Saturday, February 28, 2009

Don't Sweat the Small Stuff 16

Why Not Just Ban Death?
Two Texas legislators--Rep. Myra Crownover and Sen. Rodney Ellis--have introduced bills to ban smoking in all "public" facilities, including workplaces and restaurants. (Just to prove that neither party has a monopoly on pandering, Crownover is a Republican and Ellis is a Democrat.)

In an OpEd that appeared in last Sunday's Chronicle, the bill's authors claim:

When this legislation becomes law, Texas workers no longer will have to choose between their health and their paycheck.

Since when has anyone had to make such a choice? The last I heard, there are millions of jobs in Texas. If someone doesn't like the conditions in one workplace he can go get another job. This of course, requires individual responsibility, a trait that seems to be disappearing faster than ink at the U.S. Treasury.

If I Were Mayor
Also last Sunday, reigning Houston Mayor Bill White addressed the city's animal shelter in a letter in the Chronicle:

Though we increased the budget on Bureau of Animal Regulation and Care by 33 percent and made improvements, some of the recommendations of my citizens' task force have not been implemented.

Several concrete actions will be undertaken this year: We will dedicate more public funds and solicit more private funds for an attractive, centrally located adoption facility; increase spay-and-neuter services; and add staff to enlist volunteers. We will not neglect existing programs dealing with vicious animals and animal diseases.

Caring for unwanted animals is not a proper function of government. Protecting individual rights is the only legitimate purpose of government. It is immoral to take money from some individuals to give to others; it is more so to use that money for animals.

If I were Mayor, we'd be slashing the budget for animal regulation and care. That entire department would go away, quickly. (And before I can be accused of being an insensitive, animal hating ogre, I have three cats and all were strays.)

Where is My Money?
It seems that every time I turn on the news, which is increasingly rare, I hear another story about someone whining about their problems and complaining that they can't do anything until they get money from Washington.

I have had a splinter in my index finger for weeks. I can't afford tweezers and a magnifying glass, and it looks like my finger is getting infected. It has become increasingly painful to type, and if Washington doesn't help me soon, I might have to find some news reporter to air my plight. I am sure that there are thousands, if not millions who share this horrible agony, and if we fight together we can overcome this insensitivity.

One Little Victory
As mentioned by Gus Van Horn this week, the city of Houston proposed helping potential home buyers clean up their credit so that they can qualify for a mortgage. Following what appears to be massive outrage (locally and nationally), the proposal was pulled. The Chronicle reported:

Mayor Bill White this afternoon announced that a plan for the city to pay off some debts for first-time home buyers has been pulled from tomorrow's City Council agenda. Council members are now professing their "embarrassment" about the proposal, which has hit the national news circuit, including

"This issue has hit a nerve across this country," said Councilwoman Anne Clutterbuck. "Not just here in the city of Houston. Giving people the ability to increase their credit score artificially because we're allowing them to pay off their credit cards is exactly what got us into this (national economic) crisis in the first place."

While this could qualify as a victory, it is puny in the grand scope of things. The budget for this proposed program was $444,000, which will undoubtedly be spent on some other injustice. I imagine the Mayor will just be a little more diplomatic about it next time.

The Moral is the Practical
Brian Shelley, writing at Freedom is the Solution, tells a very interesting story about his boys. He has instituted property rights regarding their toys, their rooms, and indeed the entire house. While he doesn't explicitly state the results, he implies that they have been favorable.

In a broader context, Brian questions whether property rights will lead to a moral society. I would answer with an emphatic "yes".

A moral society is one in which the initiation of force is prohibited. Individuals interact by consent and with the voluntary cooperation of all involved. This is precisely what property rights make possible.

The right to property is the right of use and disposal. The owner controls its "destiny". The owner decides how his property is used, who may use, the terms of use, etc. Others may not use his property without his consent, and he may not use their property without their consent. In other words, an individual may not obtain or use the property of another without the consent of the owner--force may not be used.

This is precisely what Brian is fostering. His children must respect the rights of others, including the parents. The respective rights of each party are clearly stated, and any interactions are consensual. The practical results the family is experiencing is the result of engaging in moral behavior.

Friday, February 27, 2009

My Virtual Platform: Protecting Neighborhoods

(This post is a part of my platform for my virtual campaign for the Mayor of Houston. You can read my announcement here and my statement of principles here.)

Several of my opponents have spoken of the need to protect neighborhoods. But they haven't told us what this means. They assume that we all know, and agree, to the meaning of the term.

A neighborhood is comprised of the individuals who own property and reside within a particular geographic area. But those individuals do not speak with one voice. They have different dreams, aspirations, and values. They seek different things in their life and in the neighborhood in which they live.

The proper function of government is the protection of individual rights, not neighborhoods. To "protect" neighborhoods, government must necessarily restrict the actions of some individuals for the benefit of other individuals. Government must use force to compel or prohibit certain behavior--it must use force to benefit some individuals are the expense of other individuals. This is what my opponents mean by "protecting" neighborhoods.

Consider the positions of my opponents, who advocate controls and regulations on the types of development that can occur. This, they would have us believe, will "protect" neighborhoods from actions that the residents find distasteful. And in the process, the rights of some property owners are violated. "Protections" that require a violation of property rights are a gross contradiction.

Civilized individuals do not resort to force to prohibit actions they find distasteful. They use reason and persuasion. They resort to contract and voluntary agreement, not the heavy hand of government.

The call for neighborhood "protection" is, at root, a demand that the property rights of some individuals be violated for the benefit of others. While it may be politically popular to appease such demands, the principles of individual freedom require that the rights of individuals be protected from the passions of a mob. The rights of individuals are sacrosanct, and may not be violated no matter the number demanding otherwise.

Each individual has a moral right to use his property as he chooses, so long as he does not violate the mutual rights of others. The only manner in which rights can objectively be violated is through the use of force--by compelling an individual to act contrary to his own rational judgment. Finding an action distasteful is not a violation of your rights. If it were, every Houstonian could make claims about countless others, and the result would be the destruction of all rights.

Those who are truly concerned about maintaining a certain character, charm, or quality in their neighborhood should use voluntary, contractual means for doing so. They can purchase objectionable properties, or use deed restrictions to place voluntary restrictions on the use of property.

But most of all, they must take responsibility for their own decisions. I realize that it is not politically popular to make such a suggestion--voters prefer to absolve themselves of responsibility and politicians are quick to cooperate. This does not change the fact that actions have consequences, and those who take the action must be held accountable for their actions. If they do not like the consequences, it is not the responsibility of government to bail them out. It is not the responsibility of government to make the pain go away. It is the responsibility of government to insure your freedom to make decisions and act accordingly.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

My Virtual Platform: The Economy

(This post is a part of my platform for my virtual campaign for the Mayor of Houston. You can read my announcement here and my statement of principles here.)

At a time when Houston and the nation are experiencing a recession and seemingly endless job losses, city government has taken actions to further decrease jobs in Houston by enacting arbitrary restrictions on businesses and individuals.

For example, in 2008 City Council imposed new standards on mobile food vendors that will undoubtedly drive many out of business. City Council also outlawed “attention-getting devices”, a move that will decrease jobs in the signage industry. City Council has, for all intents and purposes, declared its intention to eliminate the billboard industry in Houston, and with it thousands of jobs. These are just a few examples of government intervention in the marketplace that costs the city jobs, interventions which my opponents have supported.

All of these actions ultimately increase costs to consumers, decrease the options and choices available, and violate the rights of Houstonians. These interventions cost Houstonians hundreds of millions of dollars each year, through taxes, permitting and licensing fees, and decreased economic opportunities.

