Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Thinking Out of the Box

Last week, Houston's mayoral candidates appeared before the Houston Association of Hispanic Media Professionals. The Chronicle reports that the first question was:

In a city where the group comprising 42 percent of the population has an outrageous dropout rate, the lowest rate of higher education and the highest uninsured and unemployment rates, what would you do to fix this as Mayor?
Not surprisingly, the candidates offered very similar answers--improve education and create economic opportunities. Of course, this sounds quite good. After all, if they said that they wanted to destroy the educational system and wipe out jobs, they wouldn't get many votes. However, such statements are essentially meaningless. They tell us nothing about what actions the candidate will take. They only tell us the desired results.

Since I wasn't invited to the forum--in fact, I haven't been invited to any of the mayoral forums--I didn't get a chance to answer the question last week. So I'm going to do something that the candidates won't do. Many voters won't necessarily like what I have to say, which is why those running for office won't say it. But between you and me, they really aren't interested in solving problems. They just want to get elected. And so, they propose to do more of the very things that caused the problem in the first place--pass more laws, enact more regulations, and spend more money. In other words, they want more government to fix the problems created by government.

So, here is my solution to the problems in our educational system and our economy: get the government out of the education business and start repealing regulations and controls on the economy. That's it--that is the entirety of my plan in a nutshell.

Unlike politicians who think that they can fix any problem known to man by passing more laws, I won't pretend to know how to fix every problem. But that isn't the responsibility of the mayor, or any public official for that matter. The responsibility of those in government is to protect individual rights.

I am not an expert on education, but neither are any of the mayoral candidates. Rather than dictate to students and their parents, I think we should leave those decisions to the people involved. Rather than pretend that I know what is best for them, I propose that we leave them free to make that determination.

Similarly with the economy. Rather than dictating to businesses how they may or may not operate, the government should get out of the way and let those involved make those decisions. Rather than mandate taco truck tags, or prohibit signs, or make liquor store owners grovel for permission to build a store, the city should encourage economic opportunity by removing the economic barriers it has erected.

I am not so presumptuous to claim that I know what is best for you. I don't even know you. And I bet that none of the mayoral candidates know you either. They certainly don't know the vast majority of Houstonians, and yet they want to dictate to all of us how our children will be educated and how we can operate our business.

This proposal is quite different from what the typical politician would endorse. It also differs in the fact that I cannot and will not speculate as to the specific results. I do not know if privatizing education will lead to lower drop out rates for Hispanics, though I suspect that it would. Again, that is not a proper concern for the mayor.

The only result that the mayor should really concern himself with is increasing the individual liberty of Houstonians. If his proposals accomplish that, the rest is up to the individuals who live in this city.

I realize that voters will not be real keen on these ideas. Getting government out of the education business creates a great deal of uncertainty. Many would be faced with decisions that are completely foreign, such as where to send their child to school and how to pay for it. (Taxes of course, could be slashed if education were privatized.) They would have a multitude of questions, not the least of which would involve the poor.

The omnipresence of altruism--the belief that morality consists in service to others--would cause many to focus on the poor. After all, if education is a "right", don't taxpayers have an obligation to fulfill that "right"?

The truth is, education is not a right. Rights pertain only to freedom of action, not a guarantee to the results of action. Rights are a sanction to take the actions necessary to attain one's values; they are not a claim on the values and lives of others.

Providing individuals with greater freedom leads to results that are impossible to predict. When individuals are unrestricted by arbitrary government barriers, innovation abounds. Technology is the most visible example. The products and services that seem like a fantasy today become the IPhones of tomorrow. The same would be true in education and every other area of life.

The mayoral candidates want to force all Houstonians into a neat little box. But such boxes are never neat--they are stifling and oppressive. If Houston is to retain its greatness, the citizens must kick the lid off of the box. They must demand their freedom.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Saving the Planet, One Squiggly Light Bulb at a Time

Last week the Chronicle reported that Mayor White offered some advice to the city's voters (HT: blogHouston):
White, who has shied away from endorsing or even offering tacit support to those vying to replace him, weighed in last week with surprising advice for voters: Beware of any promises of new spending in 2010 and 2011.

This is certainly sound advice. But White certainly hasn't been following it. Undercover journalist Wayne Dolcefino looked into White's green energy projects and found that the city spent more than $1,400 to caulk, insulate, and weather strip weather strip the home of Aaron Zenon. In addition, the city installed 32 "save-the-planet" light bulbs at a cost of $9 a pop. As Dolcefino reports, those bulbs can be purchased for $2 each at Home Depot.

You may wonder why the city is paying so much. I think that that is a reasonable question. The answer however, isn't so reasonable. The city is paying a contractor to install the light bulbs and dispose of the old ones. Apparently the city is concerned that if they just supply the bulbs, the parasites on the receiving end won't actually install them. The city won't say if this is because it believes the recipients don't know how to install a light bulb or because it thinks that they are too lazy to do so.

Regardless, while White is lecturing voters on taking a prudent look at the spending proposed by mayoral candidates, he has been busy wasting taxpayer money. And his profligacy hasn't been limited to light bulbs. As blogHouston reports, White has spent about $17 million on hybrid vehicles for a fuel savings of about $1.5 million per year. Given this inane "investment", it seems rather odd that White would be lecturing anyone about financial matters.

The city is claiming that its program is reducing electric bills by 12% to 20%. But one of the beneficiaries of the program claims no energy savings:
"There is none. No difference," said Joyce. "None. Zero. Nada."

The total cost for weatherizing Joyce's home was $4,920. The good news is that taxpayers didn't pay for all of that. The bad news is that CenterPoint Energy customers got to pay for ceiling fans, solar screens, and a refrigerator. And why was a private company forced to provide such things for free? As a penalty for "over-charging" its customers. If all of this seems too bizarre to be true, let me assure you that you are not dreaming.

So, if the city's green energy program is not saving anyone money, why is it continuing the program? A city worker explains:
"We have a responsibility to reduce the pollution that we put out on the Earth," explained Issa Dadoush with the City of Houston. "That's our responsibility. Our goal is to reduce our carbon footprint."

This "responsibility" is being thrust upon taxpayers whether they accept it or not. According to Mayor White, the ends--saving the Earth--justify the means--robbing taxpayers. But nothing good can ever come from such means.

