Thursday, April 30, 2009

John Mackey and the "Branding" of Freedom

Question: What do you get when you cross a hippie and a successful businessman?

Answer: A Libertarian.

John Mackey, founder and CEO of Whole Foods Market, claims that he has forsaken his hippie roots and is now an advocate of freedom. Yet, this talk reveals a much different story.

Mackey criticizes the "freedom movement" for "bad branding". The wrong emphasis, he argues, is largely responsible for driving young adults to the Left:
How sad that the freedom movement often refuses to be idealistic. We usually don't even attempt to compete. We simply forfeit the field to the Left because we pride ourselves on our "realism" and "tough-mindedness." We talk about freedom and prosperity — and that is about it.

While decrying the absence of "idealism" in the "freedom movement", Mackey simultaneously attacks the most principled and consistent defender of freedom--Ayn Rand. Rand, he argues, has harmed "the movement":
She was overly provocative. The "virtue of selfishness" is an oxymoron. Selfishness is not a virtue. Now, I understand all the arguments — I've read all the books. I know that self-interest channeled to the social good, as expressed through Adam Smith's "invisible hand," is the single most brilliant insight about social organization ever made in history. That being said, selfishness (as opposed to self-interest) is still not a virtue. It is something to be discouraged, and not something to be supported.

Apparently Mackey has not "read all of books", and if he has, he does not understand "all of the arguments". Rand was very clear about her meaning of selfishness:
The Objectivist ethics proudly advocates and upholds rational selfishness—which means: the values required for man’s survival qua man—which means: the values required for human survival...

The values required for human survival, Mackey argues, "is something to be discouraged, and not something to be supported". And what values are we to encourage? Mackey has the answer:
The freedom movement has strategies that could meet higher human potential and social responsibility but lacks the idealism and vision to implement these strategies. I assert that the freedom movement can become a successful mass movement today if it will consciously adopt a more idealistic approach to its marketing, branding, and overall vision, and embrace a vision of meeting higher human potentials and greater social responsibility. [emphasis added]

"Social responsibility" is nothing more than altruism--we have a responsibility to "society". Which means, we must serve others; we must place the welfare of "society", or the planet, or anyone but ourselves before our own welfare and interests. Mackey is offering the same stale ideas, only he dresses them up in green and purports to call them freedom.

That Mackey is a Libertarian is not surprising. As such, he can ground his version of "freedom" in environmentalism and New Age mumbo-jumbo. He can repeat the mistakes of conservatives--defending freedom on altruistic grounds. He can retain the "idealism" of his hippie days. He can even have his whole grain cake, but reality won't allow him to eat it too. He may create a new "brand", but it won't be for freedom.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Kant and Gambling

The Chronicle's political blog informs us that three mayoral candidates recently taped a program for the local public television channel. Apparently, gambling was a hot topic, as the Texas legislature is considering a bill that would allow local jurisdictions to decide whether to allow gambling. The candidates are quoted as saying:
Councilman Peter Brown: "I think we ought to look at term limits (instead)."

City Controller Annise Parker: "I don't know about gambling necessarily in Houston . . . I have long thought since Ike that it would be of great benefit to Galveston to be the first city in Texas to have casino gambling."

Lawyer Gene Locke: "To me the operative word is that we should have a local referendum . . . I'm a big proponent of letting the people decide."

I am uncertain how term limits and gambling connect, but then I have found a number of things that spew from Peter Brown's mouth to be rather incoherent. At least Parker and Locke seemed to understand the question, but their answers show their continued rejection of individual rights.
An individual has a moral right to gamble, and he should not require the state's permission to do so. While I personally regard gambling as a waste of money, neither I nor the state nor anyone else has a right to impose his views on others.

Locke's position is not unusual. So long as the people can vote on an issue, virtually anything goes. This after all, is the democratic way--the "will of the people" shall reign supreme. Democracy--unlimited majority rule--is nothing more than a tyranny of the masses. Under democracy, the rights of individuals are continually threatened and may be violated whenever the majority deems it necessary.

Our Founders warned against the passions of the mob, and the threat posed to individual liberty. They recognized the fact that the majority could unite against an unpopular minority, and impose their views and values upon the recalcitrant. It was for this reason that they sought to protect the rights of individuals, for the individual is the smallest minority.

Morally, democracy holds that the individual is subservient to the majority. The individual must put aside his own selfish interests for the sake of the "public welfare" or the "common good".

Epistemologically, democracy holds that the "will of the people" determines truth and falsehood, right and wrong. What the majority decrees is the true and good, and the individual must cast aside his own independent judgment in deference to the majority.

Metaphysically, democracy holds that reality is a creation of the collective consciousness. If enough people believe it, it must be so.

I seriously doubt that Locke--or most proponents of democracy--have studied Immanuel Kant. Yet it is Kant who provides them with their intellectual ammunition. It is Kant who has taught them "the people" are the ultimate arbiters of truth, morality, and justice.

In truth, "the people" have no right to decide who may gamble, where they may do so, or the types of games they play. "The people" have no right to dispose of the lives of individuals, whether the issue is gambling, or land-use, or the operation of a business. Each individual has a moral right to live his life as he chooses without interference from others, so long as he respects their mutual rights. The rights of individuals are sacrosanct.

Under the pretense of freedom, democracy erodes individual liberty. Democracy is a cancer. Fortunately, we have a cure for this virulent philosophical disease--Ayn Rand.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Unethical "Ethics" Reform

The current session of the Texas Legislature is considering more than 100 bills on ethics reform. A brief survey of these bills reveals one interesting fact--many are unethical.

For example, one bill would limit individual campaign donations to $100,000 per election cycle. Any restriction on campaign donations is a violation of an individual's right to use his money as he chooses.

Bills such as this appeal to many voters, who see campaign contributions as a means for purchasing favorable legislation. And when government has expanded far beyond its legitimate functions, this is a valid concern.

But the fault does not lie with those who seek to influence the legislative process. The fault lies with those who believe that the government should have the power to regulate businesses and individuals. If the government did not have the power to dispense political favors, punish political enemies, and dispose of the lives and property of the citizenry, such influence would not be necessary. If government could not initiate force against private citizens, influence peddling would not and could not occur. And the entire issue of campaign financing would be moot.

The Texas Ethics Commission's web site has a training program available online. The program states that:

As a public servant you commit the offense of bribery if you solicit, offer, or accept a "benefit" in exchange for a decision, opinion, recommendation, vote or other exercise of official discretion.

There are of course, exceptions to this rule. Campaign contributions are the most notable. Which means, if I give a legislator $1,000 it is viewed as a bribe; if I contribute $1,000 to his campaign it isn't. Apparently, if I give the money directly to the legislator I might influence his vote, but if the money goes to his campaign he will somehow be unmoved. Anyone who truly believes this is either naive, not paying attention, or both.

But this is hardly the only example of unethical "ethics":

A member of the legislature may not vote on a measure or a bill, other than a measure that will affect an entire class of business entities, that will directly benefit a specific business transaction of a business entity in which the member has a controlling interest.

Which means, a legislator cannot vote on a bill that will benefit his business, unless it will also benefit other businesses. It is fine to vote himself political favors, so long as he shares the loot.

While these rules, and others like them, are an attempt to prohibit any impropriety on the part of legislators, the fact is they don't address the real issue--the power and scope of government today.

The proper function of government is the protection of individual rights. Rights are a sanction to act without interference from others, so long as an individual respects the mutual rights of others. An individual--or a group of individuals, including government--cannot use force to compel an individual to act against his own judgment. The initiation of force is always morally wrong.

But when government can use compulsion to prohibit or dictate the actions that individuals can legally take, government is no longer a protector of rights. It becomes a violator of the very rights it was instituted to protect, and its actions are immoral.

True ethics reform is only possible by first identifying the proper function of government. And then government must limit itself to that function. Until that occurs, any attempt at ethics reform will invariably lead to further breaches of morality.

Monday, April 27, 2009

A Lovely Surprise

Last Friday evening as I was watering some plants, my wife presented me with a written demand: Stop what you are doing, take a shower, and get in my car.