While Houston has historically shown a greater respect for individual rights than other cities, in recent decades the city has increasingly sought to place controls on individuals and businesses. The relative freedom Houstonians have enjoyed has resulted in many economic benefits—a lower cost of living than other major cities, more affordable housing, and consistent job growth. But increased controls will reverse these benefits. Increased controls will increase the cost of housing and destroy jobs.

More significantly, increased controls represent a violation of the rights of individuals. Each individual has a moral right to take the actions necessary to sustain and enjoy his life, so long as he respects the mutual rights of others. Each individual has a moral right to choose his values and the actions necessary to achieve them. Each individual has a moral right to act without intervention from others.

The proper purpose of government is the protection of individual rights—the freedom to act without intervention. Government has no moral authority to intervene in the marketplace, to impose regulations on businesses, or to prohibit voluntary interactions between adults.

A vibrant economy cannot exist without the recognition and defense of individual rights, including property rights. If Houston is to have a growing economy, we must vigorously defend the right of property owners to act in the pursuit of their values according to their own judgment. My administration will recognize and defend the rights of all individuals. We will repeal regulations that violate individual rights—any ordinance that involves the initiation of force. This will reduce the costs to businesses, and in turn save Houstonians millions of dollars. We will eliminate arbitrary barriers to starting and operating a business. We will reduce taxes.

We will ask government to do less—much less. And this provides opportunities for private citizens to do more with their lives—much more. We will privatize improper government services. We will sell government assets that are not required for legitimate government functions. We will reduce the size and scope of government, and in doing so, increase individual freedom. When government takes less from its citizens, they have more of their own money to pursue the values that they need and desire. And in the end, that creates a vibrant economy.

These are not vague promises. These are concrete steps that we will take. They will have practical consequences that will benefit all Houstonians, and more importantly, they will recognize the moral right of each individual to his own life, liberty, property, and pursuit of happiness.

Friday: Protecting Neighborhoods

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

My Virtual Platform: Taxes

(This post is a part of my platform for my virtual campaign for the Mayor of Houston. You can read my announcement here and my statement of principles here.)

Most people complain that taxes are too high. I would agree. The reason that taxes are too high is because government attempts to do too many things, most are which are outside of its proper and legitimate sphere.

I also believe that taxes are too high because taxation is immoral--any level of taxation would be too high in my opinion. Taxation takes money from individuals and businesses without their consent. If a private citizen did this, he would be arrested for theft. The principle does not change merely because government is doing the taking—government takes from those who have earned and gives it to those who have not. This is not a proper function of government and it is immoral.

I would be naïve to suggest that we can end taxation in the near future. There is too much government to dismantle. But we can significantly reduce taxation in Houston. We can take steps to allow Houstonians to keep more of the money they earn.

Our plan for reducing taxes includes selling city assets, privatizing city services, eliminating code enforcement (because the codes will be repealed), and cutting spending in other areas. Each of these steps alone could result in significant tax reduction; together they will have a tremendous impact on your ability to retain the money you earn.

As a few examples of where savings can occur:
  • More than $60 million can be cut from the city budget by eliminating building inspections and similar functions. Building codes, regulations controlling occupancy of residential and commercial buildings, and similar ordinances violate the rights of individuals to use their property as they choose. Such functions are not proper for government and they should be eliminated.

  • Providing parks and other recreational facilities is not a proper function of government. Such assets should be sold to the private sector. Selling some of the city’s parks would allow us to reduce this expense. Our goal is to reduce the parks and recreation budget by at least 15% per year.

  • Nearly $5 million can be cut from the city budget by eliminating sign administration. Ordinances regulating and controlling billboards and signs violate the rights of individuals to use their property as they choose. Such functions are not proper for government and they should be eliminated.

  • Nearly $10 million can be cut from the city budget by eliminating the Mobility Response Team. Clearing roadways is not a proper function of government. This particular program takes money from some Houstonians to use for the benefit of other Houstonians. This program should be eliminated.

  • Nearly $9 million can be cut from the city budget by eliminating the Planning and Development Department. Planning and development are not government functions and should be left to the discretion of private individuals.

  • As we privatize solid waste collection the budget for that department will be reduced. Our goal is a reduction of 25% per year. The budget for FY2009 is $76.41 million. This will translate to a savings of more than $19 million in the first year.

The above measures will reduce the city budget by more than $104 million. The city's current budget is approximately $2 billion per year. Of this, less than half is for legitimate government functions--the police and courts. And both the police and the courts are over burdened with laws that are improper and immoral. The city's budget should be a fraction of what it is today.

We will reduce property taxes by 10% in the first month after taking office. This will save Houstonians $88 million per year. Our goal will be to reduce property taxes by at least 50% in 6 years. Eliminating permitting and licensing fees will translate to other savings not reflected in the city’s budget, that is, lower regulatory impact costs to businesses and consumers. Cutting taxes will allow Houstonians to keep more of the money they earn. Morally, this is only proper. Such measures will also spur investment into new businesses and expansion of existing businesses.

One of my opponents claims that her years of service on City Council and as Controller means that she can spend taxpayer money more wisely than any other candidate. This is a very presumptuous attitude, and I reject it. I do not purport to know how to spend your money more wisely than you, and I intend to take whatever steps necessary to allow you to keep an increasing amount of your money. It’s your money. I don’t intend to try to find ways to spend it more wisely. I intend to find ways to let you keep more of it so you spend it as you choose. I won't make empty promises about not raising taxes, because I will cut taxes significantly.

Thursday: The Economy

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

My Virtual Platform: City Assets

(This post is a part of my platform for my virtual campaign for the Mayor of Houston. You can read my announcement here and my statement of principles here.)

The city currently provides many services that are improper government functions. To provide these services, the city owns millions of dollars in assets. These assets can, and should be sold as a part of our privatization efforts. In addition, the city owns or is involved with other assets--such as sports facilities--that are used for functions that are improper for government involvement.

I hasten to add that such sales will occur in an orderly manner. We will not liquidate all city assets in a matter of months—it will be a gradual process, in which continuity of service will be a primary objective. Further, we will take all reasonable actions to insure that no Houstonian experiences a sudden and unexpected change. We will announce schedules and educate Houstonians during this process.

Our initial efforts will target neighborhood parks—parks that are one city block or smaller in size. While the details may vary slightly because of context, our general plan is to offer these parks for sale to the residents of the neighborhood in which the park is located. The residents can make the purchase through their home owner’s association, through a newly formed entity for the purpose of operating the park, or as individual shareholders.

We recognize that many individuals purchase a home specifically because of its proximity to a park. Therefore, we will attach deed restrictions to the land, which will require that the land remain a park for a period of approximately fifteen years. (These restrictions are voluntary and contractual--they are not an application of government mandated regulations.) This will insure that no home owner will be subjected to a sudden change in land use. At the time the deed restrictions lapse, the owners of the park will have the option to renew the deed restrictions according to whatever terms they choose. This will provide home owners protection against unwanted and unexpected development, but also allow the owners to change the land use at a future time.

We will take a similar approach with larger parks, though the method of sale will be modified. Larger parks, such as Bayland, attract visitors from a wider area, and are not situated within a specific neighborhood. At this time, we have not determined a precise method for selling larger parks.

We will not be selling icons such as Memorial Park or Herman Park as a part of our initial plan. The size and value of these parks will require careful consideration as to the most appropriate methods for privatization. Our immediate goal is to privatize those parks that can be done so easily, which will give citizens more control of their lives and allow us to reduce taxes.

We will develop similar plans for the city’s libraries, particularly the neighborhood libraries. We will sell health clinics, community centers, and similar assets as the city gets out of those businesses. In short, we will develop plans to sell all city assets that are not required for legitimate and proper government functions.