Mayor White is correct when he warns us to be very leery of any candidate who makes ridiculous promises (well, he didn't actually put it that way). We should also be leery of current officials who make ridiculous proposals. In fact, we should be leery of ridiculous ideas, no matter who advocates them. The city's green energy program is ridiculous. It violates the rights of taxpayers; it does not achieve its stated ends. The reason is quite simple: the immoral is never practical.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Needs and the NEA

On Saturday a Chronicle editorial addressed recent controversies regarding the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA):
Stimulus funds and the National Endowment for the Arts are like catnip to some conservative critics — something to pounce on at every opportunity.
I am not a conservative, but I would add Chronicle editorials to the list of things to pounce on. The editorial downplays the money involved, calling it "peanuts" compared to other government spending. The amount of the expenditure is not the issue--the principle underlying the NEA is. And the editorial states that principle quite openly.
There is a valid concern when public funds are allocated that they should go first to those in greater need — the homeless, the jobless and those without health care. This particular funding helps alleviate those same needs. It is not for lavish productions, risqué or otherwise. It is strictly to preserve or create jobs, a major key to ending this recession.
Not surprisingly, need is to be the determining factor when spending tax dollars. As the editorial points out, there are competing needs--the homeless, the jobless, and starving artists. With so many competing needs, there is an endless stream of beggars knocking on government's door for hand outs. And each declares that its needs are more important than the needs of others. The results can be downright silly.

One of the recipients of NEA money was the International Accordion Festival, which drew the ire of Michelle Malkin. An earlier Chronicle story reports:

That just offends festival organizer Pat Jasper. She said conservatives often attack arts funding because they view it as something for liberal cultural elites. But the snobbishness involving her festival, Jasper says, comes from people who do not appreciate the accordion as vital to music ranging from country to zydeco to Parisian café songs.

“The expression of disdain for accordions pins them for what they are, which is cultural elites,” Jasper said. “The accordion makes the music of the American heartland.”

I would like to assure Jasper than I have no disdain for the accordion. It is a perfectly fine instrument. However, I do not own an accordion nor do I own any recordings that feature an accordion. I have never attended an accordion festival. In other words, I have not and do not voluntarily spend my money to support the accordion. But thanks to the NEA, I get to do so.

Just to be clear, I don't voluntarily support lute festivals either. Nor do I purchase recordings of sitars, bongo drums, or wind chimes. My indifference towards these instruments is not borne of snobbishness or elitism.

Jasper seems to think that because I don't want to spend my money supporting her preferred music then I am a cultural elite. But I could launch a similar charge against anyone who opposes spending their money to support my preferences. The fact is, I don't want to subsidize anyone's values, and I certainly don't expect them to subsidize mine. I could care less what Jasper chooses to do with her money; I care a great deal when I am forced to spend my money in certain ways, no matter how dire the alleged need of the recipient.

The argument from need goes even further. The Chronicle calls NEA expenditures a "smart investment".
Funding the arts means directly funding the economy, especially in Houston, where more than 500 nonprofit arts organizations support more than 14,000 full-time jobs and make up a $625 million industry — contributing twice as much to the city's economy as does the city's convention industry, reports the Houston Arts Alliance.
That artists need a job is justification for government support. The fallacy that government spending creates jobs was pointed out by Henry Hazlitt (and others). Government spending might "create" some jobs--and very visible jobs at that. But the money taken from private individuals and businesses also destroys jobs, and that destruction is seldom noticed.

The needs of the homeless, the jobless, and starving artists are not a claim on the lives and property of their fellow citizens. If these individuals robbed a bank because of their need, they would properly be thrown in jail. Their thievery is no less immoral when they use government as their proxy.

If an artist or musician (or anyone for that matter) cannot make a living in their chosen profession, they have no right to demand that others support them. They can change professions or find a voluntary benefactor, but they have no right to rob others. They only have the right to be free to act according to their judgment, so long as they respect the mutual rights of others. In a social context, freedom is the only legitimate "need".

Friday, September 25, 2009

Don't Sweat the Small Stuff 36

Bending the truth...somewhat
blogHouston, which I thoroughly enjoy, posted an interview with Andrew Prieditis, a prolific writer of letters to the editor who has been published in more than 70 papers around the world. In the interview, Prieditis addresses the fact that he always claims to live in the city in which the paper is published:

BH: What would you tell people who criticize your claiming to be from the town of the newspaper on ethical grounds?

AP: I would probably acknowledge that I'm bending the truth somewhat, but I would ask them to judge the quality of a letter based on the ideas that it propagates rather than the location of the writer.

He lives in New Zealand, so how is it "bending the truth somewhat" to claim that he lives in New York, or Houston, or anywhere besides New Zealand? It is outright dishonesty. And why does he write so many letters?

I am motivated primarily by the desire to get published. I enjoy being published in newspapers world wide as it validates my writing abilities and I also enjoy influencing what others read.
He believes that the ends--getting published--justify the means--lying. This second-handedness is not limited to dishonesty. He needs to get published to "validate" his writing abilities. In other words, he needs the approval of others regarding his writing. Apparently, he cannot objectively evaluate his own work. Of course, given his proclivity to "bending the truth" this isn't surprising.

We are all minorities
Chronicle columnist Lisa Falkenberg recently proclaimed that "We're all minorities now." Falkenberg is correct, but for the wrong reason. She points to census data that shows that neither Houston nor Harris county is predominantly white. To Falkenberg, minority status is a function of race. But as Ayn Rand pointed out:

The smallest minority on earth is the individual. Those who deny individual rights, cannot claim to be defenders of minorities.

The fact is, each of us has always been a minority, regardless of the racial or ethnic composition of the city. Falkenberg's collectivism shows itself in other ways:

The reality, though, is that a well-proportioned population doesn't translate into automatic equality.

Hispanics' population gains haven't translated yet into political gains, said Marc Campos, longtime Houston political consultant and Baytown native. And Houston's power structure, both political and corporate, is still dominated by whites.

In other words, equality is a matter of political power and economic success for the group. In truth, equality is a legal issue--equality before the law. Equality means individual freedom--the right of each individual to act according to his own judgments without interference from others, so long as one respects the mutual rights of others. Equality does not pertain to results, but the freedom to pursue one's desired results. Ignoring her own claim a few paragraphs earlier, Falkenberg writes:

Still, the daunting social problems Houston faces, such as poverty, high dropout
rates, unemployment, largely affect minority communities. The divides remain.

If we are all minorities, as Falkenberg correctly claims, then what is the meaning of "minority communities"? She is speaking of course, of certain racial and ethnic groups, not individuals. She--like all collectivists--is unconcerned with individuals; the individual exists only as a member of some group.

As if to further demonstrate her superficiality, Falkenberg cites attendance at Astro's games as another indication of inequality:
“You look at who sits in the lower deck of the Astros game and it's still mostly white,” Campos [political consultant Marc Campos] said. “We've still got a long way to go.”

Our measure as a culture is not to be determined by the level of individual freedom present, but by where we sit at a baseball game. I am hard pressed to imagine a more meaningless standard. But one possibility might be the makeup of the Chronicle's blog list--it certainly doesn't reflect the ethnic and racial composition of the city.

Just what we need...not
Peter Brown now wants the city to get into the electricity business (HT: Bay Area Houston). From Brown's web site:
The City should use its leverage and drive a harder bargain, protecting Houston consumers and getting them a better deal. And we should explore creative ways to lower monthly electric bills, like an opt-in program that would allow residents – especially seniors and those on low or fixed incomes – to buy their electricity from the City and enjoy the discounted bulk rates the City already receives.