At first I was slightly confused, and then I remembered that this was her month to provide me with a surprise. Several years ago I purchased a book--101 Nights of Grrreat Romance--that we use as a guide for providing one another with surprises. Each page of the book gives a task for one partner to complete for the other.

I dutifully complied with my wife's demand. Despite my prodding, she refused to provide any clue as to where we were going. She took a circuitous route before pulling into the parking lot for a small office building. She led me to an elevator, and down a short hallway to our final destination. We were greeted with a glass of champagne, fresh fruit, and cheese. As we enjoyed our snack, my wife explained what would unfold next.

A few minutes later we were taken to a small room and told to remove our clothes. For the next hour we reveled in delight, as we each received a full-body massage, complete with hot stone therapy. My wife then took me to dinner. It was a first for me, and certainly an experience I would not mind repeating with great frequency.

The book has been a source of great pleasure for us. It can be "easy" to get complacent in a relationship. The book helps us prevent this from occurring, by giving imaginative tasks to complete. While we seldom follow the instructions literally--time, expense, or other restraints sometimes make the task difficult--the book does provide creative ideas that keep the excitement in our relationship.

One of my favorites involved a map of Houston. I took shiny adhesive stars and placed them on locations in the city that had special significance to us. I told my wife that when she identified all of the locations I would give her an award. She quickly identified all but one, and then spent the rest of the week in a futile attempt to win her prize. She drove by the intersection many times, each time convinced that she had finally solved the puzzle.

Late Friday morning I announced that I was going to the bank (we work together). A short time later I called her, saying that there was a problem at the bank and she needed to sign some paperwork. When she arrived, I grabbed her hand and led her towards the intersection that contained her unidentified location. As we approached the door of a particular restaurant, she said, "I've always wanted to eat here." Her timing was perfect, because as she said this I was opening the door. My wife looked at me with complete surprise as I asked for a table for two.

On another occasion, I arrived home to find two gift wrapped boxes on the coffee table. I could not open the boxes, and each day another box or two appeared. On Friday night the boxes were piled on our bed, and I was finally allowed to open them. Each contained a trinket or other memento of places we have visited, events we have attended, or other important aspects of our life together. We had a lot of fun sipping wine, eating snacks, and reminiscing.

Experts on relationships have long recommended "date nights"--an evening away from the kids, out of the house, etc.--for married couples to focus on one another. A healthy relationship, like any value, requires effort. 101 Nights of Grrreat Romance is a useful tool towards that end.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Don't Sweat the Small Stuff 24

Happy Birthday Live Oaks
I began this blog one year ago today. My initial goal was to build a library of literature defending property rights in Houston. Somewhat to my surprise, Mayor White, city council, and many others have provided an abundance of topics to address. It has been an interesting and fun year, and I look forward to many more.

I'd like to thank all of my readers for your comments, suggestions, and support.

Another Medal for Houston
Forbes Magazine recently announced that the Houston area is home to 29 Fortune 500 companies, second only to New York City. (HT: Houston Strategies) Texas continues to lead the nation, with 64 Fortune 500 companies headquartered in the state. The state also continues to be an economic powerhouse, landing the magazine's top five large metropolitan areas for job growth--Austin, Houston, San Antonio, Ft. Worth, and Dallas.

Advocates of liberty know that economic prosperity is the practical consequence of freedom. Unfortunately, our legislators haven't made that connection and are doing their damnedest to emulate the statist policies of California and the Northeast. If they are successful, we will wind up with the same economic results.

Hey Mayor, Look Here
Mayor White has ordered department heads to find ways to cut expenses, according to the KTRK political blog. White is willing to bring in an outside consultant to find savings:
If I can spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to get millions of dollars of efficiency, I'm willing to do it.

All he had to do was ask me. I have already pointed out how the city could save nearly $100 million:

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.

Save $5 million by eliminating sign administration. Ordinances regulating and controlling billboards and signs violate the rights of individuals to use their property as they choose.

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.

Eliminate the Planning and Development Department and save $9 million. Planning and development are not government functions and should be left to the discretion of private individuals.

Privatize solid waste collection over a four year period. This will translate to a savings of about $19 million each year.
The good news for the mayor is that this advice won't cost him a penny--I am offering it for free.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Pandering Politicians and Principles

On Wednesday I wrote about two local politicians--Anne Clutterbuck and Annise Parker--and their pandering to constituents. Both have expressed support for HB 3709, which will revoke some of the Texas Medical Center's (TMC) eminent domain powers. I concluded:
Like most politicians, Parker and Clutterbuck present themselves as principled individuals. In truth, they are devoid of political principles. They deal with each situation on a "case by case" basis and engage in verbal gymnastics to justify their hypocrisy. They will assail the property rights of one individual while feigning support for the property rights of another.

A reader responded to my post, pointing out:
The bill repeals ONLY the power to condemn single family homes, defined in a way that reflects the antiquated but still-prevailing development patterns of Houston's surviving pre-WWII neighborhoods.

In fact, there remains an unlimited supply of non-residential property adjacent to the north, east, south, and southwest of the Medical Center. All of the condemnations by TMC Inc since 1959 have been of business and commercial properties, so it is clearly incorrect to say the bill "strips most of its eminent domain powers."

I will stand corrected--I had written that the bill would strip "most" of the TMC's eminent domain powers. But whether it is "most" or "some" is not the point. Indeed, the situation is worse--both Clutterbuck and Parker are less principled--than I originally thought.

In a letter to the Chair of the Committee on Land and Resource Management, Parker expressed concern that TMC's eminent domain powers threatened "individual property rights". Parker is correct. But the property rights of commercial property owners are also threatened, and I haven't seen a peep out of Parker or Clutterbuck in regard to protecting those property owners.

If TMC's eminent domain powers are a threat to property rights, then those powers are a threat to the rights of all adjacent property owners, not just those with residential property. The truth is, despite any talk about creating jobs or improving our economy, politicians are willing to sacrifice other businesses to the city's largest employer. They are willing to allow TMC to condemn commercial property and close businesses.

This is nothing but political pandering. TMC undoubtedly has more political pull than the businesses threatened with condemnation. Similarly, the homeowners in the nearby neighborhoods form a voting bloc that dwarfs that of the business owners. So politicians can play to both TMC and the home owners, and the business owners become victims in these shenanigans.

A principled individual does not make distinctions on the basis of non-essentials. The use of a particular piece of property does not determine the rights of the owner. All individuals possess the same rights. In regard to property, ownership means the right of use and disposal--the right to use one's property as one chooses, so long as he respects the mutual rights of others.

But Parker and Clutterbuck believe that homeowners possess rights that are superior to commercial property owners. Both have opposed the Ashby High Rise (a commercial project) in favor of "protecting neighborhoods". Again, the homeowners have more political muscle than the developers of Ashby.

Pandering to homeowners has been a tactic used by Houston's politicians for decades. Politicians can show how much they care by vowing to "protect neighborhoods". They have promoted ordinance after ordinance as a means to "stabilize" the character of a neighborhood. They have even had the audacity to proclaim that their coercive tactics protect property rights, even as they violate the property rights of all Houstonians.

Such positions may help politicians win elections, as they exchange political favors for votes. They take the "easy" path, abandoning principles for political expediency.

Houston, and America, needs a new species of politician. We need politicians who hold rational principles and possess the integrity to uphold those principles, even when it means telling constituents "no". We need politicians who protect the rights of all individuals. We need politicians who do not regard individuals as pawns to be sacrificed to the "public welfare" or the "common good". And we will get such politicians when we, as individuals, embrace those ideals.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Footsies and Other Political Games

There are countless examples of government intervention in the economy creating unintended consequences. Invariably these results lead to further government interventions in a futile effort to correct the problems created by the initial intervention. As a case in point, consider Discovery Green--the park in downtown Houston that was built with a combination of public and private money.