Some may argue that privatizing the city's libraries could result in an absence of such facilities. This may occur, but it does not change the fact that the provision of libraries is not a proper function of government. If citizens desire libraries (or community centers, health clinics, etc.), and are willing to pay for their use, entrepreneurs will seek to satisfy that demand, just as they provide other desired services. If the demand is insufficient to support libraries or other services, then the citizens will have demonstrated that they do not desire such services. In either case, the city will not force some individuals to pay for services used by others.

The sale of these assets will significantly reduce the city's budget. This will be reflected in a reduction in taxes. The sale of these assets will generate millions of dollars in revenue for the city, which will be used for further tax reductions and/ or rebates to the taxpayers. In the process, we will give you more control over your money and your life.

Wednesday: Taxes

Monday, February 23, 2009

My Virtual Platform: "Quality of Life"

(This post is a part of my platform for my virtual campaign for the Mayor of Houston. You can read my announcement here and my statement of principles here.)

My opponents promise that they will improve the city’s “quality of life”, but they do not define the term. They assume that we all know and agree to the same definition of “quality of life”. As used by my opponents, "quality of life" is a meaningless phrase.

The truth is, “quality of life” is a matter of personal values. We each define “quality of life” differently. Some individuals prefer a spacious back yard, while some prefer no yard at all. Some prefer proximity to parks, while others prefer to live close to shopping. Some prefer a short commute, while others prefer suburban life. All of these preferences and many, many more contribute to how each individual conceives “quality of life”.

For politicians to claim that they will improve the city’s “quality of life”, they must necessarily embrace one particular conception of the term. They must accept and implement one view of “quality of life”, to the exclusion of all others. And the “quality of life” that they embrace will be imposed upon all individuals, no matter their own personal views on the subject. All Houstonians will be forced to accept and live by the “quality of life” advocated by public officials.

There is only one context in which any public official can legitimately speak of “quality of life”. There is only one context in which all Houstonians can embrace the same conception of “quality of life”. And that context is individual freedom—the right to pursue your individual values and goals without interference from others, as long as you respect their mutual rights. Indeed, freedom is the ultimate in “quality of life”.

In this context, my administration will improve your “quality of life”—my administration will increase your personal freedom. My administration will reduce the arbitrary restrictions and controls imposed by city government. My administration will allow you to choose and pursue your definition of “quality of life”.

We will accomplish this by repealing ordinances that violate the rights of individuals. We will repeal permitting and licensing, which are nothing more than a mandate by city government that you secure permission for pursuing your “quality of life”. We will reduce taxes, which will allow you to keep more of your money and thereby pursue your “quality of life”. We will repeal ordinances that control how businesses operate, which will allow entrepreneurs to pursue their “quality of life”.

We will not tell you how to build or remodel your home. We will not tell you which contractors you can legally hire. We will not tell you what kinds of trees you can plant, or what kind of signs you can erect. We will allow you to act by right, not by permission.

Government regulations and controls drive up the cost of the goods and services you purchase, stifle competition, and reduce options for consumers. Government regulations and controls decrease jobs, make it more difficult and expensive for businesses to operate, and reduce economic opportunities. Government regulations and controls decrease your “quality of life”. And therefore, any meaningful discussion of improving a city’s “quality of life” must necessarily include reducing the size and scope of government.

Interestingly, my opponents argue that improving the city’s “quality of life” can only occur by expanding government. They argue that more government programs, services, and control over your life and business are the only way we can improve our “quality of life”. If this were true, then totalitarian dictatorships would be the epitome of “quality of life”. If this were true, citizens would voluntarily give all of their money to government.

“Quality of life” is a deeply personal issue for each individual. We each have a moral right to choose our “quality of life” without government restrictions. My administration will not stand in your way—we will allow you to pursue your own happiness and your own "quality of life".

Tuesday: City Assets

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Don't Sweat the Small Stuff 15

Stupid Laws
This web site has an hysterical list of stupid laws. I find it a little hard to believe that some of these are still on the books, but then when I see proposals to ban live oaks, it becomes more believable. A few favorites, with my comments:

In Fairbanks, it is illegal to feed alcoholic beverages to a moose. A law in Fairbanks, does not allow moose to have sex on city streets.

Apparently somebody was getting moose all boozed up and then the moose were having sex in the streets. Those long winters must get really boring in Fairbanks.

The only acceptable sexual position in Washington D.C. is the missionary-style position. Any other sexual position is considered illegal.

I wonder if Ted Kennedy, Bill "I did not have sex with that woman" Clinton, et al, know this. And what about what Congress is doing to the entire nation? I think that qualifies as sodomy.

In Kentucky: It is illegal for a woman to appear in a bathing suit on a highway unless she is: escorted by at least two police officers; armed with a club; or lighter than 90 pounds or heavier than 200 pounds.

So an overweight woman with a club can wander down the highway in a bikini, but an attractive slender woman can't. Maybe they need to import some moose.

When I first moved to Texas in 1980, the state's blue laws prohibited the sale of hammers on Sunday. You could buy nails, but not a hammer. Fortunately, most of those religious influenced laws have been repealed.

Good News?
In what could be considered good news, this week Barry Obama stated that he opposes bringing back the Fairness Doctrine.

"As the president stated during the campaign, he does not believe the Fairness Doctrine should be reinstated," White House spokesman Ben LaBolt told

Even though Barry isn't in favor of the Fairness Doctrine, several Democrat Senators--Charles Schumer, Dianne Feinstein, and Richard Durbin are a few--have voiced support for bringing back the censorship measure. So, while Barry can voice public opposition to the Fairness Doctrine, his allies in Congress can still silence his critics. Who says you can't have your cake and eat it too?

Racial Cowardice
Attorney General Eric Holder told a group of Justice Department employees that Americans are cowards when it comes to discussing racial issues.

Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards.

It is an issue we have never been at ease with and, given our nation's history, this is in some ways understandable. If we are to make progress in this area, we must feel comfortable enough with one another and tolerant enough of each other to have frank conversations about the racial matters that continue to divide us.

Well, I'm willing to get the ball rolling on this one. Personally, I think too many blacks on are welfare. I also think too many whites are on welfare. Now that I think about it, there are too many Hispanics and Asians on welfare as well. I think many blacks rely on slavery as an excuse. I think many immigrants fail to learn English and assimilate. I think many whites are ignorant racists.

I feel better now that I've done my part to start a frank conversation about racial matters, even though none of these issues have much to do with race. They are mostly about altruism, which is one thing that all races seem to share.

Another SEC Failure
As if the Madoff scandal wasn't enough to demonstrate that the Securities and Exchange Commission is incompetent, federal officials raided the Houston office of Stanford Financial this week. They are accusing R. Allen Stanford of conducting an $8 billion fraud on investors.

The SEC web site states:

The mission of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission is to protect investors, maintain fair, orderly, and efficient markets, and facilitate capital formation.

The SEC must be very proud of the job it is doing. We have had two major swindles in the past several months with investors losing $58 billion. And where was the SEC? Chasing down Mark Cuban for alleged "insider trading" that allegedly saved him $750,000. I am sure that all investors will sleep better knowing that the SEC is cracking down on Cuban for less than a million while swindlers are making off with billions.

To put this in perspective, Madoff and Stanford are accused of stealing 77,333 times the money Cuban allegedly gained from his alleged "insider trading". So while the SEC was using its resources to hunt down Cuban, Madoff and Stanford were stealing investors blind. I could get better "protection" from the local street thug.

Breakfast with Barney
According to the Chronicle, seventy people paid to have breakfast with Barney Frank this week at a fundraiser for Mayoral candidate Annise Parker. While the Chronicle did not share the important news of what they ate, it did let us know that Barney "quipped":

They told me to call it a recovery package rather than a stimulus package, but I'd rather be stimulated than recovered.

I am so glad that I don't live in Massachusetts. If I did, I would have to move to Houston pronto.