I must admit that Brown surprised me on this one. He has come up with a number of inane proposals, but this one tops them all. At a time when the city is struggling with a budget deficit, he wants it to take on another burden.

With Brown apparently falling behind Annise Parker and Gene Locke in the campaign for mayor, Brown is now resorting to blatant pandering for votes. It's not enough that he wants to tighten development regulations, provide job training to gangsters, and generally meddle in our lives. Now he wants the city to be intimidating electric companies to "protect" consumers. Here is a suggestion Mr. Brown: protect my rights and let me worry about my electric rates.

Use as intended
When Ronald Beaver began feeling weak, he attributed his condition to his age. His doctor discovered that he had a copper deficiency, but the cause wasn't immediately clear. As the AP reports:
It wasn't until several weeks later — after the moving company employee from Tamarac, Fla., started getting daily doses of copper — that Beaver's doctor mentioned that getting too much zinc can trigger loss of copper. The only source of that much zinc they surmised was the tubes of PoliGrip denture cream he had been grossly overusing for a decade.

Beaver is now suing GlaxoSmithKline, the maker of PoliGrip. The lawsuit claims that the product is defective and consumers were not adequately warned about the dangers of misusing the product.

As the story states, Beaver did not use the product as intended. In fact, he "grossly overused" it, and because of that, he holds someone else responsible for his misfortune. Apparently, Poligrip isn't the only thing Beaver failed to use as intended. He also failed to use his mind, and now wants to blame others.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Texting versus Statism

A recent study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute found that texting while driving is more dangerous than drunk driving. Citing such reports, a growing number of people are calling for a ban on texting while driving. Yesterday, the Chronicle joined that chorus.

The argument for such a ban is rather simple: texting is a huge distraction; distractions cause accidents that can threaten the welfare of others. Therefore, texting should be banned.

I don't think that any reasonable person will deny that texting is a distraction. But so are many other activities that regularly occur while driving, such as listening to the radio, or talking to someone in the vehicle, or drinking a cup of coffee. The fact that an activity is distracting is not the issue. Nor is the impact of our actions on others the issue, though advocates of a texting ban would like us to believe otherwise. As I previously wrote, if we accept the premise that actions that affect others may be regulated by the government, then every human activity is open for regulation.

Some, such as the Chronicle, try to take the argument a little further. The paper quotes Russell Henk, program director of the Texas Transportation Institute's Teens in the Driver Seat program:
Regardless of your age, texting and driving is simply a foolish and deadly thing to do.

Again, I don't think any reasonable person would deny this. But so what? Many activities--such as eating hamburgers everyday, or refusing to exercise, or dropping out of high school--could be considered foolish or potentially deadly. Should these be banned as well? If we accept the premise of the advocates of banning texting, the answer must be a resounding "yes".

The threat posed by an activity should not determine its legality. The applicable principle is individual rights--the right of each individual to act according to his own judgment, so long as he respects the mutual rights of others. Texting--no matter how foolish it may be--violates the rights of no one.

The fact is, those who advocate a ban on texting, or prohibiting trans-fats, or mandating the use of seat belts, are promoting a far deadlier premise--statism. In all of its variants, statism has destroyed more lives and lead to more deaths than texting will ever cause.

The premise underlying statism, that the individual's life belongs to the state, lead to the concentration camps of Nazi Germany, the gulags of Soviet Russia, and the killing fields of Cambodia. That same premise has lead to the welfare state of America and the belief that the government should regulate the actions of individuals. The application and degree of implement varies, but the principle does not. And until the principle is rejected, along with its moral base of altruism, America will creep ever closer to the complete and consistent implementation of statism.

If this strikes you as extreme or paranoid, consider the growth of government controls and regulations in recent months. Locally, Houston city council has tightened restrictions on signage, imposed more controls on taco trucks, enacted a yard parking ordinance, and much more. On the state level, private property is being seized, apartment owners face growing controls, and political donors face more restrictions. Nationally, the federal government has taken over the auto industry, wants to take over health care, wants to dictate the salary of executives in the financial sector, seeks to limit carbon emissions, and much more. The trend--on the local, state, and national level--is for more government control over the economy and the lives of individuals. The trend is towards statism, and that trend is accelerating.

Anyone who is concerned for his well-being should be opposing this trend, rather than promoting it by calling for bans on texting. Texting while driving is certainly foolish. Calling for our enslavement is more so.

Update: Clarified last paragraph.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Choices, Competition, and Straw Men

Last week Chronicle columnist Lisa Falkenberg posted a piece titled "Power to choose is little more than myth". Writing about the debate over health care "reform", she claims that most Americans have little choice in regard to health insurance.

As Yale University political science professor Jacob Hacker told The New York Times recently: “For many Americans, the idea that they have a choice of health plans is about as mythical as unicorns.”

First, we must remember that 47 million American don't have health insurance at all. Their options are limited by factors ranging from affordability to being denied coverage for pre-existing conditions.

The rest of us who are blessed enough to have some form of health insurance find our options limited as well, by factors such as market saturation and the limited number of plans offered by employers.

In other words, since our options are limited, we really have no choice in the matter. The fact is, our options are limited in regard to every product and service--everything in the universe exists in some finite quantity--but this does not mean that we have no choice. For example, I can purchase gasoline from at least eight different places within a mile of my home. My options are limited--they are finite--but I certainly have a choice in where I purchase gasoline. Falkenberg's argument is nothing more than a straw man.

Falkenberg goes on to cite statistics showing that, in most states, health care insurance is dominated by a few companies. This, she concludes, is evidence that competition does not exist in those markets. But nowhere in the article does she explain why this situation exists, or why it is necessarily bad.

Falkenberg conveniently ignores the fact that health insurance companies are regulated by the individual states. And those regulations prohibit individuals and businesses from purchasing health care insurance from a company in another state. If I want to purchase health insurance from a company in Ohio, and they want to sell it to me, neither of us can act on our own judgment. The law prohibits us from doing so. Presumably, the state provides this service to prevent me from making a bad decision; it also prevents me from making a good decision. In fact, such prohibitions prevent me from making decisions--decisions about my own life and health care.

Objective reporting requires that all of the relevant facts be presented. If one is going to decry limited choices in health insurance, one has a professional responsibility to report why that condition exists. But Falkenberg is not interested in objective reporting--she has an agenda to push and she isn't about to let the facts get in her way.

State regulations do more than reduce competition for health insurance--they also drive up the cost of the options that do exist. An opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal reported:

New York requires every insurance policy sold there to cover podiatry. Acupuncture coverage is mandated in 11 states, massage therapy in four, osteopathy in 24, and chiropractors in 47. There are an estimated 1,800 or so such insurance "mandates" across the country, and the costs add up....

What's more, states like New Jersey and New York add two more ultra-expensive requirements: "Guaranteed issue" allows people to wait till they are sick and then buy insurance; "community rating" prevents insurers from charging different prices to people of different ages and health status. These may sound like compassionate ideas, until you realize they make insurance so expensive that millions of people are exposed to financial ruin because they aren't allowed to buy basic policies focused on catastrophic costs.

