have sunken.

The fact that Mr. Trump hasn’t a right to build a golf course north of Aberdeen, but first had to seek approval from the Scottish Government is rightful cause for some vituperation of the culture as it is. Presumably Scots largely support the idea that people shouldn’t decide what to do with their property by right, but instead must seek approval of the public beforehand. If this were not the case, their government would have never gained such power.

Scotland may be the epicenter for this debate, but the same hackneyed arguments used in Scotland can be heard all over the world in similar contexts. Untold thousands around the world are probably fighting less-publicized battles similar to Mr. Trump’s.

Already off to a bad start, the public didn’t redeem themselves in the debate surrounding Mr. Trump’s now approved project. In personal conversations with people around Aberdeen, I noticed that most did support Mr. Trump’s development, but I also noticed that no one supported it for the right reasons. The most common arguments offered supported the development because of the effect it would have on the economy. Two world-class golf courses, one thousand holiday homes, and a 5-star hotel were correctly seen as a potential boon to Aberdeen’s economy. An estimated 1,200 people will be permanently employed as a result of this development.

Trump himself went before a commission to explain his case, including his plans to limit the environmental impact of the resort. Here again, the argument offered is altruistic via his vehement touting the economic benefits to Scotland. “If you reject this, there will be a terrible blow to Scotland,” Trump contended in an article from ABC News.

I never did find a person who supported Trump’s right to build for his own sake in a newspaper article or letter to the editor, either. Here all the arguments were from the altruistic perspective, i.e.: Trump’s development will be great for the community. Jobs will be created. It will foment further investment by businessmen. The shire will have a higher tax base, etc.

I am glad that people can see the economic benefits of such a plan, but when someone such as Mr. Trump has to appeal to public opinion to gain permission for such a project, it is tough to call his eventual success a victory. Indeed Trump and others have already been defeated by having to make private decisions subject to public approval in the first place.

From here the arguments against the development just get worse. The environmental groups defended the usual causes of birds and other wildlife at the expense of human beings, and even sunk so low as to say that the presence of inanimate matter in the form of sand dunes should preclude development. The Washington Post quoted Anne Johnstone, a columnist for the Glasgow Herald:

The Trump plan calls for planting grass on a section of dune to prevent it from drifting in Scotland's rough weather. But environmentalists say that would be an illegal, unsound practice. "If you stabilize a sand dune, you change its very nature.

The context of the article clearly presents this ridiculous statement as legitimate, not as tongue-in-cheek.

What about the nature of human life and what furthering it requires? If Ms. Johnstone’s premise that making changes to inanimate matter is illegal or should be illegal, those of us who enjoy living on Earth should be worried. Of course, Ms. Johnstone and others who violate property rights for environmental causes can’t and don’t consistently live according to their creed. To do so, they would have to stop eating food grown on land that was altered from its natural state, give up shelter, medicine, etc. Environmentalism presents a manifestation of the false morality of altruism that forces man to decide between life and guilt, or morality through death. It should be rejected as immoral because man cannot practice the morality consistently so long as he is living.

Human sacrifice for the sake of sand dunes represents the end of road for the environmental movement’s agenda. If one still thinks that environmentalism is a movement looking to promote human life on Earth through conservation, remember that sacrifice of human happiness to an amalgamation of sand is what environmentalism holds as an ideal. Some may say this is an extreme case and not representative of the environmental movement as a whole. Such a perspective is erroneous because it fails to recognize that in principle environmentalism holds any man-made change of the environment as immoral. The degree of sacrifice to the environment advocated may vary depending on what environmentalists think they can get away with, but the principle is always the same.

To wit, note that Ms. Johnstone obviously isn’t worried about the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere—otherwise she would have supported the planting of grass on the sand dune. She isn’t worried about the lives of wildlife, because the presence of more grass would undoubtedly be beneficial to the habitat of animals native to Scotland (though concerns for animals are not valid reasons to sacrifice human life). Her primary concern is with leaving nature untouched by man, period. Man cannot live on Earth without exploiting it, and to live a full, happy, productive life, man has to exploit the Earth a great deal.

Some might say all this exploitation is “unsustainable,” but that idea has been popular for several hundred years thanks to Thomas Malthus, and it is just as wrong today as it was when he wrote An Essay on the Principle of Population. Economic history proved Malthus wrong, and it will prove modern-day Malthusians wrong as well. Economic history has shown that the more we exploit the Earth by developing new technology, the higher its carrying capacity, and the higher the standard of living for its human inhabitants.