Friday, February 20, 2009

My Virtual Platform: City Services

(This post is a part of my platform for my virtual campaign for the Mayor of Houston. You can read my announcement here and my statement of principles here.)

The purpose of government is the protection of individual rights, not providing water, sanitation services, or picking up trash. These are not legitimate functions of government, and should be privatized. My administration will seek to return government to its proper functions. In the process, Houstonians will gain more freedom of choice in obtaining the services they need and desire.

Many neighborhoods in Houston currently use private services for removing trash. We will extend this with the intention of ending all city trash collection within a period of four years. During the transition phase, those areas that are using private services will receive a rebate that will reflect the cost savings to the city. At the end of the transition, the city will remove itself from the process and the parties will contract privately.

We will begin to privatize water and waste water services. Our privatization plan for water will involve the sale of the city's water rights, the city's water treatment plants, the city's groundwater pumping stations, and the associated pipeline distribution systems. The waste water system will be privatized by selling the waste water treatment plants and the associated pipelines.

As we privatize we will we be guided by two principles: 1. No Houstonian will be deprived of these services during our transition phase; 2. We will take all reasonable measures to insure multiple service providers for each service.

We will make certain requirements of service providers that must be honored for a period of two years. During that time they will be required to offer service to all households and businesses currently served by the facilities being purchased. This will be a contractual agreement between the city and the service provider, and a condition of sale for the assets they will be purchasing. Our purpose for these requirements is to insure uninterrupted service for all Houstonians during a period of transition from reliance on government to the private sector for the provision of these services.

As we privatize the water and sanitation systems we will develop and codify property rights to the assets that deliver these services, particularly those that are located underground. Repair, maintenance, and upgrades to those assets will require periodic excavation on both public and private property. The rights of all parties--the service providers and the property owners--must be addressed.

During the first year of my administration, we will freeze the budget for Health and Human Services at its current level. In each subsequent year, we will reduce that budget by 10%. This will provide all Houstonians with ample time to prepare to take responsibility for their own health care.

Health care is not a right. Rights pertain to freedom of action, not the results of action. You have a right to seek a doctor's services. You do not have a right to demand that he treat you for free, or that others pay for your service. To demand such is to declare that your needs and desires are a claim on the property and lives of others. You have no such claim. If you cannot afford health care, you will be dependent upon the voluntary charity of others, not the compulsory "charity" of government programs.

My goal is not to provide for those in need, but to provide freedom. There is in fact, no greater human need than freedom. Freedom allows individuals to pursue their own values. Freedom provides opportunities. Freedom allows individuals to be charitable--when they choose. But this is a decision for individuals to make, not their government.

Monday: "Quality of Life"

Thursday, February 19, 2009

My Virtual Platform: Crime

(This post is a part of my platform for my virtual campaign for the Mayor of Houston. You can read my announcement here and my statement of principles here.)

If we are to properly address the issue of crime in Houston, we must begin by identifying the nature of crime and those actions that should be criminal. We cannot make assumptions about such an important matter.The government's sole legitimate purpose is the protection of individual rights--the freedom to act without intervention from others, so long as you respect their mutual rights.

Rights can only be violated through physical force (or the threat of force). For this reason, the police are a legitimate and proper function of government. The purpose of the police is to apprehend those who initiate force against others, that is, violate the rights of other individuals. Only those actions that involve an initiation of force (including fraud, which is a form of force) should be criminal.

Those adults who engage in voluntary actions that do not involve force should not be treated as criminals, and all such actions should be legalized. The city should not be in the business of monitoring and controlling the actions of adults. While state and federal law will not allow Houston to decriminalize all such actions, there are many city ordinances that initiate force against the citizenry, and are therefore immoral and should be repealed.

Regulations on business operations, including occupancy permitting, signage, and health mandates, are an improper use of government power. The operation of a business is an issue to be decided between the business owners, employees, and customers. Government regulations on business operations force the business to operate in a manner prescribed by law, no matter the judgment of the owner and employees, and regardless of the desires of customers. Such regulations involve an initiation of force against the individuals involved.

Land use controls, including building codes, parking regulations, set back requirements, and landscaping dictates, are also improper and immoral. Such regulations and controls force property owners to use their land as dictated by government officials, regardless of the judgment of the owner. Such regulations involve an initiation of force against property owners.

The above ordinances--and many others--involve an initiation of force. Such ordinances compel an individual to act contrary to his own judgment and values. Such ordinances force an individual to act in a particular manner simply because city council has decreed certain actions illegal. Such ordinances should be repealed.

There are voluntary, non-coercive methods for achieving the alleged ends of building codes and land-use regulations. In the yellow pages, there are dozens of companies offering inspection services. Those who desire to have a home or building inspected can hire a private service. Deed restrictions--private, contractual agreements between property owners--can be and are used to provide stability in land-use.

Ordinances that violate individual rights also deprive the police department of valuable resources and turn the police into nannies, rather than protectors of our rights. The police should be dealing with real criminals--robbers, murderers, and rapists--rather than pursuing business owners who erect "illegal" signs or fail to put a "tag" on their taco truck.

Individuals have a moral right to live their lives without intervention from others, including government. Repealing such laws recognizes this right.

Equally important, repealing immoral laws will greatly reduce the city’s enforcement responsibilities--police will have more time and resources to combat true crimes, not monitor adults who are not violating the rights of anyone.

One of my opponents has suggested putting more police on the street, but he has not told us how he will do so. We do not necessarily need more police on the street; if the police are limited to enforcing moral laws, the number of criminal activities will be reduced. This same opponent has suggested mentoring and job training programs as a means for reducing crime. Such programs are not proper functions of government. Training would-be criminals to engage in productive behavior is not a job for government; apprehending and punishing those who engage in criminal acts is.

In regard to crime, my administration will focus two issues: drunk driving and gangs. When officers must no longer enforce laws regarding the conduct in sexually-oriented businesses they will be able to spend more time focusing on actual criminal activity. Rather than monitor conduct that some in our community finds distasteful, the police will be arresting those who violate the rights of other citizens.

This does not mean that we will give carte blanche to individuals and businesses to engage in any conduct they desire. A property owner has a right to use his land as he chooses, so long as he respects the mutual rights of others. However, when his use objectively threatens others--such as conducting target practice in one's back yard or sending noxious fumes over a fence--he has violated the rights of his neighbors to the peaceful enjoyment of their property.

While we will be decriminalizing voluntary interactions between adults, we will simultaneously increase enforcement of those laws that are a violation of the rights of individuals. Those who use force--directly or indirectly--against other citizens are the true criminals and we will provide the police with the resources necessary to apprehend those criminals.

Friday: City Services

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

My Virtual Platform: Statement of Principles

(This post is a part of my platform for my virtual campaign for the Mayor of Houston. You can read my announcement here.)

I will begin my virtual candidacy for Mayor of Houston by doing something that is virtually unheard of in modern politics-- I will state the principles that underlie my candidacy.

The proper purpose of government is the protection of individual rights. Every policy I propose, every position I take, every piece of legislation I endorse will serve this end.

A right is a moral sanction to freedom of action in a social context. A right places boundaries on others-- it prohibits them from interfering with your actions. Their mutual rights prevent you from interfering with their actions. Rights pertain to action--the freedom to take the actions necessary to achieve your values. Rights are not a claim on the values of others.

The only manner in which rights can be violated is through physical force. Only physical force can prevent you from acting as you choose. Only physical force can deprive you of your life, liberty, property, or pursuit of happiness. Again, the mutual rights of others prevents you from depriving them of their life, liberty, property, or pursuit of happiness.

Rights pertain only to individuals. There are no such things as "black rights", which imply that blacks have rights separate and distinct from non-blacks. There are no "gay rights", or "women's rights", or "Hispanic rights". There are only individual rights, and they apply to all individuals, regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation.