Falkenberg noted the number of people who can't afford health insurance, but again failed to mention the role that state regulators play in this. She ignored the regulations that limit competition; she ignored the costs imposed by those regulations. She ignored the restrictions placed on consumers--not only are they prohibited from buying policies from insurers in other states, they are prohibited from buying policies that do not meet state requirements.

Falkenberg concludes:
Those who choose to fight change, particularly those with health insurance, should first understand the status quo, which is that many of us don't have a choice at all.
I would suggest that Falkenberg heed her own advice and study the facts before spouting off. The status quo is government control and regulation--in regard to both health insurance and the provision of health care services--which she simply evades throughout her piece.

And while she is in a studious mood, perhaps she will break out a dictionary as well. A choice exists when two or more options are possible. Falkenberg has options: she can accept what her employer offers, she can purchase health insurance on her own, she can find an employer with a health plan more to her liking, or she can do without. But since she doesn't like those options, she wants to whine that she really doesn't have any choices.

The sad irony is, while Falkenberg is lamenting the options she actually has (and ignoring the reasons that she doesn't have more) she advocates a plan that will eliminate all options.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

An Open Letter to Houston's Mayoral Candidates

Last week the Chronicle reported that you have canceled your remaining forums. Political consultant Marc Campos told the paper:
They haven't distinguished themselves. Everybody pretty much knows where they're at on all these issues. They've been asked the same questions over and over and over, and they've all stuck to their own party line, so it's a little bit of, this is too much.

One of the cardinal principles of advertising is the Unique Selling Proposition. This principle holds that an advertiser must present a unique offer to consumers to entice them to switch brands. In the context of a mayoral race, you must present voters with unique ideas--ideas that differ from your opponents. Otherwise, why should they vote for you rather than one of your opponents?

Your positions on the issues are essentially the same. Each of you advocates more government controls and regulations, differing only on the specific details of your positions. Not only does this fail to distinguish you from your opponents, it is offering more of the very causes that are creating the problems you allegedly seek to address.

You could truly distinguish yourself, and offer tangible solutions, by recognizing that the only legitimate function of government is the protection of individual rights. Government should not be "protecting" neighborhoods, but the rights of the individuals who comprise those neighborhoods. Government should not be promoting "quality of life", but the freedom of individuals to pursue their own values. Government should not be pandering to the interests of groups, but protecting the personal freedom of individuals.

Such a position would allow you to offer truly unique solutions. You could solve the city's budget deficit, reduce taxes, and stimulate the economy. You could eliminate controversies like light rail and the Ashby High Rise. In short, you would have a specific principle to guide your position on any particular issue--a principle that would provide consistency and eliminate the endless parade of special interest groups seeking government favors for their pet project.

From a campaign perspective, there are other benefits to adopting this position. Your message would not need to be changed depending on the group to which you are speaking. Individual rights apply to all individuals--black and white, Anglo and Hispanic, gay and straight, preservationists and developers, employers and employees. You could promote diversity--which I don't hold as a value--because the protection of individual rights allows for each individual to pursue his values without interference from others, so long as he respects their mutual rights.

You might think that my proposal isn't practical. But practicality depends upon what one wishes to practice--the results that one seeks. If one seeks a peaceful, vibrant community, then individual freedom is eminently practical. Indeed, it is the only means to that end. If you seek government control over the economy and the lives of Houstonians, then I would agree that my proposal is impractical.

You might think that my proposal is too radical, that voters are not interested in their personal liberty. To this I say, the legitimate anger being expressed in town hall meetings and at tea parties is ample evidence to the contrary. Citizens are angry that their freedom is threatened, and they will respond positively to a candidate who offers to recognize and protect individual rights.

I doubt that I need to explain to you the importance of the position you seek. The mayor of Houston holds immense responsibilities, the most important being the protection of individual rights. As mayor you will be faced with difficult and complex issues. Holding clear principles will allow you to tackle these issues with relative ease. As mayor you will be asked to lead our city through uncertain times. Holding clear principles will allow you--and Houstonians--to move forward with confidence.

The most important principle you can hold is the sanctity of individual rights. Adopting this principle will not only help you get elected, but will also help you lead the city. Adopting this principle, and implementing it consistently, will require courage and conviction. But these are the qualities of a true leader. Are you up to the task?

Monday, September 21, 2009

Peter Brown: Then and Now

On Sunday a comment called me on my assertion that Peter Brown supported zoning in the 1990s. Apparently Brown recently claimed that he did not support zoning. I was asked if I have any evidence to support my claim. In my response I cited an article from the defunct Houston Post from April 1988 in which Brown wrote: “Perhaps one of the reasons some politicians and developers in Houston have traditionally opposed city planning is its very democratic nature—it redistributes some of the power and decision-making authority and invites public debate on important issues.” Brown's words at the time, and in the years since, have made it clear that he supports "public debate on important issues".

It is possible that Brown never publicly said, "I support zoning." However, one can imply support for a position by a person's actions and a person's words. And that is certainly the case with Peter Brown and zoning.

Kay Crooker, Brown's co-author of the article cited above, was an outspoken advocate of zoning. If Brown did not support zoning, why did he co-author an article with an advocate of zoning that spoke favorably of zoning? If Brown did not support zoning, then he was doing a very poor job of conveying that fact.

Brown might claim that he supported (and still supports) "planning" rather than zoning. But as I wrote in 1990 in The Freeman and last year in this post, "planning" is just a euphemism for zoning. For a plan to have any useful purpose, the city will require enforcement powers, which means, the city's plan will be implemented through land-use regulations. Whether Brown wishes to call this zoning or "planning" or dancing in the park, such regulations are the equivalent of zoning--they will violate property rights.

During the zoning debate in the 1990s pro-zoners frequently pointed to master-planned communities and declared that Houstonians clearly wanted planning. In other words, at the time, leading zoning advocates made no distinction between planning and zoning. (Nor did they make a distinction between voluntary private planning and coercive public planning.) Indeed, the city department that drafted the zoning ordinance was called the Planning and Zoning Commission, and it was renamed after Councilman Jim Greenwood proposed that the city adopt zoning. The city itself made no distinction between planning and zoning, regarding the latter as the means of implementing the former.

I do not know why Peter Brown denies his support for zoning. Perhaps he forgot, in which case, I would suggest that his senility is evidence that he isn't fit to serve as the city's mayor. Perhaps he thinks that we forgot, in which case, I would suggest that his arrogance is evidence that he isn't fit to serve as the city's mayor. Perhaps he truly believes that in writing an article with a known zoning advocate, he would not be perceived as supporting zoning. In which case, I would suggest that his naivety is evidence that he isn't fit to serve as the city's mayor. Perhaps he is trying to distance himself from a past political failure, in which case I would suggest that his intellectual dishonesty is evidence that he isn't fit to serve as the city's mayor. I could go on, but I think that you get the point.