The absurdity of the arguments against development mentioned above point to two things: The first is that the fight for property rights has a long way to go, both here and abroad. The second is that there is a widespread unwillingness to make a principled stand for rights. Trump’s supporters wittingly or unwittingly accepted the status quo as legitimate and continued to entrench it every time they offered up the resort’s economic benefits to Scotland as a reason to support the project. Because Trump won his fight thanks to arguments such as this, his victory is almost Pyrrhic.

When men such as Mr. Trump accept the idea that decisions concerning property use should be subject to a popularity contest, they grant the opposition a legitimacy it does not deserve. When they try to win the popularity contest without making any claim to a right to build regardless of public opinion, they provide a textbook example of how people come to be copasetic about the further abrogation of their freedoms.

The inability or unwillingness to fight regulation with a principled argument ensures that the regulatory status quo remains unquestioned, undoubted (by many), and ensures that there will be more victims of the “public good.”

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Planning vs. Planning

The latest euphemism for land use regulations is "planning". Mayoral candidate Peter Brown is using the term, as is the Gulf Coast Institute and other public officials. They argue that planning is needed to guide the city's development. But what is planning? And is it really needed to guide the city's growth?

Wikipedia describes planning as such:

Planning in organizations and public policy is both the organizational process of creating and maintaining a plan; and the psychological process of thinking about the activities required to create a desired goal on some scale. As such, it is a fundamental property of intelligent behavior. This thought process is essential to the creation and refinement of a plan, or integration of it with other plans, that is, it combines forecasting of developments with the preparation of scenarios of how to react to them. [emphasis added]

In short, planning is the process of identifying a goal and the means for achieving that goal. It is a process of thinking long-term, projecting the results we wish to achieve, and the means by which we will achieve them. It is, as Wikipedia says, "a fundamental property of intelligent behavior" because planning recognizes that we do not live merely for the moment, but for a lifetime.

But planning is not merely a process of randomly selecting some goal, nor is it a product of wishful thinking. It requires much more than pursuing some momentary urge or desire. It requires thinking in principles, for principles are the means by which we project the consequences of our actions.

In our personal lives our planning is based on our individual values. We select the goal and the means for achieving it on the basis of our values and our own judgment. We select the ends and the means. And our means must involve the voluntary cooperation of all involved, whether it is starting a business, or investing, or choosing a career path. We cannot force customers to purchase our products or services; we cannot force others to sell stock to us at a low price or purchase it from us at a high price; we cannot force an employer to hire and promote us.

In contrast, public planning is the product of consensus and compromise. The public does not speak with one voice--individuals have different goals and values. Public planning cannot represent all of these individual goals and values, for they are often contradictory. The result is some middle ground that attempts to satisfy the largest number of people.

More importantly, public planning--both the ends and the means-- is imposed by mandate. Those who do not agree with the plan must abide by it. The planning of individuals is rendered moot, for any individual plan must conform to the public plan. The judgment of the individual is negated.

Some argue that public planning is necessary in order for the government to address infrastructure needs, such as flood control, road construction, and utility installation. But such arguments are based on the faulty premise that the government should even be involved in developing a city's infrastructure. Government's proper function is the protection of individual rights, not building roads, dredging ditches, or laying sewer lines.

In past years, Houston's zoning advocates have argued that zoning is needed to plan the city's development. Otherwise, they declared, the city would develop in a chaotic manner and become unlivable. More than sixty years have passed since these dire predictions were first uttered, and Houston's population and economy continue to grow. The voluntary choices of thousands and thousands of people are clear evidence that the pro-planners were wrong--Houston is eminently livable.

The fact is, it is the private plans of millions of people that make the city livable. Each of us can plan and act according to our own values, rather than being compelled to follow some master plan. And this is precisely what the planners want to crush. They don't like the fact that some individuals might have values and plans that differ from theirs, and rather than live and let live, they seek the political power to impose their plans upon all of us.

They believe that they have morality on their side. They believe that the individual must sacrifice for the community, that the rights of individuals can be subjugated to the "public good". But they are wrong--morality is not on their side. Life is not a battle over who will sacrifice and who will collect those sacrifices.

When confronted with the nature of their ideas the pro-planners have no rational response. When the principles they advocate are refuted they can only shout bromides. When their moral premises are challenged, they have no defense. And that is something they did not plan for.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Q & A From My HPRA Talk

After my talk to the Houston Property Rights Association, I answered questions for about an hour. (The text of that talk was posted yesterday.) Below are some of the more interesting questions/ comments along with my answers. Both the questions and my answers are from memory and are paraphrased.