Land around the park has soared in price, and now costs between $200 and $300 per square foot. Less than 1 mile east of the park, land is selling for only $60 per square foot. While the park has added another feature to downtown, it has also distorted land values in the area. The city wants more hotel rooms downtown in an effort to attract conventions, but the high cost of land makes such projects unfeasible. The city finds this unacceptable, and now plans to offer nearly $10 million in tax rebates to Embassy Suites to build a 262 room hotel.

The city had two conflicting goals--increasing park space downtown and also increasing hotel rooms--and neither are proper functions of government. In pursuing the first goal the city made the second goal more difficult, and found itself needing to offer bribes tax rebates.

I am sure that city officials would argue that additional downtown hotel rooms will be good for the city. We can attract more conventions and the millions of dollars that they bring to the local economy. Construction on the project will create jobs. And the city will eventually reap scads of tax dollars. This may be true, but what other distortions will this scheme create? And what about those who do not receive these cushy political favors?

Mayor Green White has taken it upon himself to transform Houston into his image of what the city should be. He wants Houston to be a world-class city and thinks that we need a downtown park, lots of hotel rooms, light rail, and green building codes in order to rate such a designation.

But I have news for our dear mayor--Houston is a world-class city and it has nothing to do with dog walks, model trains, or funny looking light bulbs. It has to do with freedom and the right of individuals to live their lives as they choose. It has to do with the affordable housing and lower cost of living that results when government stays out of our lives. It has to do with a healthy economy and expanding job market.

Houston's success as an economic powerhouse was achieved despite the lack of feel-good, politically correct programs being touted by the mayor. Houston attracts conventions, but not the kind the mayor wants to attract. Houston businessmen create jobs, but they aren't green enough for White. And when White is unhappy with the decisions that private individuals make, he is more than willing to use a combination of incentives and punishments to get the desired actions.

For example, if he doesn't like your proposed multi-use project, he will use whatever means available to him to stop it. This might include revoking permits that have already been issued, or pressing for a new ordinance aimed specifically at your project, or some other nefarious tactic. If however, he likes your project he may grant you tax breaks or some other political favor.

White continues to play these political games, and he will continue to get unintended consequences. He will distort the market in an attempt to mold the city into his vision, and then he (or future city officials) will deal with those distortions through further interventions.

If White were omniscient and infallible, then his interventions might be somewhat excusable. But he isn't and they aren't. His interventions are violating the rights of all Houstonians, and setting the city on a course that will greatly undermine our freedom and our economic prosperity.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Eminent Domain in the Medical Center

I previously wrote about the use of eminent domain by the Texas Medical Center to seize land for an expansion. Now, the Texas legislature is considering a bill that will strip Houston's largest employer of most of its eminent domain powers. While this is certainly a good step, several local politicians are using HB 3709 to engage in political grandstanding.

Council member Anne Clutterbuck supports the measure because it will "protect" the nearby neighborhoods. Clutterbuck also used the "protection" argument in opposing the Ashby High Rise. Apparently, "protecting" neighborhoods is more important to Clutterbuck than protecting property rights.

Clutterbuck considers it wrong for the Medical Center to condemn homes, but it is not wrong for the city to erect arbitrary barriers to the construction of Ashby. Eminent domain is wrong because it initiates force and compels individuals to act contrary to their own judgment. The city's opposition to Ashby does exactly the same thing. Clutterbuck might attempt to justify her hypocrisy by arguing that in both instances she is working to "protect" neighborhoods, and therefore her position is consistent.

Such an argument is based on the premise that groups possess rights separate and distinct from the individuals comprising it. Such an argument holds that the group--the neighborhood--can violate the rights of other property owners.

Clutterbuck is hardly alone in taking such a stand. Annise Parker has also jumped into the fray. In a letter to Representative Dennis Bonnen, Chair of the Committee on Land and Resource Management, Parker wrote:

Allowing the TMC, or any other private venture, special authority to condemn property and override these deed restrictions threatens quality of life, neighborhood stability and individual property rights.

Parker, who also opposes the Ashby High Rise and supports preservation ordinances, obviously does not see such positions as a threat to "individual property rights". Apparently, it is acceptable for the city to use force against citizens, but unacceptable if a "private venture" does so. The truth is, the initiation of force is always immoral, and the number of individuals supporting its use does not change that fact.

The right to property is the right of use and disposal. It means that the owner can use his property as he chooses, so long as he respects the mutual right of others. Eminent domain, preservation ordinances, and the city's efforts to stop Ashby all prevent the respective property owners from acting in accordance with their judgment. Yet, neither Parker nor Clutterbuck sees this as a problem. Their mantra is "protect neighborhoods", and if they have to use a concept like "property rights" then so be it. But to them, "property rights" is a floating concept--they are unable to connect it to concrete situations.

Like most politicians, Parker and Clutterbuck present themselves as principled individuals. In truth, they are devoid of political principles. They deal with each situation on a "case by case" basis and engage in verbal gymnastics to justify their hypocrisy. They will assail the property rights of one individual while feigning support for the property rights of another.

A truly principled politician would not pander to noisy constituents. He would support and protect the rights of all individuals. A truly principled politician would be just like me.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

A Triple Dose of Altruism

The Chronicle has once again jumped on the "save the planet" bandwagon, while simultaneously demonstrating its complete ignorance of basic economics. In an editorial yesterday, the Chronicle endorses "weatherization":
Here’s the concept: Local governments and nonprofits provide free energy-efficiency upgrades to people who otherwise couldn’t afford them.

The editorial states that this will create jobs immediately, improves the environment, and helps the poor. So we get a triple dose of altruism, all wrapped up in one neat little program. How happy the advocates of sacrifice must be.

Using money from the "stimulus package" the city will send contractors into low-income neighborhoods to weather-strip doors, caulk windows, and make other improvements that will reduce energy use. The Chronicle ignores the fact that the money for this program is taken from other citizens. So, while the contractors and home owners might have more money, taxpayers have less.

Henry Hazlitt addressed the fallacy behind the Chronicle's position in Economics in One Lesson:
But if we have trained ourselves to look beyond immediate to secondary consequences, and beyond those who are directly benefited by a government project to others who are indirectly affected, a different picture presents itself. It is true that a particular group... may receive more employment than otherwise. But [that empoyment] must be paid for out of taxes...

Therefore, for every public job created by the... project a private job has been destroyed somewhere else.

While the beneficiaries of this program are visible and known, the victims will remain hidden and unknown. Many of these hidden victims will be forced into the same situation as the beneficiaries--they will be unable to improve their own homes, forced to choose between paying utility bills and buying food, etc.

Saving energy is certainly desirable. Nobody wishes to spend money unnecessarily. But to do so in the name of "saving the planet" is a detestable motivation. It is to accept and embrace a philosophy that aims to destroy industrial civilization; if the environmentalists had their way, there would be no need for weather-stripping doors, caulking windows, or insulating attics--we'd all be huddled in a cave.

If "creating" jobs and "saving the planet" aren't enough to convince us to support such a program, the Chronicle offers one last altruistic "benefit"--helping the poor. This, the editorial tells us, is "one cool idea" and "a powerful concept".

The city has no legitimate right to involve itself in such programs. Forcing taxpayers to upgrade homes is not a legitimate function of government, and a violation of the rights of all taxpayers. Instead, the city should limit itself to the protection of individual rights and drastically cut our taxes. Citizens would then have the money to upgrade their own homes. Economically, allowing taxpayers to spend their own money is more efficient. Morally, it is the right thing to do.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Tea Parties and Coalitions, Revisited

I did not intend for this to be a two-part post, but one point has been gnawing at me. In building a coalition for their movement, the organizers of the Tea Parties are repeating the same fundamental error as Libertarians.

Libertarians welcome anyone who opposes the government on any issue, for any reason. The nature of that opposition is irrelevant to the Libertarians. This is the same essential position being taken by the Tea Party movement.

Consider some of ideas on display at the Tea Parties: term limits, "state's rights", and succession are a few. Each is a superficial issue, and in the case of "state's rights" and secession simply asinine. For example, many advocates of "state's rights" are not opposed to violations of individual rights; they simply prefer for those rights to be violated on the state level, rather than the federal level.