As if I need to present more evidence of the connection between planning and zoning, consider what the Chronicle said in 1990 when Al Haines, the city of Houston finance director, unveiled a reorganization of city departments:

"I think the most significant change... will be in planning,"Haines said. "It's a major change that should help Houston get ready for the future"... The Planning Department now has a $1.6 million annual budget and 56 employees who plan for the city's growth. But under Haines'proposal, Knudson [Planning Department head Pat Knudson] would get more than 300 employees from other departments....

Knudson, confirmed last month as planning director, said the changes would help her department generate stronger land-use controls. She and the city Planning Commission are studying the possibility of zoning as one of those controls.

"There is growing emphasis on planning that's almost exponential," Knudson said. "People are talking about better land use. This reorganization will help us focus and concentrate on that direction."
Peter Brown can claim anything he wants. He can claim that "planning" and zoning are essentially different, but his claims do not change the facts. He can claim that he did not support zoning, but his claims do not change the facts. If a man suggests that a city needs "planning" in the midst of a debate over planning and zoning, he cannot claim that he supported the former but not the latter. In 1990 planning and zoning were inseparably linked. Peter Brown may forget what he said twenty years ago. I don't.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Third Ward's Thug

While this article is more than three years old, it demonstrates what happens when government moves beyond its legitimate function of protecting individual rights. Texas Rep. Garnet Coleman represents Houston's Third Ward, a predominantly poor, black area of the city. The area's proximity to downtown and the Medical Center has made it attractive to developers, who began building three-story town homes.

Coleman did not like this, and was quoted in the article:
“You can tell a neighborhood’s turning,” he says with dismay, “when you see them out at night walking their dogs.”

We must wonder about the values of a man who finds it disheartening when people are walking their dogs at night. I suppose that he would prefer that they be huddled in their homes, afraid to walk the streets for fear of being attacked.

Coleman, who is described as having "partial control" of the special tax district for the area, used his political power to begin buying land in the Third Ward. He then attached deed restrictions to the property mandating that it be used solely for rental housing. The taxing district, which was formed for the specific purpose of encouraging development, is now being used to discourage development.

Coleman, and Mayor Bill White, is opposed to the Third Ward changing its character. Neither liked the fact that developers began replacing run-down shotgun homes with modern town homes. White stated:
It’s good that there are people who want to live in city limits, but we don’t want to destroy the character of a neighborhood. Unless we do something aggressive...the market will build in concentric circles around [the downtown] employment center.

In other words, the voluntary choices of developers and potential home buyers is irrelevant. The fact that many Houstonians desire to live closer to work is to be dismissed, and the coercive power of government should be used to prohibit redevelopment of the area.

At the same time, Houstonians are being forced to financially support the construction of more light rail, which is intended to reduce traffic congestion. City government is speaking out of both sides of its mouth. On one hand, we are to prohibit development that will increase housing inside The Loop, and thereby reduce traffic congestion; on the other hand, we are to seize homes and businesses so that we can build rail lines that will reduce traffic congestion. In these two instances, government is violating individual rights for the express purpose of achieving conflicting goals. This is the inevitable result when government moves beyond its legitimate purpose of protecting individual rights, including property rights.

Coleman's agenda extends beyond his current government positions. He wants to shape the city--or at least a portion of it--in his image, and anyone who stands in his way will soon discover who makes the rules. Coleman is determined to keep the Third Ward predominantly black. He is protecting his turf, and like any two-bit gangster, he isn't afraid to use coercion to achieve his ends. The fact that he is an elected government official does not change the nature of his actions. It only means that he is allowed to engage in legalized thuggery.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

What Is and Ought to Be

The continuing debate over light rail in Houston is following the same pattern as debates over land-use. In both issues, one group asserts an arbitrary ideal, demands government action, and then marches forward while ignoring the facts.

In regard to land-use regulations, it has been clearly established that government restrictions lead to higher housing costs and a higher cost of living. (I have too many posts to link to a single one on this issue.) In regard to light rail, it has been clearly established that Houstonians don't use what we already have. Why then, the unrelenting insistence that the city enact more controls on land-use and build more light rail?

We could simply attribute this obsession to power lusting--the desire on the part of some to control the lives and property of others. But this explanation is insufficient, for it fails to explain why the mountain of evidence is so easily dismissed. It fails to explain why the advocates of these proposals pursue policies that have proven impractical--have failed to achieve their stated ends.

The answer can be found, in part, in a fundamental philosophical issue: the "is-ought problem". This "problem" questions how an "ought" can be derived from an "is". Or to put it another way, how do statements of fact relate to moral principles? Or, what is the relationship between facts and values? Philosophers have wrestled with this "problem" since David Hume first posed it in 1739, and have concluded that there is no connection between facts and values.

If we look at the world around us, we see that humans spend much of their waking time in the pursuit of values, whether spiritual or material. If values are severed from the facts of reality, then how is this so? Where do values come from? Again, philosophers are nearly unanimous in their answer.

Values, we are told, are a creation of consciousness. Values are created by God (in the case of religion), or by one's economic class (in the case of Marxists), or by society (in the case of democracy), or by one's own personal whim (in the case of hippies). While these variants disagree on whose consciousness is the source of values, they agree that values (the ought) are divorced from reality (the is).

Thus, any value can be asserted without reference to the actual facts. The advocates of land-use regulations and light rail begin with the ought--they assert the way they think the world should look--and then bemoan the fact that the world isn't that way. They ignore the is--the fact that individuals have different dreams, aspirations, and values--and seek to impose one set of values on everyone in the community through government coercion.

Certainly, these advocates make a pretense at providing facts to support their position. For example, land-use regulations are needed to "protect" neighborhoods and enhance our "quality of life". As I have previously noted, "quality of life" is a matter of personal values. For the government to promote one version of "quality of life" necessarily means that the personal values of some are imposed on others. In other words, the values of some become the values that all Houstonians ought to pursue. Or else.

The myriad values pursued by Houstonians are a matter of personal choice. Some choose the opera while others choose rock concerts. Some choose to play golf while others prefer tennis. Some choose to visit the zoo while others enjoy visiting the mall. Some choose to live in town homes with minimal yards while others choose to maintain extensive landscaping. Some choose short commutes while others prefer to live in the suburbs. These choices are based on our personal values. Yet the advocates of land-use regulations and light rail seek to negate our personal choices and values, to render our individual choices and judgment irrelevant. They tell us what we ought to value, and seek the power of government to enforce their choices and values.

The fact is, each individual has a moral right to his own life, his own liberty, his own property, and the pursuit of his own happiness. The fact is, each individual has a moral right to live his life as he chooses, so long as he respects the mutual rights of others.