Q. I don’t see it as a moral issue. Free markets provide more benefits to the masses.

A. Freedom is a moral requirement for human life. Morality provides us with the principles to think and act—it tells us what actions are proper for human beings. If you lived on a deserted island, you would have to take action in order to survive. You would have to pick berries, fish, build a shelter, etc. But you wouldn’t automatically know how to do these things. You would have to look at reality and understand it before you could transform it to provide you with the values you need to survive. You would have to think rationally or die. This doesn’t change when you enter society—you must still produce. You don’t have to grow your food or build your home. You can create other values to trade. But you still must produce or die. Or live as a parasite. However, in society others can impede your ability to think and act. Others can use force to prevent you from taking the actions needed to sustain and enjoy your life. Morality tells us that we must think and act rationally; morality tells us that we must be free in order to do so.

Q. If we had a society such as you describe, and a small percentage of people accumulated all of the wealth and everyone else lived in abject poverty, would you abandon your moral principles?

A. No, I am not a hypocrite. The number of people who benefit from an idea does not determine its truth. In addition, throughout the history of mankind, there has never been a single example of this happening when individuals are relatively free. Free individuals create wealth, and some create more than others. Even if one person accumulated all of the wealth, nobody would have a moral right to take his property by force.

Q. What do you think of deed restrictions? They force people to give up their property rights.

A. Deed restrictions are voluntary and contractual. No force is involved. If you don’t like the terms of the contract, don’t sign it. There are valid reasons to agree to limit the use of your property—you don’t want to live in a neighborhood with billboards, muffler shops, and convenience stores nearby. But there is a huge difference between deed restrictions and land use regulations.

Q. Most deed restrictions required a vote of 75% of the property owners to make any changes. But the Texas Legislature changed that to 51%. So there is government coercion involved.

A. Yes, but not in regard to the deed restrictions themselves. The coercion comes from the fact that the government unilaterally changed the terms of a valid contract. The parties to that contract did not agree to the change—why else would the government be involved? What the government did is wrong. The only role the government should have in regard to a contract is to determine if it has been breached, who breached it, and what damages should be awarded. But the government should not be changing the terms of a contract.

Q. Should the government get involved when a property owner allows his property to get run down?

A. That would depend on the specific circumstances. If the property is causing an objective threat to others, then yes. For example, if a house is falling over and threatening to crash into the neighbor’s house, I would say that this is a legitimate and objective threat. But there would need to be clear criteria as to what would constitute an objective threat. In many neighborhoods the house would never get to that point of disrepair because deed restrictions would govern some level of maintenance.

Q. What if I want to keep a room full of dynamite? Should the government be able to ban that?

A. Yes. There is no valid reason to have a room full of dynamite. Dynamite can be very destructive and does pose a threat to your neighbors. Property rights do not mean that we can do anything we want. We can’t use our property to violate the rights of others, or threaten to do so.

There was then a great deal of conversation on this topic before the meeting was adjourned. What follows are some additional thoughts on the subject.

A right is a sanction to freedom of action in a social setting. Our rights place boundaries on others—they may not interfere with our actions. Their rights place boundaries on us—we may not interfere with their actions. Only physical force can prevent or compel an individual to act in a specific way. Only force can make him act contrary to his own judgment.

If we sent noxious smoke over a fence, we have exposed our neighbor to harmful materials without his consent. We have forced him to act contrary to his own judgment. Now, if for some reason he allows us to send such smoke into his yard, we have not violated his rights—he has voluntarily agreed.

The same holds true of a room full of dynamite. If we pack a room with enough explosives to damage the property of others—and we do so without their knowledge and consent—we are placing their lives and property at risk without their agreement. We have imposed an objective threat against them without their voluntary consent. If we are able to secure the permission of everyone who might be impacted—that is, those whose lives and property are threatened—we would not be violating their rights.

An analogy to the dynamite situation is a guard dog. So long as the dog is restrained he poses a threat only to those who voluntarily come near him. But if the dog is allowed to roam freely, he becomes a threat to anyone who is nearby, whether they consent or not.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Defending Property Rights on Moral Grounds

The following is the text of a talk I delivered to the Houston Property Rights Association on January 16, 2008.