Certainly there are also better ideas being expressed as well. Signs referencing Ayn Rand and John Galt are common. Which means, the Tea Party umbrella includes John Galt and George Wallace, advocates of freedom and advocates of statism. Such diametrically different ideas cannot long exist within the same movement.

I am not suggesting that Objectivists boycott the Tea Parties. The movement is too new and ill-defined to know what direction it will ultimately take. I am saying that if it continues its present course, it will ultimately be dominated by the more irrational elements. As Ayn Rand wrote in "The Anatomy of Compromise":
When opposite basic principles are clearly and openly defined, it works to the advantage of the rational side; when they are not clearly defined, but are hidden or evaded, it works to the advantage of the irrational side.

Politics is not a primary--it rests upon the more fundamental branches of philosophy. One's views on the nature of reality (metaphysics), the nature of knowledge (epistemology), and the nature of man (ethics) ultimately shape one's views on politics.

As Peter Schwartz has pointed out, the why determines the what. Why a particular position or view is held determines what it ultimately means. For example, an individual who watches NASCAR for the occasional specular crash "appreciates" the sport for an entirely different reason than the person who enjoys watching man control a precision machine. While both are fans of the same sport, their reasons for watching--the why--give vastly different meanings to their participation--the what.

In the context of politics, ethics provide the "why". One's view of the nature of man, and the actions appropriate to man, determine the meaning of one's political views.

Thus, while the Tea Party participants may hold the right position on many issues--such as limited government and abolishing the Federal Reserve--the reasons they hold these positions will ultimately determine their true meaning. In the absence of a rational morality, the "right" position cannot be defended.

Libertarians have abandoned morality, regarding it as a constraint on their whims. If the Tea Party movement wishes to have relevance, it must discover and embrace the only morality that can defend the right political positions. It must discover the morality which upholds the right of each individual to his own life, liberty, property, and pursuit of happiness. It must discover rational egoism.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Don't Sweat the Small Stuff 23

A Real Stick in the Pie
Many of us--myself included--probably have fond memories of our grandmother baking our favorite pie. The sweet aroma of freshly baked fruit would fill the kitchen, and remind me that I was going to have to eat my broccoli that night. But if my grandmother had tried to sell one of those wonderful pies, she might get thrown in the slammer. Via FA/RM:

On the first Friday of Lent, an elderly female parishioner of St. Cecilia Catholic Church began unwrapping pies at the church. That's when the trouble started.

A state inspector, there for an annual checkup on the church's kitchen, spied the desserts. After it was determined that the pies were home-baked, the inspector decreed they couldn't be sold.

The problem is the pies are illegal in Pennsylvania. Under the state's food-safety
code, facilities that provide food at four or more events in a year require at least a temporary eating and drinking license, and food has to be prepared in a state-inspected kitchen. Many churches have six fish fries a year, on Fridays during Lent. St. Cecilia's has always complied with having its kitchen licensed, so food made there is fine to serve. But homemade goods don't make the cut.
I am sure that the citizens of Pennsylvania sleep much better at night knowing that their grandmother can't go around selling pies.

Think There is an Agenda Here?
A recent Rasmussen poll found that 53% of Americans believe that capitalism is superior to socialism, while 20% favored socialism. But here is the headline for the New York Daily News article: "Many Americans prefer socialism to capitalism, new poll finds".

By a margin of more than 2.5:1 Americans prefer capitalism to socialism, but that isn't worthy of a headline. Instead, we are told that "many" Americans prefer socialism. It is pretty clear what message the News is trying to send--Americans would have no qualms if we turned into a socialist nation.

And Speaking of Short, Evil Men
Robert Reich, the height challenged former Treasury Secretary, unleashed another of his missives on Tax Day. Since America has one of the lowest tax rates in the world, "right-wing Republicans, kooks, and demagogues" have nothing to complain about. The fact that an individual has a moral right to the money he earns is missed on Reich, who offers us the following "wisdom":

We have a patriotic duty to pay taxes... President Teddy Roosevelt made the case in 1906 when he argued in favor of continuing the inheritance tax. "The man of great wealth owes a particular obligation to the state because he derives special advantages from the mere existence of government."

In other words, altruism is our patriotic duty. We have a moral responsibility to sacrifice for the government, and the greater our productivity the greater the sacrifice. And what "special advantage" is Roosevelt speaking to? In a free society--that is, one in which government cannot dispense special favors--the wealthy have no advantage over the poor. Each is free to rise as far as his talent and ambition will take him. Of course Reich, like Roosevelt, is not interested in individual freedom.

In recent weeks I have seen numerous members of the angry left make reference to "teabagging". I could tell that this was a pejorative term aimed at those participating in Tea Parties, but I did not know the term prior to visiting the Urban Dictionary. Suffice it to say, those using the term are juvenile.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Tea Parties and Coalitions

I attended the Houston Tea Party on Wednesday, and along with a dozen friends distributed 150 copies of Atlas Shrugged and a similar number of pamphlets such as “Man’s Rights”.

At an organizational meeting for the Tea Party, the organizer stated that she is trying to build a coalition, and this was evident by the signs in the crowd. For example, I saw signs stating “Audit the Fed”, signs calling for state’s rights, signs promoting the Second Amendment, and of course, signs protesting government spending and taxes. This diversity of signs in the crowd, which seems common to the Tea Parties, illustrates the ultimate weakness of the Tea Party movement.

The anger displayed at the Tea Parties is real and justified. But anger can be a motivating force for only so long. Fighting against something cannot sustain an individual or a movement—one must be fighting for something.

Coalitions, by their nature, are fragile entities. They attempt to draw groups and individuals with disparate views and priorities together under a common umbrella. Strength through numbers is the operating premise. And while this can be effective, it seldom is because those disparate views ultimately lead to discord within the coalition. Those most concerned about gun rights grow disillusioned with discussions of the Fed, while those most concerned about monetary policy will grow weary of discussions about the Second Amendment.

This is the direction in which the Tea Party movement is headed. As best I can determine, the current unifying principle of the movement is opposition to government policies. While such opposition is appropriate, it does not address the fundamental issue—the violation of individual rights. The violation of individual rights is the only principle that applies to any legitimate concern under the Tea Party umbrella.

Historically, we have a precedent for a coalition that embraced this principle and endured. That coalition was the Founding Fathers.

The Founders had many disparate interests, and those interests often seemed in conflict—small states versus large states, northern states versus southern states being the most predominant. Yet, the Founders agreed on one fundamental principle—the right of individuals to be free—and this principle served to unite them. Indeed, the political/ moral principle of individual rights is the only principle that can unite a coalition for the long-term.

If the Tea Party movement is to endure, it can only do so by advocating individual rights. Because individual rights apply to all individuals—male and female, black and white, gay and straight, young and old—they transcend the differences that drive coalitions apart.

Certainly there are those who say the movement is about returning to the principles of the Founders. But I suspect that, if asked, those making such statements would be hard pressed to provide anything beyond a superficial answer. Therein lies the ultimate weakness of the movement—those principles have not been clearly and explicitly identified and stated.

More importantly, individual rights cannot be defended while simultaneously clinging to a morality that demands that the individual be subservient to the group. The moral right of each individual to his own life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness is incompatible with a morality that demands that he sacrifice his values to others.

While many pundits have predicted that the Tea Party movement will duplicate the Republican Revolution of 1994, I am doubtful. First, that revolution was electorally successful because it had a clearly stated set of principles. Second, when that revolution abandoned those principles it fell apart and ultimately gave control of Congress back to the Democrats.

They say that those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. I’d prefer that we learn from one era of our history—the American Revolution—and repeat that by declaring an intransigent devotion to the principle of individual rights. If the Tea Party movement does that, it just might realize its potential and launch the revolution that is truly needed—a moral revolution.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

An Interview with Brian Phillips, Part 2

You've called for dramatic tax cuts. How do you plan to balance the budget if you are cutting revenues by 10% or more?