Having divorced facts from values, the advocates of government controls feel unconstrained by individual rights. They regard their desire as an unquestionable fact, and the greater the number who agree, the greater their righteousness. So long as individual rights are subject to the passions of the majority, the city is doomed to continuing debates over land-use regulations and light rail. The only solution is for the city to recognize and protect individual rights, including property rights. And that is precisely what the city ought to do.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Peter Brown's White Paper on the Economy

I've been pretty hard on Peter Brown during his run for mayor of Houston. Last week he did something that deserves some credit--he released a white paper that provides some details regarding how he would improve Houston's economy. That part is laudable. And it demonstrates just how destructive his ideas are.

The paper starts with what might sound like a good idea:

City government should do everything it can to play a supporting role and partner with the private sector to grow the economy. And that includes making the right investments and providing effective city services. But at the end of the day, government should get out of the way and let businesses do business. [emphasis added]
This last statement is certainly true, and it sounds appealing to any advocate of individual rights. However, as is often the case, if we dig a little deeper we discover that these words are nothing more than empty platitudes.

As mayor, Peter Brown will simplify, streamline and strengthen City regulations like the Chapter 42 development code to ensure they promote high-quality growth and encourage investment, while at the same time maintaining our quality of life.

How, you might ask, will city government "get out of the way" while simultaneously strengthening city regulations? The fact is, it won't. Tougher regulations and controls on developers is certainly not getting out of the way--it means more barriers to conducting business and more groveling at the feet of bureaucrats and politicians for those developers. Unless of course, they have the proper connections.

Brown wants to do more than simply dictate to developers. He wants to control the city's economy by creating an "Office of Economic Development and Job Creation". While he denies that this is economic planning, the facts say otherwise. Brown proposes to use city money to train workers:
Having identified targeted economic sectors for growth, job training and workforce development should reflect those priorities and focus on training workers for the fields where growth and jobs will be created. And vocational training efforts need to be expanded to provide opportunities for all Houstonians in the new economy.

While a trained workforce is certainly an important component of economic growth, it is not a proper function of government. By targeting specific "economic sectors for growth", Brown seeks to use government to promote certain industries. And who will pay for this favoritism? Those who are not in the targeted industries.

In other words, Brown will identify where he wants job growth to occur, and then will use the coercive power of government to encourage that growth. Businessmen and entrepreneurs in industries that Brown does not like will have to put their plans and aspirations on hold while Brown molds the city's economy according to his desires. And he makes it quite clear how he will accomplish this:
The City should employ a diverse array of economic recruitment tools and incentives to facilitate growth in Houston. These include tax abatements, enterprise projects and enterprise zones, tax increment reinvestment zones (TIRZs), and public-private partnerships – all designed to promote growth while protecting the quality of life.

Using a combination of carrots and sticks, Brown will wave the lure of tax abatements and other benefits to bribe developers. And if that doesn't work, he can use the stick of TIRZs--he can use tax money to spur development in certain areas, and force existing property owners to pay the cost. But this isn't the most ominous aspect of Brown's plan--he wants to use public-private partnerships to promote growth.

Consider the nature of such "partnerships". One side--the government--holds the ability to demand and dictate. The government can criminalize certain actions on the part of a private business. The government can force its "partner" to do anything it--the government--desires. This is the same type of "partnership" that exists between a shop owner and the street thug who demands protection money.

Brown has no intention of getting out of the way of businesses. He seeks more control over their operations through tighter regulations, job training, TIRZs, tax abatements, and a myriad other means. He wants to use the coercive power of government to protect our "quality of life" and grow our economy. By placing more shackles around our necks, his plans will accomplish neither.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The State has a Hammer and You are a Nail

On Saturday, the Chronicle reported that Spec's Liquor gave up its fight over its Washington Avenue store. A city ordinance prohibits liquor stores from being within 1,000 feet of a school. The store in question is about 665 feet from a school. Spec's previously received permission from both the city and the state to build the store, but the city changed its mind a short time later. While the Chronicle got these facts correct, the paper got the story completely wrong, stating:
Lawyers for Spec's agreed to voluntarily surrender the licenses at an administrative hearing Friday.
There is nothing voluntary about this. The state was holding a club, and was poised to use it against Spec's. Apparently, had the business pursued the matter through the appeals process, Spec's faced an "unpleasant" consequence. The county's prosecutor told the Chronicle:
The district court judge could have prevented him [owner John Rydman] from getting a license anywhere in the state for a year. I think he did a risk/benefit analysis and decided we are going to give our permits back here. We had a much bigger hammer.
It is bad enough that the company had to grovel at the feet of petty bureaucrats for permission to build a store. It is bad enough that the city erects an arbitrary barrier to businesses--what is so magical about 1,000 feet? But it is even worse when government officials openly threaten a business. So what was his risk/ benefit analysis? Give in and keep my business, or fight and risk being destroyed. The state must be so proud of itself for its ability to threaten businessmen.

The state certainly has "a much bigger hammer", and it waived that hammer menacingly to beat Spec's into submission. Do it our way, the state implied, or we will make it impossible for you to open a new store anywhere in the state. Toe the line, or regret the day you ever thought to question the state's authority. Surrendering the permits in the face of such threats can hardly be called voluntary.

Rather than protect the rights of Spec's owner John Rydman--the protection of individual rights is the only proper purpose of government--the state is acting exactly like the thugs it should be protecting Rydman from. The fact that the state does so under the guise of law does not change the nature of its actions. The fact that it does so in such a brazen and open manner is beyond disgusting--it is a warning to all Texans to shut up and do as we are told. Or else.

I do not know what asinine excuse the city used to draft its arbitrary limitations on where liquor stores may locate, but I am sure it had something to do with protecting children. As if the mere proximity of a liquor store and a school will somehow be harmful to the little ones. Illiterate adults have a right to procreate like rabbits, booze it up at home, and send their tykes off to public schools to get brainwashed, but if you locate a liquor store near their school you are an ogre.

The hypocrisy goes even further. While allegedly protecting children from imagined evils, the city gleefully places shackles on adults. With accelerating frequency, the city is regulating, restricting, and controlling the actions of adults. We are supposed to believe that the city's children will somehow be better off if their parents are prevented from acting as they choose. We are supposed to believe that enslaving adults will somehow lead to better children--who can then be enslaved when they reach adulthood.

I do not fault John Rydman for surrendering his license. The state make it very clear who would win. They threatened to destroy his business--if they could deny him permission to open a new store, they could just as easily revoke previously granted permissions. Oh wait, that is exactly what they did in this instance, so I don't need to speculate about what the state can or would do. If they could do it for one store, they could do it for dozens more.
Mr. Rydman violated nobody's rights when he opened his store. He jumped through all of the inane hoops erected by city and state officials, which was a violation of his rights. And when city officials discovered that they had made a mistake, they made Mr. Rydman pay for their error.

Mr. Rydman has a lawsuit pending against the city and the county for the violation of the equal protection and due process clauses of the U.S. Constitution. But much more is at stake in this suit. A victory for Mr. Rydman means that Texans retain some protection from arbitrary government edicts. A victory for the thugs means that it is open season on all Texans. It means that you are a nail, and they have made it very clear that they have a large hammer.