During 2008 Forbes magazine lauded Houston as the best city in the United States in which to earn a living and the best city to buy a home. Numerous other publications placed Houston at the top of their “best of” lists. The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics found that Houston had the highest job growth in the nation. Houston escaped the housing bubble that gripped so much of the nation. In short, Houston’s economy has provided us with affordable housing and plentiful job opportunities and continues to do so. Some pundits claimed that Houston’s strong economy is the result of high oil prices and abundant land. While there is certainly some truth in these claims, they fail to address the fundamental difference between Houston and cities that experienced economic turmoil during 2008.

Unlike other American cities, Houston has not stifled developers and builders with crippling land use regulations. The absence of these government controls significantly reduces construction costs and the cost of doing business compared to other cities. These lower costs are a direct result of the city’s general respect for individual freedom and property rights, a respect that is much greater than other American cities. These lower costs keep housing affordable and stimulate job creation.

But there are many who wish to change this. At a time when Houston is enjoying the economic consequences of its freedom in land use, many simultaneously seek to have Houston adopt the same restrictive policies that drive jobs from cities and create unaffordable housing. Potential candidates for Mayor in 2009 have called for tougher land use regulations. For example, City Controller Annise Parker has suggested that the city use a combination of regulations and financial incentives to steer development into areas it deems appropriate. Councilmember Peter Brown claims that the absence of development regulations is creating flooding, air pollution, neighborhood blight and decline. During 2008 City Council fought to stop several development projects, such as the Ashby High Rise and Magnolia Glen, in response to outcries from neighborhood civic organizations. The trend in the city is for greater land use regulations.

For decades Houston has stood in stark contrast to other American cities by rejecting destructive land use regulations. Today Houston stands in stark contrast to other American cities in its affordable housing and lower cost of living. Houstonians will not continue to enjoy these economic benefits if the city enacts restrictive land use policies. Houstonians cannot eliminate the cause of affordable housing without eliminating affordable housing.

To understand why Houston is considering more restrictive land use regulations, we must first examine the principles that underlie those controls. Only then can we identify the proper response, and what Houstonians can do to retain their freedom in land use and the ensuing economic benefits.

The arguments for land use regulations are designed to have broad appeal and thus attract the support of the public. Land use regulations, it is alleged, improve a community’s “quality of life”, it allows for planning, it protects neighborhoods, it empowers the people, and it stabilizes property values. These arguments have been used over and over in defense of land use regulations.

These claims fail to address the principles that underlie land use regulations. These claims fail to answer important questions about how land use regulations actually work. For example, whose ideas regarding “quality of life” will prevail? Whose plan will be followed? What are the consequences of restrictive land use regulations in cities that have them? These are crucial questions that must be answered in any debate over land use regulations.

“Quality of life” is a matter of personal values. Some individuals value a short commute to work, while others value life in the suburbs. Some individuals value a spacious back yard, while others prefer a home with no yard. Each of these preferences and many, many more contribute to our “quality of life”. Each individual defines “quality of life” differently, and that definition is based on the individual’s values. In seeking to improve a community’s “quality of life”, land use regulations officials must necessarily choose one definition while rejecting others. In the end, when individuals hold different values regarding land use, land use regulations allow for the values of some individuals to be imposed upon the entire community.

The same is true in regard to planning. Land use regulations advocates claim that land use regulations allows city officials to plan the city’s growth and without land use regulations a city will develop in a chaotic manner. Such arguments ignore the fact that every individual and every business engages in planning on a routine basis. Planning is the process of identifying goals and the means for achieving those goals. Choosing a career or a place to live requires planning. Deciding on what products or services to offer to the market requires planning. Each individual develops plans on the basis of his values and judgment. Land use regulations subject the plans and judgment of individuals and businesses to the approval of bureaucrats and politicians. The plans of individuals and businesses are subjugated to those of centralized planners, and are therefore rendered irrelevant if they do not conform to the dictates of the planners. Which means, the plans, values, and judgments of some individuals are imposed upon the entire community.

All of the arguments for land use regulations are founded on the premise that the community is the standard of value and the individual is subservient to the community. Whether it is “quality of life”, or planning, or “empowering the people”, or any other argument in favor of land use regulations, the underlying premise is that the individual must sacrifice his values to those of the community; the individual must subjugate his judgment to that of others.