Actually, I'd like to cut revenues by much more than 10% because I intend to cut spending by much more than that. The city is currently engaged in many activities that are improper for government. By privatizing those services and selling the associated assets, the city would save hundreds of millions of dollars, and raise substantial sums at the same time. For example, we could save $60 million by eliminating building inspections and similar functions. Nearly $5 million can be cut from the city budget by eliminating sign administration. We can cut $10 million from the city budget by eliminating the Mobility Response Team. Nearly $9 million can be saved by eliminating the Planning and Development Department. There are a lot of other areas where the budget can be cut--this is just a start.

You are talking about getting rid of virtually everything the city is doing. What will be left?

Ultimately just the police and the courts. Those are the only proper functions for a local government. Everything else should be provided by the private sector, if the citizens want it. But it would take many years to get to that point. It would not be practical or moral to simply yank the rug out from everyone and shut down illegitimate government services. The private sector wouldn't be in a position to offer alternatives.
You have mentioned morality several times. Yet you seem to be advocating selfishness and greed, which many claim is what got us in our current economic crisis. Care to comment?

Such characterizations are a gross misrepresentation of the facts. Both the housing industry and the financial industry--two industries getting much of the blame for this mess--are also among the most heavily regulated. It is intellectually dishonest to say that the free market failed when we didn't have a free market. It was government intervention that failed. In contrast, Houston has shown a greater respect for property rights than other cities. Houston hasn't enacted zoning for example, which allows property owners to use their land as they deem best. The result has been lower housing costs, a growing job market, and a higher standard of living than other cities. In other words, Houston is a refutation of that argument. Morally, each individual has a right to his own life, liberty, property, and pursuit of happiness. This was the founding principle of America and it led to our economic prosperity. To a large extent, it has remained a guiding principle in Houston, with similar consequences.
Would you endorse any of the actual candidates running for mayor?

Not unless they dramatically change their positions. For the most part, they are offering nothing new and there is very little to distinguish one candidate from another. They disagree on some minor details, such as how much we should expand light rail. But all of them agree that we need more government control over the lives of citizens. They just disagree on what they want to control.
But the candidates are simply endorsing positions that Houstonians want. Isn’t that the democratic way?

America was not founded as a democracy. Democracy means majority rule—that the majority may do as it pleases simply because it is the majority. In theory and in practice this means that there are no restrictions on what the majority may do, including violating the rights of the minority. And the individual is the smallest minority.

Government’s purpose is the protection of individual rights, not implementing the “will of the people”. The Founders understood this, and repeatedly warned of the passions of the mob. Might does not make right.
While all of this sounds good in theory, do you really think that it could work in real life?

I think the first part of your question answers the second part. How do we determine if something is good in theory? If something is good in theory, it is because it works in practice. More importantly, we must identify what we want in practice.

If we want economic prosperity and individual happiness, then the only way to achieve that is through individual freedom—the right of each individual to pursue his own values. Government can’t make us happy, and if you believe otherwise then I suggest that you simply look at the misery, destruction, and death that has occurred everywhere that that premise has been put into action.

Houstonians are facing a crucial choice in the coming years. We can continue down the path that we have been traveling—slowly eroding individual rights. Or we can reverse this trend and protect those rights more consistently than we have been doing. The choice that is made will ultimately determine if Houston continues to prosper, or will become just like the dying cities of the northeast and California.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

An Interview with Brian Phillips, Part 1

Since announcing my virtual candidacy for mayor of Houston, I have patiently waited for the media to interview me on the issues facing the city. Since that is not occurring, I will take it upon myself to conduct such an interview.

You are conducting a virtual campaign, and have indicated that you are not a serious candidate. Why take that approach, rather than an actual campaign?

There are several reasons. The most significant is that I really don't want to be mayor. However, I would like to see a candidate who actually defended individual rights. Since there doesn't seem to be one emerging, I thought that I would try to inject those ideas into the debate and show Houstonians that there is an alternative to the ideas we keep hearing. If you look at the current candidates, it is almost impossible to differentiate between them. Their individual focus is slightly different, but all see government as the solution to whatever ills face the city, real and imagined.

What do you see as the most serious issue facing Houston today?

In the broadest sense, the growth of city government. The city is gradually legislating more areas of our lives and expanding its control over the economy and businesses. As an example, the current mayor has declared war on sexually-oriented businesses and closed one last winter, along with a "hot-sheet" hotel last week. Last year, city council banned "attention-getting devices" and mandated tags on taco trucks. These are not proper activities for government. And it is hypocritical for government officials to talk about growing our economy while they are shutting down legitimate businesses.

Let's talk about sexually-oriented businesses for a moment. You sound like you are very anti-government and would prefer to just let people do whatever they want. Shouldn't citizens have some recourse if a strip club moves in down the street?

First, I don't accept your premise. I have never said that citizens should be allowed to do whatever they feel like doing. I am not a Libertarian. Government has a legitimate function--the protection of individual rights. Each individual has a moral right to act according to his own judgment, so long as he respects the mutual rights of others.

In the case of strip clubs, the solution isn't as clear cut as Mayor White pretends that it is. Such businesses have a right to exist. However, they do not have a right to be a nuisance to their neighbors. A property owner has the right to enjoy his property. If a neighbor makes loud noises at night, or attracts excessive traffic to a residential area, his rights have been violated. Such actions are legitimately dealt with through nuisance laws.

Mayor White has used nuisance laws to shut down the Penthouse Club and the motel.

Yes, but that isn't the mayor's proper function. These are civil matters, and those whose rights have been violated should be filing suit, not the city.

But the average citizen can't afford to take on large corporations. They need the government to protect them and their rights.

I don't think that citizens are as helpless as you seem to. There are other alternatives besides running to government every time we don't like something. As one example, civic groups can pool resources. It is becoming increasingly popular to run to government every time someone gets a splinter. Too many people are looking for government to make their life pain free. And I hate to be the one to bring them bad news, but that can't happen. The more we attempt to use government to take the pain out of life, the more we give up our ability to achieve happiness. The simple fact is, expanding the role of government means shrinking individual freedom. And freedom is a necessary condition for individual prosperity and happiness.

You have proposed selling parks and libraries, and privatizing water and trash collection. Aren't these proper functions of government? Private businesses can't supply these services, and if they could, they would have a monopoly.

No, these are not proper functions of government. Government's only proper function is the protection of individual rights. In providing these services, government must necessarily violate the rights of some individuals for the benefit of others. Government must prohibit competition in order to provide many of these services, and thereby obtains it customers by force. If citizens want libraries and parks, they should be willing to pay for them voluntarily. We do that with our food, internet service, and countless other services. And we have an abundance of alternatives and options. And if we don't want internet service, we don't pay for it. But we all pay for the libraries and parks, whether we use them or not.

What if a developer purchases all of the parks and builds condos?

That isn't likely to occur. In many cases, it simply wouldn't make economic sense. But we would take safeguards to prevent such an occurrence. For example, we would offer the neighborhood parks to the home owners in that neighborhood. They are the primary beneficiaries of those parks, and they would have a vested interest in keeping the parks. We would use deed restrictions to limit the use of the land for a period of time, and when the deed restrictions lapse, the owners would have the choice of renewing the deed restrictions or changing the use of the land.

It would be a gross injustice to sell such parks to developers with no deed restrictions. Many home owners purchase a home because of a nearby park. To suddenly take that away from them would be unjust.

But most home owners couldn't afford to buy a park and then maintain it.

Again, civic groups could pool money. Besides, they are paying for the park now through their tax dollars. As we sell parks we would also be cutting taxes. And, while we would ideally like to get market value for the parks, we might consider selling them for a nominal amount simply to relieve the city of the expense.

Part 2 of this interview will appear tomorrow.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

A Look at Houston's Preservation Ordinance

In 1995 Houston passed its first preservation ordinance. While preservationists considered that initial ordinance weak, they have subsequently worked to make its mandates stronger. But regardless of its strength, preservation ordinances are a violation of property rights by their very nature. As such, they should be repealed.