Monday, September 14, 2009

A Day of Service

Last Friday I honored our President's request and spent the day in service--to myself. I am sure that this is not what he had in mind, since he expects all of us to be mindless servants to others. But as Homey D. Clown used to say, "I don't think so... Homey don't play dat!"

My work day began at 5:30 a.m. doing some paperwork and payroll. Unlike the parasites who depend on the government to provide their sustenance, or bail them out when they make bad decisions, I actually provide for myself. In doing so, I am serving myself.

I then met with several customers to assess their needs for the services my company provides. Some might say that I am serving others in this capacity, and in a superficial way, they are correct. Serving others is not my motivation--making money is. Serving others in this context is a mutually beneficial trade and a means for serving myself.

Upon returning to my office, I returned calls from two other customers to discuss proposals I had recently submitted. Both were ready to hire my company, not out of some sense of altruistic duty, but because my company will help satisfy their self-interest. And in helping them do so, I am serving myself.

I then took my wife to lunch. I did this for two reasons. One, we were hungry. Two, I enjoy taking my wife to lunch. We work together. She spends most of the day in the office, while I get to traipse all over the countryside meeting interesting people. I enjoy giving her a chance to get out of the office, and her enjoyment is important to me. (I hasten to add that, while I realize a 10-carat diamond ring might bring her enjoyment, I do have to draw the line somewhere.) In enhancing her enjoyment, I am serving myself. (Somewhat ironically, the restaurant we went to is a buffet, so we literally had to serve ourselves. We even joked about it at the time.)

After lunch we went to look at two prospective rental properties. We are buying rental properties, not to stimulate the economy or take advantage of those who are down on their luck, but to make money. We are doing it to build passive income, acquire equity, and provide for our retirements. We are not planning for the government to provide for us, or for our fellow citizens to serve us. We are perfectly capable of taking care of ourselves, and we will do so--we will serve ourselves.

I spent the remainder of the afternoon doing two activities I enjoy--reading and writing. I did not do this for anyone's benefit or enjoyment but mine. I would like to think that others might somehow benefit from what I learn and the subsequent writing, but that is not, and was not, my motivation. I was serving my own interests--any benefit or enjoyment others get is simply a byproduct.

My day concluded with more selfish activities--pizza and Wii bowling with my wife. In this, my last opportunity of the day to serve someone else, I was mercilessly competitive. (Not in eating the pizza, but the bowling.) I am happy to report that I was stunningly masterful at bowling. And while my wife would have certainly enjoyed winning, as I previously noted, I must draw the line somewhere.

So there you have it--my day of service. I spent it pursuing my values--both material and spiritual. I spent the day doing things I enjoy. I did not concern myself with the needs of others, because I don't expect them to concern themselves with my needs. I engaged in trades that were mutually beneficial to all involved--my customers, the restaurant, and my wife. I spent the day serving my life.

Of course, I spend every day in a similar fashion. The details vary, but the principle does not. I spend every day in service--to myself.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Political Magic

It should come as little surprise that those without health insurance are in favor of forcing others to pay for their medical care. But that alone isn't sufficient. They want to be treated just like the individuals who are paying the bill. A Chronicle reporter interviewed a number of people at Ben Taub--which provides free health care to those without insurance--on health care reform. The story starts on a promising note:

Those waiting to be seen or accompanying a relative in need of care knew nothing of the particulars of Obama's plan or the criticism of it. All readily admitted the current public option — waiting for hours to be called to the triage room — is better than nothing. But the promise of universal insurance coverage, a cornerstone of health care reform, is one they all would take to heart.

Many of those interviewed are unemployed, so I think that it is reasonable to assume that they have some time on their hands. Yet, they know nothing of the current health care debate. Why then, is their opinion of interest to anyone? Why would the Chronicle send one of its reporters to get the opinion of those who don't know what they are talking about? Because an informed opinion doesn't matter when there are unmet needs sitting around the waiting room.

Anastasia Bennett, who has apparently abandoned any responsibility for her own life, told the reporter:
I don't think it's right that some people can get insurance and I can't get it. If positions were reversed, vice versa, they would want to be seen by a doctor. They are no better than we are.

Ms. Bennett doesn't think it's right that some people have something she doesn't have, and therefore, it is perfectly proper to take their money to fulfill Ms. Bennett's desires. Like an insatiable parasite, she believes that sucking the life out of productive citizens and doctors is right. For added measure, she plays the guilt card--productive citizens are no better than leeches feeding at the public trough.

I suppose that Ms. Bennett would also think that its not right that some people can get a BMW, or a cruise, or a home in River Oaks, or countless other things that she can't get. The fact that these individuals work and earn their money is irrelevant. The fact that these individuals are responsible for their own lives doesn't mean a thing. She has a need, and it is the responsibility of others to fulfill it.

Certainly, some people suffer misfortune through no fault of their own. Such situations are tragic, and I do not mean to diminish the impact on the lives of those involved. But one person's tragedy, no matter how dire, does not provide him with a claim on the lives and property of others. One person's need does not give him a right to steal from others, and this doesn't change merely because government acts as his proxy.

In a free society, those in need must rely on the good will and charity of others. And in a free society there is seldom a shortage of such good will. However, receiving charity, we are often told, is demeaning to the recipients. Acting as a moocher isn't. An act of good will and benevolence is degrading, but theft isn't. This is the type of "logic" employed to justify legalized plunder.

Ms. Bennett and her ilk do not realize that they are chewing off the hand that feeds them. They don't concern themselves with tomorrow, because they count on another hand to magically appear. And unfortunately, there is an abundance of politicians who think that they are magicians.

The Objective Standard has made several articles on this crucial issue available for free:

"How the Freedom to Contract Protects Insurability"
"Mandatory Health Insurance: Wrong for Massachusetts, Wrong for America"
"Moral Health Care vs. 'Universal Health Care'"

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Plato's War on Houston: From Zoning to "SmartCode", Part 4

The right to life is the source of all rights—and the right to property is their only implementation. Without property rights, no other rights are possible. Since man has to sustain his life by his own effort, the man who has no right to the product of his effort has no means to sustain his life. The man who produces while others dispose of his product, is a slave. Ayn Rand, Man’s Rights

The solution to the problems of zoning is not a different gang leading the city, or a different set of rules and regulations. The solution is a different ideal—an ideal that is founded in reality. The solution is an ideal that recognizes the moral right of each individual to live his life as he chooses, so long as he respects the mutual right of others. The solution is capitalism—the unknown ideal.

Capitalism is the only social system that recognizes and protects individual rights, including the right to property. It is the only system that prohibits individuals from interfering with the actions of others. It is the only system of individual liberty.