Some have argued that this is simply democracy in action. While this is true, it is important to remember that America’s Founding Fathers rejected democracy. James Madison wrote:

There is no maxim in my opinion which is more liable to be misapplied, and which therefore needs elucidation than the current one, that the interest of the majority is the political standard of right and wrong.... In fact it is only reestablishing under another name and a more specious form, force as the measure of right....
Democracy means unlimited majority rule. The majority may do as it pleases simply because it is the majority. Under democracy the individual is subservient to the majority.

Under democracy an individual’s rights are continually threatened, because if the individual finds himself in the minority on any issue, he is required to follow the dictates of the majority. He may be on the winning side on a vote regarding light rail, but be on the losing side on a vote regarding school bonds. When he wins, his values are imposed upon others. When he loses, the values of others are imposed upon him.

Economically, by restricting the land available for any particular use, land use regulations increases housing prices and the cost of doing business. Many studies have documented the economic impact of zoning and other land use controls. As one example,
University of Washington professor Theo Eicher found that Seattle and Washington state's land-use regulations have increased home costs by 44 percent of the total price of a $450,000 median home. The costs of land use regulations have made home ownership virtually impossible for a large percentage of the residents of Seattle.

Houston, on the other hand, has some of the nation’s most affordable housing.

There is an inverse relationship between government controls and the cost of living. Cities that violate individual rights by enacting restrictive land use controls experience higher housing costs and higher costs of doing business. The additional costs result from a lower supply of land for each type of use, the costs of obtaining permits, the costs of carrying property that cannot be developed due to the permitting process, and the inability of developers to easily change land to its most efficient use. Houston’s builders avoid the expenses associated with the regulatory process, and those savings benefit all Houstonians in the form of lower housing costs and lower costs of doing business, that is, a lower cost of living. These economic benefits are the practical consequence of Houston’s greater respect for property rights.

As important as these economic points are, they are insufficient. If we are to effectively defend property rights we must seize the moral high ground.

The right to property is the right to earn, use, and dispose of material values. The right to property means that the owner may use his property as he chooses, free from the dictates of government or his neighbors. The right to property, like all rights, defines and sanctions an individual’s freedom of action within a social context. Rights place boundaries on the actions of others, thereby allowing an individual to act without interference from others. The mutual rights of others prohibit him from interfering with their actions, that is, violating their rights.

The only manner in which rights can objectively be violated is through the use of physical force (or the threat of force) against an individual and/ or his property. It is only through physical force, such as robbery, kidnapping, or murder, that an individual can be deprived of his property, liberty, or life. It is only through physical force that one individual can compel another to act (or not act) in a particular manner.

This does not mean that an individual can do anything he wishes on his property. Blaring loud music in the middle of the night objectively prevents neighbors from enjoying their property. Sending noxious fumes over the fence presents an objective threat to the physical welfare of others. Such actions—commonly addressed through nuisance laws— are properly banned because they are a form of physical force and pose an objective threat to others.

The moral basis of property rights, like all rights, is not mystical incantation or social convention, but the requirements of human life. The values required to sustain and enjoy one’s life do not magically appear. They require effort to produce. The individual who produces such values has a moral right to the products of his effort. To deprive him of his production is to deprive him of the right to sustain and enjoy his life.

The very nature of land use regulations violates the property rights of the owner, and thus is a rejection of the right of an individual to act according to his own judgment in the pursuit of his individual values. With land use regulations, a property owner may not use his property in the pursuit of his values, but rather, he is compelled to use his property to serve the values of others. The use of his land is dictated by law, and any use contrary to that dictate makes him a criminal. Land use regulations permit some individuals to give their values the power of law.

Unlike most American cities, Houston has remained relatively true to the principles of individual freedom and property rights. On three separate occasions Houstonians have rejected land use regulations in referendums. But they have not rejected the principles underlying land use regulations. For nearly thirty years Houstonians have embraced and accepted regulations and controls—such as billboard regulations, a preservation ordinance, and a ban on attention-getting devices— that would normally be a part of a comprehensive zoning plan. While land use remains relatively free in Houston, there are a growing number of controls on land use.

These regulations are accepted because Houstonians have embraced the premise that the individual must sacrifice for the community. Houstonians accept the premise that individual rights can be subjugated to the “public interest”. But such a standard is incompatible with human life—an individual cannot live and prosper while sacrificing his values to others. An individual cannot achieve his values while simultaneously renouncing them. An individual is not free if his actions are controlled by others.

Houston’s relative freedom is land use is the result of implicitly embracing the moral principles that support individual rights. But implicit acceptance is insufficient and easily undermined.