There are two ways for a property to receive an historic designation, and therefore come under the guidelines of the ordinance. The first is for the property owner to file an application with the city. The second is, according to the Houston City Code:
The HAHC [Houston Archaeological and Historical Commission] upon instructing the planning official to prepare an application for designation. Within ten working days following the action of the HAHC initiating an application, the planning official shall mail notice to the owner of the property or the owner's agent, as shown on the most recent city tax roll, that the HAHC has initiated an application.

This means that HAHC can designate a property "historical" without the owner's consent, and thus subject the owner to the dictates of the ordinance. Among the requirements of the ordinance is city permission to demolish an historical building. Violators are subject to fines up to $500 per day and a 2-year moratorium on building on the site. In short, a property owner could find himself with a house that he cannot demolish without seeking city permission.

And what criteria might the HAHC use to designate a building historical? Here are a few:

Whether the building or structure or the buildings or structures within the area are the best remaining examples of an architectural style or building type in a neighborhood;
Whether the building, structure, object or site or the buildings, structures, objects or sites within the area are identified as the work of a person or group whose work has influenced the heritage of the city, state or nation;
Whether the building, structure, object or site has value as a significant element of community sentiment or public pride.

Again, a property owner could find his hands tied regarding the use of his property because the HAHC finds his building to be a good architectural example, it is identified with an influential person, or there is a "significant element" of public pride associated with the building. What the property owner thinks is irrelevant. The ordinance states that a building must be 50 years old to receive the historical designation,
unless it is found that the building, structure, object, site or area is of extraordinary importance to the city, state or nation for reasons not based on age. [emphasis added]

For the preservationist, age is the primary consideration. If it is old, it must be good. If it is old, it must be preserved. To hell with preserving our liberty; at least we will have a lot of old buildings to look at while we walk around in chains.

Making matters worse, public hearings must be held for each application. This gives the public a greater voice in the use of property than the actual owner. And if the owners of 51% of the property within a neighborhood apply for a historic district designation, the minority are subjected to the desires and values of their neighbors.

If your property is designated historic, you must grovel before city officials it you want to repair, restore, or do virtually anything to the exterior of your home.
No person shall alter, rehabilitate, restore or construct any exterior feature of a landmark or protected landmark without a certificate of appropriateness.

No person shall alter, rehabilitate, restore or construct any exterior feature of any building, structure or object within an historic district without a certificate of appropriateness.

And what is deemed "appropriate"? Among the criteria listed in the ordinance:
The proposed activity must retain and preserve the historical character of the property;
The proposed activity must contribute to the continued availability of the property for a contemporary use;
The proposed activity must recognize the building, structure, object or site as a product of its own time and avoid alterations that seek to create an earlier or later appearance;
The proposed activity must preserve the distinguishing qualities or character of the
building, structure, object or site and its environment;
The proposed activity must maintain or replicate distinctive stylistic exterior features or examples of skilled craftsmanship that characterize the building, structure, object or site;

So if a house has rotting wood siding, that siding must be replaced with the same style of siding, even though newer materials (such as Hardi Plank) are more durable and require less maintenance. Maintaining the character of the home is more important than any other consideration. And if you believe otherwise, they the city will hit you with fines for violating its decrees.

Preservationists would have us believe that our heritage consists of ship lap siding, oak floors, and wood windows. In their effort to preserve old buildings, they are destroying our true heritage--individual freedom.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Nuisance Laws and Individual Responsibility

The City of Houston has recently begun using nuisance laws to crack down on certain businesses. The city has used such laws to close a topless bar and a "hot sheet" motel. Mayor White has promised more of the same.

While nuisance laws are appropriate--if clearly and objectively defined--the city's use of these laws to close businesses is very troubling and an inappropriate use of government force.

Derived from common law, the premise underlying nuisance laws is that a property owner has a right to the peaceful use of his property. He has a right to expect his neighbors to refrain from actions that prevent that use, such as playing loud music late at night, or emitting disgusting fumes, or attracting excessive traffic. An individual who engages in such actions violates the property rights of his neighbors.

It is important to realize that such actions do not inherently violate anyone's rights, but within specific contexts they do. It is not necessarily an act of force to play loud music; it is if you do so at 2 A.M. and prevent your neighbors from sleeping. It is only when such actions have a negative impact on others that they become a nuisance.

Equally important, the concept of "coming to the nuisance" must also be recognized. If for example, I own a hog farm, you cannot complain about the odor if you later build a home next door. My prior use gives me the right to continue to use my property as I have. In this case, you "came to the nuisance"--that is, the "nuisance" existed and you took actions that subjected you to it. In such situations, the guiding principle is "first come, first served".

When an action rises to the level of a nuisance it becomes a civil matter between the offended and the offender. As with breach of contract, or slander, or any other civil matter, it is the responsibility of the victim to protect his rights in civil court.

But this is not what is happening in Houston. It is not the property owners whose rights have allegedly been violated that are suing. It is the city that is doing so. The motivation behind these efforts is very transparent. The city has declared war on sexually-oriented businesses and it is using nuisance laws to shut them down.

Matthew Festa, a South Texas College of Law property land use professor, told the Chronicle:

What’s troubling about using nuisance law this way is that it gives the impression that the government is trying to achieve its broader policy objectives, such as reduction of crime or environmental protection, by using this sort of legal action in place of regulation. If you want to reduce emissions, or regulate the disposal of industrial waste, you pass a law instead of going after individual property owners.

Mr. Festa is correct--the city is using nuisance laws to pursue its agenda. But more troubling are Mr. Festa's words. He is advocating wholesale restrictions on individuals in the form of regulations, rather than simply going after particular offenders. He is advocating that the city violate the rights of all property owners because of the actions of a few. If a topless club, or any other business, is truly a nuisance then that business should be targeted, not the entire industry. And those who rights are being violated, not the city, should be pressing the issue.

The city's proper function is to protect individual rights from violations by criminals. Those who engage in acts of nuisance are not criminals, just as breach of contract is not a criminal act. Prosecuting civil matters on behalf of citizens is a dangerous expansion of city powers.

In principle, the city is assuming responsibility for activities that should properly be left in the hands of individuals. This is nothing new--it has been occurring for decades. Government has usurped individual responsibility for retirement (Social Security), for health care (Medicare, Medicaid, CHIPS, and more), for informed financial decision making (SEC, FDIC, and more), and indeed, in virtually every area of life.

And this is precisely the purpose of the city's actions. City officials--including Mayor White, Annise Parker, and Peter Brown--have made it abundantly clear that individuals are too incompetent to make decisions regarding their own lives. They want to tell us the types of homes we can occupy and where (White's green building codes, Parker's preservation ordinances, and Brown's planning). They want to tell us how to operate our businesses (the war on sexually-oriented businesses, sign ordinances, and anti-smoking ordinances). They want to tell us how we can travel the city (light rail for example).

The city's enforcement of nuisance laws is simply another step in its steady march to assume more control over our lives. And no matter how disturbing a strip club may be, it pales in comparison to this growing threat to our freedom. The city should immediately end its enforcement of nuisance laws and focus on its proper function--protecting us from criminals.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Don't Sweat the Small Stuff 22

A Texas Tea Party
On April 15 the Houston Tea Party will be held across from the downtown post office. On tax day the post office is like a magnet for the media, who seem to love filming individuals in their misery.

I will be lugging 150 copies of Atlas Shrugged, and hundreds of copies of pamphlets such as "Man's Rights" and "Health Care is Not a Right" to distribute to beleaguered taxpayers and protesters. The photo shows what a pyramid of 150 copies of Atlas looks like. I am claiming the world's record for the largest pyramid of Atlas Shrugged ever built. If you have never read Atlas, here is why you should.

The fun begins at 4 PM. If you would like to meet me, drop me a note and I will tell you where I hope to set up shop.