You have a moral right to take the actions necessary to sustain and enjoy your life. You do not have a right to demand that others provide your sustenance, or an internet connection, or a flat screen television. You have a moral right to pursue your values, so long as you respect the mutual rights of others. This is true whether you are black or white, male or female, gay or straight. This is true whether you were born in Texas, Ohio, Yucatan, or Southeast Asia. This is true of all individuals.

(It was the philosopher/ novelist Ayn Rand who articulated and defended these moral and political principles. The interpretation and application of these ideas is my responsibility, and I do not purport to represent or speak as an official representative of her philosophy. For more information on her ideas, I refer you to Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal and The Virtue of Selfishness.)

Government today has expanded far beyond its legitimate functions and purpose. On the local level, government has only two legitimate functions--the police and the courts. The purpose of the police is to apprehend criminals--those who violate the rights of other individuals. Properly defined, only those actions that initiate force against others is a crime. The purpose of the courts is to determine the guilt or innocence of accused criminals, and to resolve disputes over contracts. Beyond these two purposes everything the government does necessarily involves the violation of the rights of some individuals for the benefit of other individuals.

In such an environment, government becomes a magnet for special interest groups, each declaring that its agenda is in the "public welfare". Each scurries to develop political influence with the intent of imposing its values upon the entire community. It is a civil war, in which ballots are used in place of bullets. But the results are just as destructive.

When government expands beyond its legitimate functions, it must necessarily become an initiator of force. It must necessarily use force against citizens, not because they have robbed, raped, or murdered, but because they have not secured permission to use their property or operate their business, or because they engage in peaceful, voluntary actions that do not meet the city's approval, or because they have the audacity to use "attention-getting devices" outside their business.

When government provides services not within its proper sphere, it must necessarily limit or prohibit competition. It must secure its "customers", not by their consent, but by mandate. It secures its "customers" by prohibiting competion under the penalty of law. The city government should get out of the water, sewage treatment, and park businesses. It should divest itself of libraries and roads. It should limit itself to the protection of the rights of Houstonians.

Some may think that I am an impractical idealist to advocate such dramatic reductions in the size of government. Let me be clear--I do not intend, nor do I think it prudent to reduce city government to its legitimate functions in the span of two years. To do so would be virtually impossible. But we can begin to move toward that end. We can begin to dismantle city government and return it to its proper sphere. While we will move rapidly, we will also move cautiously--taking every effort to insure an orderly transition.

Our goal is to increase individual freedom. Our goal is to allow Houstonians greater control over their lives. The first steps we take will be to rescind those violations of individual rights that do not involve city services--such as business and building permits. We will move to decriminalize voluntary interactions between individuals that do not involve coercion. Such steps will allow us to reduce taxes and allow Houstonians to keep more of their money. Such steps will allow our police to focus on the real criminals--those who violate the rights of others.

My opponents will argue that we need more government control of our lives. They will claim that individuals must put aside their personal values for the betterment of the community. Some will insist that if we develop a "common vision" we can build a better city. I reject these claims and arguments. All require that you be subservient to the community. All demand that you place the interests of others before your own interests. In contrast, I declare that you have a moral right to live your life for your own happiness. And with your help, the City of Houston will not stand in your way. With your help, Houston will become the freest city in America.

Thursday: Crime

Mayoral Preview: Brian Phillips

Over the past few months I have previewed some of the potential candidates for the Houston Mayoral election in 2009. I have even fantasized about my ideal candidate. But rather than continue to wait in vain for my ideal candidate to emerge, I am now declaring my virtual candidacy for Houston Mayor. (By virtual candidacy, I mean that I am not literally running for Mayor. But I will address the issues as if I were.)

Since I am approaching this as if I were actually running for the City's top position, I must keep in mind political and economic realities. For example, it would not be possible to eliminate taxes and privatize all city services in a single mayoral term (two years). Therefore, I will not advocate such positions. This does not mean that I will compromise; it means that I must recognize that creating more freedom must be a gradual process. Moving towards greater freedom is not as easy as throwing a switch. Weening the public from government services without creating chaos will require careful planning to insure an orderly transition.

I have two reasons for this virtual candidacy. The first is that it is an interesting intellectual exercise. It is one thing to advocate that all property be privately owned. It is another to lay out a plan to get from where we are to that ideal. When Margaret Thacher was dismantling the British welfare state, she created constituencies for her proposals. She appealed to the self-interest of the various individuals who would be impacted by her plans. She was able to get support for her proposals by doing this, and thus was able to get them implemented. My second reason is to be pro-active.

Rather than simply criticize the actual mayoral candidates, I will offer actual solutions. Rather than tell them what they are doing wrong, I will real solutions to the issues facing Houston. This is a form of intellectual activism.

For those who support freedom, my virtual candidacy will offer concrete, positive alternatives to the expansion of government. My platform will offer you ideas that stand in stark contrast to those offered by the mainstream candidates. These ideas will provide you with the intellectual ammunition needed to combat the trend towards greater government control of our lives.

Since this is a "political campaign" I do not know what twists and turns it will take. Since I will not be an actual participant, it will require some creativity to inject these ideas into the debate. For those who support me, this can be a fun and rewarding opportunity to spread the right ideas.

Between now and November I will run a virtual campaign. I will write OpEd articles (I will actually submit them, though not under the pretense of running for Mayor). I will "participate" in debates. I will leave comments on other blogs. I will seek speaking engagements and writing opportunities--not for the purpose of becoming Mayor, but to put forth a positive argument for individual freedom and property rights.

In the coming weeks I will lay out my platform and my position on the issues I think most important. Unlike actual candidates, I will provide real solutions to these issues. Unlike actual candidates, my proposals will not involve an expansion of government powers. The important issues facing Houstonians that I will address are:

  • Crime

  • City services

  • Taxes

  • Quality of life

  • The economy

  • City assets

  • "Protecting" neighborhoods

My message will not cater to the myriad special interest groups that attempt to influence local politics. Politicians who do such are continually changing their message to appeal to the group du jour. My message will be aimed at all individuals, no matter their skin color, their sexual orientation, or their religion. My message will appeal to the best within each individual. My message will be one of individual freedom, and the opportunities which that freedom provides.

Since I am a virtual candidate, I ask for your virtual support. I ask you to share my ideas with the media, voters, and politicians. I ask for your help in delivering my message by commenting on blogs and web sites. I ask you to link to my position statements.

I do not ask that you do so for some higher cause, but rather, I ask that you do it as a matter of your own self-interest. If you value individual freedom and property rights, promoting the ideas that support freedom is in your self-interest. That is my motivation, and I would expect nothing less of my supporters.

I am a political outsider. To run an actual campaign at this time would be an exercise in futility and a waste of resources. The ideas that I advocate are rejected by the political mainstream. However, injecting these ideas into the debate can have positive short term benefits, as well as set the stage for long term success. In the short term we can slow the growth of government; in the long term we can reverse that trend and move towards greater freedom. This virtual campaign is not about winning votes; it is about spreading ideas.

I do not have political connections, nor I do not know the minute details of city or state government. If I were an actual candidate, this would undoubtedly be a liability. However, the fact that such connections and knowledge seems to be necessary to run for office is an indictment on our culture, not my ideas. I say this, not as an excuse, but because such details are largely irrelevant. To argue over details is to accept the premise that government should regulate and control the lives of individuals. I reject that premise. I am not trying to fine tune city government. I am trying to pare it down to size.

Many people run for political office and promise a more business-like approach. But government is not a business--it is an agent of force. Making the use of that force more efficient in the violation of individual rights is not a virtue. My goal is not greater efficiency in government, but greater freedom for individuals.