Houston is a great city because it is a relatively free city—it has a greater respect for property rights than other cities. Houstonians have not allowed political power to deny individuals the ability to plan and act in pursuit of their values. But Houston’s continued greatness is not guaranteed.

Advocates of land use regulations believe that they have morality on their side. They defend their proposals with appeals to the “common good”. They believe that the individual must sacrifice to the community. But morality is not on their side; life does not require sacrifice. Life is not a battle over which individuals will be victims, and which individuals will be victimizers.

For too long defenders of property rights have accepted the morality of our enemies. We must change that. We must do more than argue that land use regulations are impractical. We must also argue that they are immoral. And they are impractical precisely because they are immoral.
We must write letters to the editor and speak to whomever will listen. We can write a blog, as I do. But most importantly, we must challenge the moral premises that underlie land use regulations.

If Houston is to remain a world leader in the recognition and protection of property rights, the defenders of those rights must seize the moral high ground. We must defend the morality of property rights with certainty and pride. We must defend the moral right of each individual to his own life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. If this occurs, Houstonians will continue to enjoy their freedom and the economic benefits that result.

Monday, January 19, 2009

I Have a Dream

Martin Luther King was a package deal. His stand for racial equality before the law was brave and true. But he coupled that stance with altruism and collectivism. The following is my version of his “I Have a Dream” Speech. Much of the text is his--with selective changes from me.

Nearly eleven score years ago, great Americans gathered in the sweltering heat of a Philadelphia summer to write the United States Constitution. This momentous document came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of individuals around the world who had been seared in the flames of despotism and tyranny.

But two hundred and twenty years later, the individual still is not free. Two hundred and twenty years later, the life of the individual is still sadly crippled by the manacles of regulation and the chains of government control. Two hundred and twenty years later, the individual lives on a lonely island of forced sacrifice in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.

When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every individual was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all individuals would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as individuals are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has forced the individual to sacrifice his values and his life. But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of statism to the sunlit path of individual freedom. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quick sands of collectivism to the solid rock of individualism. Now is the time to make freedom a reality for all individuals.

It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. Two-thousand nine is not an end, but a beginning. There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the individual is in full possession of his moral rights. The illumination of reason will continue to light the minds of individuals until the bright day of justice emerges.

But there is something that I must say to individuals who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of freedom. In the process of gaining our moral rights we must not be guilty of pragmatism or expediency. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of compromise.

We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of moral certainty. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into fallacious arguments. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of addressing open minds with reason.

As we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back. There are those who are asking the devotees of individual rights, "When will you be satisfied?" We can never be satisfied as long as the individual is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of collectivism and statism. We can never be satisfied, as long as our minds, brimming with ideas and dreams, cannot guide our actions. We cannot be satisfied as long as the individual’s basic purpose is serve to the collective. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by mantras stating "You Must Serve Others".

I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal and endowed with certain inalienable rights."

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia that sons and daughters will be able to wed the person of their choice, no matter his gender.

I have a dream that one day even the state of California, a state sinking into the sewers of altruism, a state that sacrifices humans to sand dunes, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that all individuals will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by their political clout but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day the individual shall be exalted, every achievement looked upon with gratitude, and the glory of the individual shall be recognized.

This is the knowledge that I go forward with. With this knowledge we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this knowledge we will be able to transform the jangling discords of competing special interest groups into a beautiful symphony of freedom. With this knowledge we will be able to work together, to play together, to struggle together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

This will be the day when all individuals will be able to sing with a new meaning, "My country, 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim's pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring."

And if America is to be a great nation again this must become true. So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania!

Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado!

Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California!

Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all individuals will be able to join hands and state the words from that great American novel, "I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for the sake of mine."

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Don't Sweat the Small Stuff 10

The text of the talk I delivered to the Houston Property Rights Association on Friday will be posted on Tuesday. A summary of the Q & A will be posted Wednesday.

Here's a Fine Pickle
The National Safety Council has called for a nationwide ban on cell phone use while driving. The group's president and chief executive, Janet Froetscher, cited numerous studies to support her contention that talking on a cell phone is akin to driving while intoxicated:

Froetscher said the council examined more than 50 scientific studies before reaching its decision. One was a study by the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis that estimates 6 percent of vehicle crashes, causing about 2,600 deaths and 12,000 serious injuries a year, are attributable to cell phone use. Hands-free cell phones are just as risky as hand held phones, she added.
This reminds me of a study I heard about many years ago relating to pickles. I do not recall the exact numbers, so do not quote me.