Intellectual Activism
I often encounter individuals who wonder what one person can do to combat the ideas that dominate our culture. Given that our Founding Fathers set a wonderful example, a quote from Samuel Adams (HT: HBL) is fitting:

It does not require a majority to prevail, but rather an irate, tireless minority keen to set brush fires in people's minds.

I can personally attest to the truth of this statement. In the early 1990s I led a small group of intellectual activists in fighting a zoning ordinance in Houston. We wrote pamphlets, letters to the editor, OpEd articles, gave talks, and expressed our ideas anywhere and everywhere we could. Less than a dozen of us had a profound impact on the debate, as other opponents to zoning ultimately adopted many of our arguments.

Moral of the story: Speak up when and where you can. You never know who might be listening.

Are We Being Taken for a Ride?
KHOU reporter Jeremy Desel informs us that Metro is telling us one thing, and the Feds another:

On March 4, the Metro Board voted on a contract with the Parsons Group to design, build and operate four new Light Rail lines.

The cost for the North Line would be $387 million, and the cost for the Southeast Line would be $441 million.


According to letters dated on March 23 from Metro to the Federal Transit Administration, Metro indicated that the current net project cost estimate would be $896 million for the North Line and $911 million for the Southeast Line.

Apparently, Metro wants to play it "safe" with local taxpayers, but if they can rape and pillage some poor slob in Toledo, or our grandchildren, that is fine. In other words, deliver the goods to the locals and let somebody else pay for it. That's not leadership. That's cowardice and dishonesty. The folks in Toledo and everywhere else are thinking the same thing, and when the bill comes due it ain't gonna be pretty.

The More Things Change...
A report commissioned by the Texas Public Policy Foundation has concluded that the federal stimulus package will cost jobs in Texas (HT: Houston Conservative):

The report concluded that the federal stimulus package would reduce net business output by 2.5%, which would translate into between 131,400 and 171,900 additional job losses in Texas.
When FDR tried the same thing it didn't work. But as they say, those who don't learn from history...

Culturally, philosophy is the prime mover. Philosophy provides man with a comprehensive view of life, and if that view is wrong and irrational, everything he looks at will be tainted. He will look at history and focus on non-essentials, accept superficial explanations, or most likely, both. And then he will proceed down the same path as his predecessors, oblivious to the abyss into which he is about to walk.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Dangle Carrots, and Carry a Big Stick

Last week I wrote about the city's stimulus package involving tax rebates to selected developers. This week city council approved the first of these incentive programs--Regent Square. While the developers of the Ashby High Rise continue to get the run around from City Hall, our esteemed leaders are awarding $10 million to a Boston developer.

Increasingly, City Hall is selectively choosing which developers will succeed and which will not. Rather than allow the free market, and the choices of individuals, to determine which projects proceed, City Hall is playing favorites. Greg LeRoy, executive director of GoodJobs First, a national watchdog of public economic subsidies, told the Chronicle:
If these projects are stalling and developers are saying they’re not going to execute them, well, that’s the market and the market has slowed down.

LeRoy correctly added that with the softer demand, this project could do more harm to the economy by increasing capacity at a time that the market has determined such capacity is not needed. The owners of other properties not receiving these special benefits are likely to suffer.

The city offers contradictory reasons for this meddling. In the case of Ashby, it is to "protect neighborhoods". In the case of Regent Square, it is to encourage construction. If the city wishes to encourage development, why is it doing so in such a selective manner?

There is certainly evidence of political pandering in the case of Ashby. Mayor White, who has already announced his intention to run for the United States Senate, receives considerable support from the neighborhoods opposed to Ashby. Regardless, while the city dangles carrots in front of the developer of Regent Square, it continues to brandish a big stick against the developers of Ashby.

The proper purpose of government is the protection of our rights, including property rights. While denying the Ashby developers the right to use their property as they judge best, the city simultaneously violates the rights of other property owners by giving special tax breaks to the developers of Regent Square.

The solution is not more transparency, as some have suggested. The solution is to limit government to its proper functions--in the case of city government, the police and courts. So long as politicians exercise illegitimate powers they will continue to dispense political favors. So long as the city can dictate land-use, or regulate signs, or control business operations, or a myriad other infringements of our rights, they will enact programs that benefit some at the expense of others. And those who have the proper political connections will be the recipients of those favors.

Mayor White has indicated that he plans to continue this policy of political patronage, noting a number of other properties that might be offered incentive packages. And what criteria will he use when selecting which properties to favor, and which to ignore? He has not told us, because he cannot possibly know--it will be determined by the expediency of the moment. As Ayn Rand wrote in "The Pull Peddlers":

The worst aspect of it is not that such power can be used dishonestly, but that it cannot be used honestly. The wisest man in the world, with the purest integrity, cannot find a criterion for the just, equitable, rational application of an unjust, inequitable, irrational principle. The best that an honest official can do is to accept no material bribe for his arbitrary decision; but this does not make his decision and its consequences more just or less calamitous.

And so it is when the city government, or any government, dangles carrots and carries a big stick.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Who Is John Galt?

Who is John Galt?

Those are the opening words of Ayn Rand's prophetic novel, Atlas Shrugged. Published in 1957, Atlas sold more copies last year than in any previous year, and sales in 2009 are dwarfing those of 2008. Atlas and Ayn Rand are regularly mentioned in the media, and signs referencing both are seen at nearly every Tea Party. (Click here to see why you should read Atlas Shrugged.)

This appeal is understandable. Rand foretold today's headlines. She showed the logical consequences of government intervention in the economy and the lives of individuals. She showed where the morality of altruism--the belief that service to others is the standard of morality--must necessarily lead.

Many pundits describe the hero of Atlas as the man who leads the world's industrialists on a strike. While there is truth in this description, it is superficial. Fundamentally, Galt taught men to refuse to sanction their destroyers. While great industrialists were among his "students", he also attracted artists, house wives, and truck drivers. His message, then as now, is not aimed at the rich and powerful, but at those who value their own life, liberty, and the pursuit of their own happiness.

The message of Atlas, and her entire philosophy of Objectivism, is not focused on the negative. While Rand eloquently demonstrated that altruism can only lead to misery, destruction, and death, she did not regard philosophy as a science for avoiding pain and suffering. She regarded philosophy as an indispensable tool for achieving happiness and success in life--this life, on this earth.

The world today is in crisis. But the nature of that crisis is not economic. Our crisis is one of morality.

Rand challenged the morality, not only of our time, but of the entire history of philosophy. She rejected the idea that the individual exists for no purpose but to serve others. She rejected the idea that morality demands the renunciation of one's values. She rejected the idea that life requires sacrifice, whether of oneself to others, or of others to oneself. She put forth a radical new morality--rational selfishness.

Each individual has a moral right to live his life for himself, without interference from others. He has a right to act according to his own judgment, so long as he respects the mutual rights of others. His own personal happiness is his highest moral purpose.

Yet altruism demands that the individual place the interests and welfare of others before his own interests and welfare. Altruism demands that the individual sacrifice his values for the "general welfare" or the "public good".

Craig Biddle, writing at CapitalismMagazine, quotes a college textbook describing altruism:

A pure altruist doesn’t consider her own welfare at all but only that of others. If she had a choice between an action that would produce a great benefit for herself (such as enabling her to go to college) and an action that would produce no benefit for herself but a small benefit for someone else (such as enabling him to go to a concert this evening), she should do the second. She should be selfless, considering herself not at all: she should face death rather than subject another person to a minor discomfort. She is committed to serving others only and to pass up any benefits to herself.

This is the meaning of altruism--you are to forgo any personal pleasure or benefit.

It is altruism that is destroying the world, and it is altruism that must be rejected. Its victims must remove their sanction and proudly declare their right to their own life. This applies to Larry Kellner, the CEO of Continental Airlines, who has called for re-regulation of his industry. It applies to Lloyd Blankfein, the CEO of Goldman Sachs, who has called for more government oversight of the financial markets. It applies to the Texas Apartment Association, which is supporting legislation that will subject apartment owners to greater government controls. It applies to every individual who values his life and wants to be free to pursue his own happiness.