A year from now, Houston will have a new Mayor. It will not be me. But with your help we can have an influence on the debate. With your help we can move towards greater recognition and protection of the rights of all individuals.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Eleanor Tinsley: The Queen Nannie

Last Saturday I mentioned that the mother of "quality of life" issues in Houston, Eleanor Tinsley, had died. The Chronicle then spent days praising her activities, and last Sunday ran a series of quotes from her. I had forgotten how horrible she was until I read that story, largely because, to paraphrase Howard Roark from The Fountainhead, "I didn't think about her."

Queen Nannie had this to say about the smoking ban she pushed through city council:

You know, people felt like they had a God-given right to smoke. We were taking away from their legal right. It was very difficult to pass. People felt very strongly about it and loved or hated me as a result.
People do have a right to smoke, though that right does not derive from God or from society. It derives from reality--from the fact that individuals must take action to achieve their values and must use their mind to determine both their values and the actions necessary to obtain them.

That Eleanor and her fellow nannies do not like a particular value does not give them justification for banning it. If that were the case, I would argue that nannies shouldn't be allowed to speak in public. For all their talk of tolerance, they are incredibly intolerant of values that they do not hold.

This is the very nature of the "quality of life" crowd. They believe that their values are inherently superior, and that they have a right to impose them upon the entire community. They pursue their agenda oblivious to the lives they ruin because they think that they know best. They believe that force is an appropriate way to achieve "quality of life".

It is sadly ironic that Houston's Fourth of July celebration is held in Eleanor Tinsley Park. The Fourth of July--Independence Day--should be a day to celebrate the individual. America's founding principles were individual rights--the moral right of each individual to pursue his values without interference from others, so long as he respected the mutual rights of others. But Eleanor Tinsley did not recognize individual rights.

Eleanor Tinsley believed that the individual is subservient to the community. She believed that the "public good" or the "general welfare" justified violations of individual rights. She believed that might makes right, and she willingly exercised her might. But that did not, and does not, make it right.

A new generation of Queen Nannies--such as Sue Lovell, Peter Brown, and Annise Parker--are fighting for Eleanor's throne. They seek to impose their vision of "quality of life" on the entire city, and they have an eager throng willing to support their cause. They may disagree on details, but they agree in principle. They agree that they have a right to force their ideas down the throats of all Houstonians. I don't know many people who would find having anything jammed down their throat to be an improvement in their "quality of life".

Monday, February 16, 2009

Banning Live Oaks

I must admit that when I heard that Houston's city council is considering a ban on Live Oaks, my mouth began watering for a fight. If they want to ban my blog, they have finally exposed themselves for the tyrants they are. However I was wrong--it is not my blog that they want to ban, but the trees.

Houston city council is considering banning live oaks and other tall trees under power lines. Council member and "quality of life" Queen Sue Lovell said:

Power lines are not an appropriate place for a live oak. And I don’t think taking an incredibly majestic tree like a live oak and pruning it around power lines, is the right way to treat something so beautiful.

I don't think city council is an appropriate place for would-be dictators, but there you go. Lovell, who normally insists on forcing people to plant trees or protect those already in place, apparently isn't content to simply force people to plant trees. She now wants to mandate what kind of trees.

Lovell and Mayor Bill White contend that this ban will reduce pruning costs of trees near power lines. Since those costs are passed on to electricity consumers, they argue that this prohibition will save people money.

While this measure may save consumers money, so what? The purpose of government is to protect our rights, not our wallet. They could save us money by prohibiting us from driving certain days of the week, or forcing us to keep our thermostats at 85 degrees in the summer, or a myriad other things. If saving consumers money is a valid justification for violating the rights of the citizens, then city council has carte blanche.

And if saving us money is really their concern, what about the taxes and fees taken from us by force? What about the economic impact of regulations on land-use and energy conservation? These have been documented to cost consumers significant amounts of money. Yet, city council continues to rape and pillage Houstonians.

Supporters of the ban point to the damage done to power lines during Hurricane Ike; critics argue that other trees were the culprit.

During Hurricane Ike, thousands of tall pines and majestic water, willow, red and post oaks toppled into power lines, wreaking carnage on the city’s electric system.

One kind of tree, however, added nothing to our misery: the venerable live oak, the glory of South Main and a genetically programmed hurricane survivor. This species defies hurricanes in its native coastline habitats from Virginia through the Carolinas, Florida and around to the Central Texas coast. It survives hurricanes in an inland location like Houston even better.

Critics--or at least this one--don't have a problem with the fact that the proposed ban violates the rights of property owners. They oppose it because they like live oaks. They don't have a problem using force to achieve their desires; they just don't like this particular use of force.

The author of the article cited above is a former executive with CenterPoint. He implies that the power company may be behind this ban.

So what is the problem now? Well, trees buckle sidewalks. Of course, trees do this whether there is a power line nearby or not, so that can’t be the answer. So only one explanation remains: CenterPoint is tired of spending money to trim trees.

A basic principle of business is that customers pay for the expenses incurred by the business. Of course, CenterPoint isn't a typical business--it is heavily regulated by the state. It is expected to deliver power, or else. But the costs of delivering that power are socialized--they are spread among all customers because CenterPoint cannot "discriminate". It cannot charge customers who need more maintenance for that maintenance.

Whether CenterPoint is behind this or not is really irrelevant. City officials think that they have a moral right to dictate what citizens plant in their back yard. They have no such right. Any issues regarding trees and power lines are between CenterPoint and its customers. Both the city and the state should allow each party to address these issues privately and voluntarily.

But government officials will not do this. When faced with a perceived conflict between the moral and the practical, they will always choose the moral. When faced with a perceived conflict between the "general welfare" and the rights of individuals, their moral code--altruism--dictates that they sacrifice the individual to the collective. Altruism demands that the "public good" supersede the good of any individual.

Years ago, Eleanor Tinsley led the charge to outlaw Chinese Tallows, because she regarded them as "trash trees". Now Queen Lovell wants to ban another type of tree because of some alleged public threat. Both made a career out of "quality of life" issues. Both believe that their vision of "quality of life" should be imposed on me. Both believe that they have a right to tell me what to plant in my back yard.

As I write this, I am looking out my office window at the six live oaks in my back yard. They are my trees, not Sue Lovell's, or Mayor White's, or "the public's". If I choose to plant more, I have a moral right to do so. While I have no need or desire for more live oaks, I may plant one just as a matter of principle.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Don't Sweat the Small Stuff 14

Do As I Say...
During the presidential campaign, Obama told us that "we can't drive our SUVs and eat as much as we want and keep our homes on 72 degrees at all times." Repeatedly, he told us that everyone would have to make sacrifices. Everyone apparently, except for Obama. Since the Messiah's arrival, the Oval Office has been reportedly kept warm enough to "grow orchids", according to Chief of Staff David Axelrod.

It is very fitting that the Oval Office is uncomfortably warm, since its current occupant intends to put all of us through hell.

Voices of Reason
From an email from the Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights:

Today, the Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights has launched its blog Voices for Reason, where its experts will provide daily commentary on breaking news from the perspective of Ayn Rand’s philosophy, Objectivism.

According to Debi Ghate, vice president of Academic programs, “Every weekday, we will post new commentary on current events on topics such as the financial crisis, environmentalism, foreign policy, free speech, and property rights. We will also explore the principled solutions Ayn Rand’s philosophy offers for tackling today’s political, economic and cultural problems.

“It is our goal to make Voices for Reason the go-to source for our unique perspective on the most important news of the day and the state of our culture. Our writers will share their insights, evaluating current events using Ayn Rand’s philosophy of reason, individualism, and laissez-faire capitalism as their guide.”

Voices for Reason will also carry announcements and updates from the Ayn Rand Center and the Ayn Rand Institute.

Loving Death
From Gus Van Horn I learned that Tom Daschle, the would-be medical czar, is jealous of Europeans for loving death.
He praises Europeans for being more willing to accept "hopeless diagnoses" and "forgo experimental treatments," and he chastises Americans for expecting too much from the health-care system.