The study found that 90% of dead people had eaten a pickle. Nearly 50% of the people who had eaten a pickle came down with the flu within 5 years, if they hadn't already died. And nearly 85% of all communists have eaten pickles. The study concluded that pickles were a primary cause of illness and death, not to mention totalitarian political views. The researchers recommended banning pickles.

Like all regulations and controls, the cell phone ban would treat all drivers the same, regardless of their specific actions. Punish those who use cell phones irresponsibly, rather than ban their use. When they outlaw cell phone use, only outlaws will use cell phones.

Mr. X is Mellowing
I've previously mentioned Quanell X, the local rabble rouser who likes to appear in public with armed body guards. The Houston Press recently ran a feature on Mr. X that declared he was mellowing:

Quanell, however, says he's found a new voice and that his days of racial, religious and sexual bigotry are behind him. He says he's matured, studied history and felt the sting of racism within his sacred Muslim community, all of which have contributed to his gradual evolution as a person and a leader.

For the first time ever, he's publicly saying he's willing to build bridges across the same racial and sexual divides he's helped widen and work with whomever he can to aid his community. Even if it means alienating his hard-ass core of revolutionary African-American supporters.

"White folks," he says, "you are now on the back burner. Hate is too consuming. It consumes the hater as well as the hated. This is a new philosophy for me. My main focus is on trying to implement solutions for the serious problems within the black community."

I don't believe Mr. X any further than I could throw his posse. He is doing what is expedient at the moment, and when new conditions dictate he'll take white folks off the back burner and toss them in the fire. He may be expressing his racism more mildly, but he is still a racist.

And he is wrong to claim that hatred consumes the hated as well as the hater. Mr. X hates me, but I haven't spent one nanosecond thinking about his hatred. And beyond the time it took for me to identify the nature of his character (or write this post), I have given no thought to my hatred of him. Evil is impotent, and I'm not going to allow his problems to ruin my life.

A Rose is a Rose
neoHouston promotes land use regulations while skipping all around using the term:

We need to embrace our uniqueness as a metro area, and embrace form-based code. That’s what we already have! Now, let’s improve on it by setting logical, mandatory standards for building placement and street network design that create a flexible, adaptable, sustainable market in every part of the city. Where local management districts and neighborhoods wish to voluntarily adopt additional architectural standards, they should be able to.
Over the years, zoning advocates have tried to use all kinds of different words to describe their proposals. The latest are "planning" and "form-based code". Many of the latest advocates, including neoHouston, even explicitly denounce traditional zoning.

I don't know if these people really think they are fooling anyone, or if they just don't know any better. Whether they call it zoning, or planning, or form-based code, or anything else, it is still land use regulation. It is still the heavy hand of government dictating how property owners can use their land.

Unable or unwilling to think in principle, they think that Houston can somehow avoid the economic turmoil that invariably follows restrictive land use policies. Rejecting the fact that specific principles underlie land use regulations, they think that it's just a matter of tweaking details or using a different term. They are wrong.

Certainly, some forms of land use regulation are less restrictive and destructive than others. But all involve the violation of individual property rights. All are wrong as a matter of principle. And that will remain the case no matter what they call it.

Legalizing Drugs
Clarence Page wrote in Thursday's Chronicle about legalizing drugs. He takes the typical utilitarian view:

Legalization is not the perfect solution. But treating currently illegal drugs
in the way we treat liquor and other legal addictive substances would provide
regulation, tax revenue and funds for rehabilitation programs. Most satisfying,
it would wipe a lot of smiles off the current drug lords’ faces.
There is no mention of the moral right of each individual to choose what he puts into his body, even if his choices are self-destructive. Instead, Page offers more of the same, only changing who and what will be regulated and controlled. This is like rebelling against communism by advocating socialism, or fighting Obama with religion.

The only real issue in regard to drugs is--who owns your body? If you own it, you have a moral right to do with it as you choose. And if you don't, then you are just a slave.

Friday, January 16, 2009

It's All for the Children

Two articles in last Friday's Chronicle show just how subjective, arbitrary, and dishonest most laws are. The first story deals with a ruling from the Consumer Product Safety Commission that exempts thrift stores from testing children's products for lead. The article states:
As initially interpreted before CPSC's clarification, the law would have required thrift stores, shops selling handmade toys and small businesses to spend tens of thousands of dollars on testing.