So, who is John Galt? He is anyone who refuses to sanction a morality that declares his life to be the property of others.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Houston's Apartment Owners in Hot Water

Bill White has made apartment inspections a priority during his reign. His successor will have no choice in the matter. The Texas Legislature is set to approve a bill that will, according to the Chronicle:
[M]ake the city mandate minimum habitability standards in buildings with three or more multifamily units — and perform regular inspections to ensure compliance.

The bill only applies to Houston, which implies that multifamily housing in other cities is of no concern to lawmakers. But this is not the real objection to the bill--the proper response to the violation of one's property rights is not a demand that the rights of others also be violated.

The bill’s author, Rep. Dwayne Bohac, R-Houston, said:
This is about protecting tenants in apartments and about protecting surrounding neighborhoods. This is a really, really big step forward for the city of Houston.

I must disagree. Neither the state nor the city has any moral right to dictate habitability standards or conduct inspections of private property. If landlords wish to have apartments that do not offer running water, or sealed windows, or anything else, that is their right. And if tenants desire operational toilets, hot water, and secured stairways, then they can select housing that offers such. A landlord who offers housing that lacks hot water, or secure stairways, or proper lighting has not violated anyone's rights (unless he has promised such things.) Of course, legislators would prefer to absolve individuals from any personal responsibility in such matters.

Bohac decided to push this legislation after the murder of a Houston policeman in a complex in Boha'c district. The murderer had run into the complex in an attempt to evade police after a traffic stop. Apparently, Bohac believes that if the complex were required to have hot water and operational toilets this scumbag would not have shot a police officer.

Andy Icken, a deputy director with the city’s Public Works and Engineering Department supports the bill:
Having a clear, established state law and city ordinance would clearly communicate to all the stakeholders what our expectations are.

What about the expectations of the property owners? What about their rights to use their property as they judge appropriate? Apparently, that is of no concern--to anyone. The Texas Apartment Association (TAA) supports the bill. George Allen, an executive vice president with the association, told the Chronicle:
As an association, we do not in any cases defend property owners that fail to maintain their properties and allow situations that could affect the health of their residents.

I certainly wouldn't expect TAA to support slumlords, but I would expect it to support property rights. Why can't TAA establish standards for its members? That of course, would be private and voluntary, and in this age of expanding government, non-coercive methods for dealing with any issue is the last alternative to be considered.

From an economic perspective, this bill will increase housing costs. At a minimum, the city will need additional tax dollars to enforce the law. And very likely many multifamily communities will be forced to spend money to meet the city's standards. As is often the case, the poor--who are the primary residents of such communities--will be impacted the most. They will have fewer housing options, and those that remain will cost more. Violating property rights always has economic costs, in addition to the loss of freedom.

Having railed against this attack on property rights, I should add that the city does have a legitimate role to play in dealing with some of the targeted apartment complexes. But that role should be clearly defined and limited to objectively demonstrated nuisances.

If for example, a landlord refuses to maintain his property and it becomes a haven for rats, or raw sewage runs off the property, or otherwise threatens the property of nearby land owners, that landlord has violated the rights of others. Then, and only then, does the city have any legitimacy in involving itself.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Mayoral Preview: Gene Locke

Former City Attorney Gene Locke has tossed his hat into the mayoral ring, and not surprisingly, he sounds a lot like Annise Parker and Peter Brown. His web site tells us that:
Gene will ... protect neighborhoods from unwanted development and work to ensure that any new development is in harmony with current residents’ desires.

While Locke offers no details as to how he will accomplish this, the means by which city government accomplishes virtually anything is through force. Locke will use coercion to prohibit and prevent "unwanted development". He, like Parker and Brown, will throw property rights out the window in order to appease current residents of a neighborhood.

Echoing Brown, Locke wants to continue Bill White's green agenda:
Gene will work to maintain and expand city parks and green spaces; protect the environment by reducing pollution, making our buildings more energy efficient through green building programs and encouraging neighborhoods to become involved in an enhanced and expanded recycling effort.

As is typical, there is no mention of the cost of these initiatives. Expanding city parks costs money. Making our buildings more energy efficient costs money--and will be achieved by expanding building codes and similar coercive methods. Who will pay for these things? Locke doesn't tell us, but I suggest you look in the mirror for the answer. And while Locke is dictating the types of homes we can live in, he will also expand our economy.
As part of Gene’s plan to expand job growth and economic development he will work with local school districts and colleges to provide job training opportunities to prepare students for positions in the business community and other private sector jobs as well as important roles as teachers, nurses, fire fighters and police officers.

Why should the mayor be involved in education? His job is to protect our rights, not play school administrator. If he really wants to expand job growth, he should cut taxes and repeal regulations. He should increase individual freedom.

Gene is confident that Houston will continue its role as the energy capital of the nation and become a leader in alternative energy as well. He will work with federal, state and local enterprises to establish incentives to broaden this important new sector of our economy.
This too sounds just like Parker and Brown--vague promises with no concrete details. He is going to establish "incentives" to broaden alternative energy, which really means he is to going to use a carrot and stick approach. First he dangles a carrot to manipulate you to act as he desires. If that doesn't work, he will then beat you with the stick.

While Locke's web site is lacking in details, what is offered makes it clear that he is not offering anything essentially different from Parker or Brown.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Sticks and Stones

Texas Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo) has introduced a bill that would require "person first respectful" language in all state statutes and resolutions. According to KHOU:

The bill would ban the use of eight terms in all state statutes and resolutions. They are: disabled, developmentally disabled, mentally disabled, mentally ill, mentally retarded, handicapped, cripple and crippled.

It would replace those terms with these: persons with disabilities, persons with developmental disabilities, persons with mental illness and persons with intellectual disabilities.
Supporters of the bill say words like retarded and handicapped are hurtful:

Mary Herbert, who has been in a wheelchair all her life as a result of cerebral palsy and other complications, says she is 100 percent behind the bill.

"I've heard them all my life, and no, it's not right," she said. "It's like they're trying to put a label on us, and to me, it's not right."

Herbert says many times, people look at her wheelchair and never look up to see the person in the chair.

"I'm a wheelchair, so what?" she said. "That's the way I look at it. I'm the one who has to deal with it. They don't. I really don't think people like me ought to be typecast."
Sen. Zaffirini and supporters of this bill are suffering from a severe case of reality deprivation. They seem to believe that if we call the mentally retarded something else, they will suddenly be able to perform calculus and boorish individuals will see the error of their ways. But the fact is, no matter what we call the mentally retarded, those individuals will remain mentally retarded. And boorish individuals will remain boorish individuals.

Ms. Herbert doesn't like having a label attached to her, as if "person with disabilities" isn't a label. Regardless, she would be well advised to learn that age-old retort:

Sticks and stones can break my bones,
But words can never harm me.

Of course, words can harm me, particularly when they are used to write laws that violate individual rights. And that is where Zaffirini's bill is headed. Her bill may apply only to state statutes and resolutions now, but it is only one small step to ban such language throughout the state. If it is hurtful for legislators to use such language, it is no less so when Bubba uses it.

If I want to call someone a retard, or a dick head, or any other derogatory term, that is my right. If someone is offended by my choice of words, then they can choose point out my errors and shun me. But to prohibit me from using certain word because they are offended is, to be frank, to be a wussy. If my words offend you to the point that you need to use a gun to prohibit me from using them, then intercourse yourself.

I was never a fan of George Carlin, but I do appreciate his "Seven Words" routine. I first heard that routine, ironically enough, at a meeting of my church's youth group. At the time, I found it humorous and exciting--it challenged the ideas that were being thrown at me. Today I regard that routine as vulgar, and I am deeply offended by it. But he had a right to perform that routine, and it does not matter whether I, or my neighborhood, or my community, or anyone else is offended.

Vulgarity, boorishness, and plain stupidity should not be illegal. If that were the case, most of the members of Congress, the Supreme Court, and those working in the White House would be in jail. And so would Sen. Zaffirini, because she is obviously a "person with intellectual disabilities".