Daschle advocates a board to make the "tough decisions", that is, decide who lives and dies. Apparently Daschle thinks medical care is only for the healthy, and if one doctor (or if Daschle has his way, one bureaucrat) declares a situation hopeless, the individual is sentenced to death. His judgment and his life are irrelevant, because his treatment might cost the government (if Daschle has his way) "too much". This is where socialized medicine always leads--"free" health care, even if it kills you. And it will.

I'm Just Not That Into Her
Sheila Jackson Lee, the Houston Congresswoman who never misses an opportunity to stick her scowling face in front of a television camera, is rumored to be in line for a position as “Under-Secretary” of something in the State Department.

In some ways this would be a welcome development. Those of us in Houston might be spared her incessant whining and constant appearances on radio and television. But she would likely help make what is going to be a disastrous foreign policy more so. So I'm torn. If she stays in Congress she will be a vocal proponent of "universal health care"; if she goes to the State Department, she will help get us all murdered. It reminds of a commercial for some car repair company years ago-- "Kill me now, or kill me later."

Agree to Disagree
Speaking of women who disgust me, Eleanor Tinsley died this week. As a member of city council, Tinsley was the mother of the city's anti-billboard legislation and a leading proponent of "quality of life" issues. In other words, she a busy-body with a gun.

Years ago, when I was a regular irritant at City Hall, she sent me a letter stating that we would have to "agree to disagree". Wikipedia defines the term as a:

resolution of a conflict (usually a debate or quarrel) whereby all parties tolerate but do not accept the opposing position(s). It generally occurs when all sides recognise that further conflict is unnecessary, ineffective or otherwise undesirable. They may also remain on amicable terms while continuing to disagree.

Such a position might be justified over a minor issue, such as what kind of toothpaste is best, or whether Jeremy Brett was better as Sherlock Holmes than Basil Rathbone. But in this context, her position was intellectual cowardice and brazen dishonesty.

As a city official who wrote laws--laws backed with the power of government--she didn't tolerate anything she didn't like. She wrote a law to ban it. And if you didn't follow her commands, you could wind up in jail. I won't miss her.

Friday, February 13, 2009

The Mind and the Housing Bubble

French economist Vincent Benard identifies a contributing factor to the housing bubble that has often been overlooked--land use regulations. (HT: Freedom is the Solution)

Benard writes:

[H]ousing inflation did not occur everywhere in the country. Some of the most dynamic metro areas, in terms of population growth, haven’t experienced any housing bubble. Recent Nobel Prize Paul Krugman, supported by several research papers, notably from academics like Ed Glaeser or Wendell Cox, explained it by land use regulations : when these regulations are flexible and tend to be respectful of the property rights of the land owner, housing bubbles cannot even get started. But when regulations allow the existing real estate owners to prevent farmland holders to build the houses required to satisfy all housing needs, housing prices start skyrocketing.

Economically, land-use regulations (for example, zoning) limit the land available for any particular use. When the demand for housing began to rapidly grow, the reduced supply of land (coupled with permitting and other delays) prevented developers and builders from responding quickly--that is, increasing the supply of housing. The result was housing inflation.

As Benard and others have noted, this did not occur in cities with less restrictive land-use policies, such as Houston, even though Houston's population has steadily grown for decades. Housing prices have remained relatively stable in Houston.

Higher housing costs and an insufficient supply of housing are the visible and practical consequences of land-use regulations. While some would say that this is simply an issue of supply and demand, it really doesn't address the fundamental issue involved.

Land-use regulations, like all regulations, prohibit individuals from acting according to their own judgment. An individual who identifies a demand in the market is often delayed or stopped from acting accordingly by regulations, mandates, and other controls. The arbitrary dictates of bureaucrats and politicians prohibit him from pursuing the course of action he deems best.

Depending on the design, size, and other considerations, a typical 2,000 square foot house can be built in four to six months. Which means, a builder can increase the housing supply relatively quickly. However, if land-use regulations, building codes, environmental impact statements, and other controls stand in his way, he could easily spend years plodding through this morass of paperwork. And in the meantime, the demands for housing remain unmet because the builder is prevented from acting as he judges the facts.

Land-use regulations are actually a misnomer. While the controls dictate the use of land, that control is ultimately aimed at the minds of developers, builders, and their clients. Those controls prohibit individuals from acting on their own judgment in the pursuit of their own values. Individuals are forced to sacrifice their values, and their judgment, to others.

Altruists demand that the individual place the welfare and interests of others before his own. They demand that the individual serve the "common good". But man is a being of mind and body--his actions are guided by his ideas. A man who is intellectually independent will also be independent in action. The altruist understands this, at least implicitly.

While producers are often prohibited to act according to their judgment, consumers are often prodded to act contrary to theirs. Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae dangled tempting mortgage terms in front of unqualified home buyers. No money down, artificially low interest rates, and interest only payments were just a few of the incentives used to encourage consumers to engage in reckless behavior. (I don't mean to absolve the home buyers of their responsibility in doing this. But such loans would not have been probably never have been offered if government had not been involved.)

As Ayn Rand noted many times, reason ends at the point of a gun. As an agent of force, government interventions necessarily involve coercion, whether by manipulating interest rates, "encouraging" home ownership, or regulating land-use. Such actions penalize rationality, and encourage irrationality. As further evidence, the government bailouts are intended to help those who have failed, while making those who succeeded foot the bill. The rational are forced to pay for the errors of the irrational. (This does not mean that every failure is the result of irrationality. But a large number of the failures clearly were.)

While there have been many contributing factors involved in the housing bubble, the essential cause was the government's attack on the mind. Had producers been free act on their own judgment, they would have met the demand for housing. Had the government not encouraged irrational decision making, consumers would not have demanded as much housing. Had individuals been free to act according to their own judgment, the housing bubble would not have occurred.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

A "Monument" to Altruism

A recent report by the Center for Urban Future (HT: Houston Strategies) finds that New York City is losing middle-class residents in droves. The cost of living in the city is simply so high that a middle-class family cannot afford to live there.

The ACCRA Cost of Living Index, an analysis by the Council for Community and Economic Research, finds that Manhattan is by far the most expensive urban area in the United States, with an aggregate cost of living (224.2) more than twice the national average (100) and considerably higher than the second most expensive city (San Francisco, at 173.6).
In contrast, Houston comes in at 88. While housing costs are a large part of the reason for the exorbitant cost of living in New York, other costs are also the most expensive in the nation.

City residents pay among the highest prices in the nation for electricity. Telephone service, auto insurance, home heating oil, parking and milk are also higher in New York than virtually anywhere in the continental U.S. The combined state and local tax bill is also tops among major cities.

An individual in Houston who earns $50,000 would have to make $123,322 in Manhattan and$85,918 in Queens to live at the same level of comfort, according to ACCRA’s Cost of LivingCalculator. Someone moving from Houston to Manhattan would pay 68 percent more for groceries, 447 percent more for housing, 54 percent more for utilities, 22 percent more for transportation and 38 percent more for health care.

While all of these statistics paint a pretty grim picture of life in New York City, they fail to explain why costs are so much higher. These statistic tell us what is occurring, but not why it is occurring. The report does give a hint as to the cause:

One reason for such high costs of course is high land values; another is the city’s building code, which, for example, outlaws in new buildings the once ubiquitous external fire escape, requiring more expensive internal arrangements.

Another big cause, says Randy Lee, chairman of the Building Association of New York City, is the bureaucratic red tape. “You can file a project with [the Department of] City Planning and wait a year before you get the building passed,” Lee says. “A sewage change will take you two years. The bureaucratic environment is really hostile in New York.”
Such delays force developers to incur costs on land they cannot use, on top of the fees associated with the permitting process and the expenses associated with meeting the city's building mandates. All of these costs are ultimately passed on to consumers in the form of higher housing costs. These costs are a primary factor in driving up the cost of housing to a level that is unaffordable.