In other words, the law could be interpreted a myriad of ways. And who knows if today's interpretation will be tomorrow's? The future of thousands of small businesses hangs in the balance, and even if they attempt to honestly comply with this dictate, a new interpretation could subject them to fines and/ or jail. Which means, they could be made criminals because of the changing whim of some bureaucrat. And those that do try to comply could be forced out of business. Sue Warfield, past chairwoman of the American Specialty Toy Retailing Association, said:
There are some of them that literally would not be able (to survive) if they had to pay whatever the fee is for testing. The only way they could is to raise their prices. And that would put them out of business, too, because many of them already have a little bit higher price because they are smaller companies.

Almost daily we hear of massive layoff and bankruptcies, and our government's solution is to pass arbitrary mandates that will wipe out more jobs. At least the children will be "safe", and that is important because they are going to need to work forever to pay off the massive debt that is being run up.

Such laws do more than force businesses to incur additional costs. They also breed a false sense of security. One customer in a local Goodwill store said:

Usually, products that come here have already been used. So my opinion is ... the people that bring it here have used it already. In other words, they are confident that the products that have been used are all right.

This parent has suspended all responsibility for judging himself. He acts on the basis of the judgment of others--others who are complete strangers to him. In the article he claims that he shops for child-safe products, but he is simply guessing as to what is safe and what is not. His criteria is the judgment of others, whether other parents or the government.

This law applies to some businesses but not to others, even though they sell the same products. Some businesses are forced to test products, but others are not. Which means, some businesses are arbitrarily exempt from an arbitrary law, while others are not. Any law that has exceptions is not an objective, or valid, law.

The law was supposedly intended to insure that toys are safe in order to protect children. But apparently children whose toys come from thrift shops don't need that "protection".

But there is more. The second story deals with a new policy from the Department of Education:

U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings signed off on Texas' plan to give schools and districts credit for students who fail state exams in reading and math — if they are on track to pass in coming years. Texas is one of 15 states that have won permission to use a so-called student growth model when calculating their federal No Child Left Behind ratings.

The fascinating part of this is that, while educators can't teach students to read or write, they are apparently psychic. Apparently, even if a student can't pass a state exam today, educators can somehow tell if he will be able to do so at some time in the future and that is good enough.

This isn't really a surprising development. For years educators have argued that we shouldn't hold back students simply because they couldn't perform-- we wouldn't want to hurt poor Johnny's self-esteem. And now the government doesn't want to castigate failing schools-- we wouldn't want to hurt the administrator's self-esteem.
"Many people will perceive that this lowers standards, but the standards that were set were arbitrary anyway," said Jim Parsons, executive director of accountability for the Humble Independent School District.

The Texas Education Agency estimates that 136 more school districts and 411 more campuses would have met the No Child Left Behind standards in 2008 had a growth measure been used. That represents an 11 percent increase in districts and a 5 percent increase in schools making the grade. [emphasis added]

Granting exceptions will certainly make Texas schools look better and help them "meet" government mandates. But what about the children that this law is supposedly intended to help? They will get promoted to the next grade level, even though they can't perform the work. They won't learn how to read or write, but they will learn that political expediency is the path to "success".

First the government sets arbitrary standards under the pretense of helping children, and then arbitrarily makes exceptions to make the schools look good. The fact that the child can't perform the work is irrelevant.

Laws that allegedly protect children or promote their welfare are politically popular. Who could possibly be opposed to children? But these laws place shackles on adults, limit their freedom, and prohibit them from acting on their own judgment. If children are our future, what kind of future will they have when they become adults and have no freedom? The truth is, they will never be permitted to act as adults. They will never be permitted to exercise their own independent judgment. Instead, a paternalistic government will continue to treat them like children. And they will welcome it.

And what kind of aspirations will they have when they are taught that one's actual performance does not matter, that the facts are secondary considerations? They will expect mortgage companies to extend loans even if they are a poor credit risk. They will expect to be admitted to college on the basis of race and need. They will expect their failing business to be bailed out because of the "public interest". They will expect effects without enacting the cause. Indeed, they will expect to get results no matter what actions they take, even actions destructive to their stated goals.

This is no surprise in a culture that rejects principles. Laws are passed under the guise of protecting children. When it becomes clear that such laws are impractical, exceptions are made. Politicians and bureaucrats just tinker and tweak, trying to find something that "works". But the principle underlying the law is never questioned.

Invariably, such laws have an effect opposite the stated intention. In their rush to protect children, legislators inflict more harm than any toy with lead paint could ever cause.