But these damning economic statistics do little to sway advocates of land-use regulations and draconian building codes. Indeed, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg wants to make the city's building "greener", which will undoubtedly add to the cost of housing. Those who advocate such regulations and controls do so in spite of the overwhelming economic evidence of the harm caused. They advocate such controls because, according to their moral code, it is the proper thing to do.

Such controls are invariably defended on the grounds of the "public welfare" or the "common good" or protecting the public. Underlying all of these arguments is the premise that the individual must place the welfare of others before his own welfare. The individual must sacrifice his values for the alleged benefit of society or the poor or the environment. And if he can no longer afford to pay for housing, so be it. When the altruist must choose between the moral and the practical, his moral code will win every time.

The ultimate cause of New York's high housing costs is altruism--the belief that individuals must serve others rather than themselves. The report states that there is no money to be made in housing for the middle-class. Yet the low-end market and the high-end market have boomed in recent years. The low-end market is subsidized--the needs of the poor must be satisfied with altruistic government policies. The high-end market provides attractive profit margins.

Another factor that contributes to New York's housing costs is rent control, which largely impacts housing for the middle-class. Developers have a disincentive to build rental housing when their profits will be arbitrarily capped by rent control laws. Not surprisingly, the city's vacancy rate is the lowest in the nation--rent control discourages an expansion of supply.

Rent control laws, like building codes and land-use regulations--are ultimately driven by altruism. The need for affordable housing takes precedence over the property rights of landlords and developers and the actual results are irrelevant. That laws intended to create affordable housing have actually had the opposite effect is of no concern to the altruists.

Altruism can only lead to misery. Despite the pronouncements of its advocates, altruism is neither benevolent nor concerned with human welfare. A morality that demands self sacrifice is not a morality concerned with the well-being of individuals. A morality that demands the renunciation of one's values is not intended to lead to happiness. Altruism presents individuals with the false alternative between morality and practicality, between virtue and happiness. If New York is to ever be a great city again, it must reject altruism. It must embrace the moral code that is also practical--egoism.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Quality of Life Coalition

The Quality of Life Coalition (QLC) is an umbrella organization of civic, business, and charitable organizations dedicated to making Houston a better city. This sounds laudable, until we examine what they advocate, and how they propose to achieve their goals.

While claiming that "quality of life" and economic prosperity go hand in hand, QLC
supports active enforcement of Houston's billboard ordinances and banning construction of further billboards in the greater Houston area and the state.

In short QLC would like to put the billboard industry out of business, which means the loss of several thousand jobs. Apparently, the "quality of life" of those employed in the billboard industry is of little concern to QLC. This is not surprising, as groups like QLC are quick to claim that they speak for the public, while destroying the livelihood of some members of that public.
QLC gives away their hand when they speak of economic development.

Higher pay is not enough to attract and maintain the best and brightest of the market's workforce to the Houston region. We must be able to offer a strong and healthy community, one that allows families to prosper personally as well as financially, one that offers tremendous quality of life.

These types of arguments have been bandied about by the "quality of life" crowd for nearly one-hundred years. Since the 1920's they have claimed that Houston needs zoning if the city is to keep growing. But the fact that Houston has kept growing--and led the nation in job creation in 2008--is an inconvenient fact that they just evade. They keep making the same dire predictions, decade after decade. And in the meantime tens of thousands of people find Houston's "quality of life" attractive enough to move here every year. The voluntary actions of individuals is a much more compelling statement about our "quality of life" than the feel good statements of QLC and its ilk.

What is interesting is that QLC never defines "quality of life". They assume that everyone knows its meaning, and agrees to that meaning. They assume that all Houstonians define "quality of life" the same way.

The truth is, "quality of life" is a matter of personal values. Some value parks, while others value shopping centers. Some value short commutes, while others value life in the suburbs. These values, and many, many more contribute to how we define "quality of life". To imply that all Houstonians agree to the same definition is arrogant, and an evasion of readily evident facts. All they need to do is drive through the Montrose, or the Heights, or Rice Military, or West University, or countless other neighborhoods to see that Houstonians define "quality of life" differently.

This is precisely what QLC and its supporters oppose. Freedom permits individuals to pursue their values without interference from others, so long as they respect the mutual rights of others. And sometimes individuals pursue values that others find distasteful. But rather than defend the rights of others, QLC wants to use the power of government to impose its values on the entire city. They want to prohibit values that don't fit with their view of "quality of life".

In advocating the use of force to achieve their ends, QLC is actually destructive to the "quality of life" in Houston. Individual freedom is the most essential factor in determining "quality of life". Endorsing regulations and controls on individuals is destructive to that freedom, and thus "quality of life".

If QLC and its supporters really cared about "quality of life" they would advocate greater individual freeom. They would defend the right of each individual to define his own "quality of life" and pursue it without the arbitrary restrictions of government. They would defend property rights, rather than attack them. They would be planting the seeds of liberty, not trees and landscaping.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Graffiti Wars

An increase in graffiti during the holidays has several city officials and other members of the "keep Houston pretty" community up in arms. But the "tagging" community finds this cause for celebration.

According to local ABC affiliate, KTRK

"They chose a nice spot, a spot near the freeway where the visibility is good and they did it big," said photographer Marco Torres.

Torres is a photographer who focuses on urban culture on his Web site.

"I myself can't do this art, and that's why I document it because I love it," he said.

"It doesn't matter if you like it or not, it only matters that it's visible," Torres added. "That you see it and it's there, it's part of the city."

"It's just an uptick right now and I'm happy ya know," said Torres.

The city spent $2.25 million in 2006 to abate graffiti from public and private property. Officials expect that number to grow as these "artists" seek to make a name for themselves. In typical government fashion, they throw money at a problem and let the criminals act with impunity. In the KTRK article, Torres names two of the "artists". If he knows their names, why don't city officials? And if they do know the culprits, why aren't they arrested and jailed?

Council member Sue Lovell, chair of council's "Quality of Life" committee provides an answer:

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.

Apparently, Lovell thinks begging is more effective than punishment. Apparently, she thinks that these "street artists" will see the light and renounce their criminal activities if we just talk nice to them. But if begging isn't enough, bribery just might do the trick. In January Lovell--who admits to engaging in a little "tagging" herself--offered "taggers" the city's entire graffiti removal budget to purchase property for them to do their thing if they will just stop using other property.
Lovell isn't quite as understanding when it comes to the property owners who get "tagged". The city's graffiti ordinance--Lovell has made graffiti removal a priority in her agenda--gives property owners ten days to remove graffiti or face criminal sanctions. So while she is trying to throw carrots to "taggers" she uses a stick on property owners. She wants to give rewards to the criminals and punish the victims. She proudly inverts justice.

Government's function is the protection of individual rights, including property rights. But rather than protect those rights, Lovell and her co-horts want to take money from taxpayers to literally cover up a crime. At least when we are all goose-stepping to her orders we will get to march through pretty streets.

The Quality of Life Coalition (more on them tomorrow) advocates the same limp-wristed response.

The Coalition supports a two-pronged approach: (1) volunteer-enhanced clean-ups and education, and (2) the creation of a public education program, patterned after the successful Don't Mess with Texas campaign, which paid for itself in decreased litter-pick up costs.

I agree that an educational campaign might be effective. I suggest that we teach the punks who deface property that they are committing a crime, and criminals go to jail. I suggest that we teach them that actions have consequences, and sometimes not very pretty ones. I suggest that we teach them that the true cost of their "art" and put them on graffiti abatement patrol. These are lessons that the "taggers" and City Council need to learn.