The extent to which a nation, or a city, recognizes and protects individual rights is the extent of the happiness and prosperity enjoyed by the citizenry. America—the nation which has been most dedicated to individual rights—is arguably the most prosperous nation in the world. Houston—the city in American most dedicated to individual rights—is arguably the most prosperous city in the nation. That freedom has allowed individuals to pursue their own values, and in turn offer their fellow citizens more choices and opportunities. All Houstonians have benefited.

It is quite easy to look around Houston and find many things with which one disapproves. A neighbor may paint his house an obnoxious color or plant hideous shrubs. A business may advertise its wares in a gaudy fashion or open in a location we dislike. A national chain may displace a locally owned shop or the character of a neighborhood might change. We may find such facts frustrating and wish someone would “do something” to prevent such things.

Life will be a constant disappointment to those who dream of a Platonic ideal—of a world that contains no such frustrations. Unhappy with the world around them, for centuries men have dreamed of such an Eden, renouncing this world and seeking their dream through brute force. If others will not act as they deem proper, the Platonic idealists do not hesitate to seek mastery over their fellow citizens.

We must reject Plato, Kant, Dewey, and all of their variants. We must develop a different dream and then act to make it real. We must dream of a world in which individuals—all individuals—are free to live as they choose, free to aspire to greatness and take the actions necessary to achieve it. It is a world in which we are not our brother’s keeper, unless we voluntarily choose to be so. It is a world in which talent and achievement is celebrated, not penalized with higher taxes and guilt trips about helping the needy.

Such a world is possible, here on earth. But we must first renounce force as a means for dealing with other men (except in retaliation against those who initiate its use). We must embrace reason and persuasion as our sole means for dealing with others. It is a world in which all interactions are based on the voluntary consent of each individual involved.

The Platonists speak of developing a consensus, whether city-wide or within neighborhoods, as the means for establishing their ideal. They argue for using compulsion to create a better society, while destroying the lives of the individuals who comprise that society. They refuse to allow the individual to develop and pursue his ideal—the individual must subjugate his dreams and aspirations to those of the collective.

Our Founding Fathers bravely asserted that each individual has a right to his own life, his own liberty, and the pursuit of his own happiness. They sought to great a nation in which these rights were protected, and nobody—including government—could violate these rights. The freedoms they established unleashed the citizenry, resulting in unprecedented prosperity and happiness.

The Founders dared to dream of individual liberty, and risked their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor for that cause. It was a glorious and just cause, and it is no less so today.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Plato's War on Houston: From Zoning to "SmartCode", Part 3

By itself, as a distinctive theory, the pragmatist ethics is contentless. It urges men to pursue “practicality,” but refrains from specifying any “rigid” set of values that could serve to define the concept…

In politics, also, pragmatism presents itself as opposed to “rigidity,” to “dogma,” to “extremes” of any kind (whether capitalist or socialist); it avows that it is relativist, “moderate,” “experimental”… When Dewey wrote, the political principle imported from Germany and proliferating in all directions, was collectivism. Leonard Peikoff, The Ominous Parallels
John Dewey was the most influential Pragmatist in America. He explicitly dispensed with principles, declaring that there are no absolutes. We must act, judge the results, and then modify our actions. Most of all, we must fly by the seat of our pants. This is the approach embraced by all of the advocates of land-use regulations.

During the debate over zoning in the early 1990s, Jim Greenwood insisted that Houston would avoid the corruption, economic turmoil, and other ill effects experienced by other cities with zoning. We would avoid these problems because we would have “Houston-style” zoning, which he never actually bothered to define. But many thought that that sounded nice, and such things as definitions were an unnecessary impediment.

What Greenwood and his ilk ignored were the principles underlying zoning. They ignored the fact that sticking adjectives in front of “zoning” does not change its nature, or its consequences. They implied that all that was required was a vaguely stated ideal and the “will of the people”. Somehow, he implied, we will figure it out and make it work.

The advocates of the SmartCode, New Urbanism, and other variants of "form-based code" make the same mistake. They readily acknowledge that Euclidean zoning has failed. It is too rigid and inflexible, it has created “sprawl”, it has fostered dependency on the automobile. But rather than question their basic premises, they attempt to tweak and modify their means for achieving the unachievable. Rather than identify the principles that underlie zoning—as well as the SmartCode and New Urbanism—they proclaim that their plan is different.

Superficially, they are right—they seek higher density, mixed-use developments in contrast to the segregated land-use policies of zoning. Rather than the rigid city-wide tyranny of zoning, they propose dozens (or hundreds) of “flexible” tyrannies within a city, each being guided by the “will of the people” residing in a particular area.

In principle there is no difference between zoning and the more recent “alternatives”. Each seeks to impose a Platonic ideal through government force. Each allows non-owners of a particular parcel of property a voice in its use. Each violates the moral rights of land owners.

Interestingly, many advocates of the SmartCode claim to also be advocates of the free market. How is it that alleged advocates of the free market can endorse ideas that require government coercion for their implementation?

The answer lies in Pragmatism. They are unable to see any connection between zoning and their proposals. They see some element that resemble the free market—all I can find is de-centralized control of land-use—and regard that as the equivalent of a truly free market. But stripped of incidental details, the SmartCode is nothing more than government regulation of land-use.

Euclidean zoning has failed because it must. A is A. The very nature of zoning is a violation of individual rights. Zoning compels individuals to use their property differently than they would voluntarily choose—it forces them to act contrary to their own rational judgment. The result is market distortions, such as housing bubbles. The result is graft and corruption, as developers and builders attempt to sidestep draconian controls. The result is higher prices for everything, as the arbitrarily lowered supply of land for each use increases the cost of housing and of doing business. The result is the destruction of lives, and with it, the cities that attempt to live a contradiction.

The SmartCode attempts to overcome these problems, not by renouncing force, but by using force in a different manner. Rather than prohibit commercial establishments in residential areas, the SmartCode will require it. However, the height, setback, landscaping, “public realm”, and other details will be dictated by government. Like zoning, the SmartCode will prohibit the land owner from using his property as he chooses. Like zoning, the SmartCode will impose additional costs upon the property owner. Like zoning, the SmartCode violates property rights.

But the “free market” advocates of the SmartCode do not see it that way. They see details that differ and believe that their proposal is different. They have different ends (though only superficially) and believe that their proposal is different. They see differences, and ignore the nature and essence of those differences. My cats are different in size, color, personality, and in many other ways, but they are still cats. Land-use regulations are land-use regulations, whether they are called zoning, or the SmartCode, or New Urbanism.

In the end, the SmartCode and New Urbanism must also fail. They must do so for the same reasons that zoning fails. And that becomes very clear if one thinks in principles.

Tomorrow I will examine the only real alternative to zoning—true freedom in land use.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Plato's War on Houston: From Zoning to "SmartCode", Part 2

There are two different kinds of subjectivism, distinguished by their answers to the question: whose consciousness creates reality? Kant rejected the older of these two, which was the view that each man’s feelings create a private universe for him. Instead, Kant ushered in the era of social subjectivism—the view that it is not the consciousness of individuals, but of groups, that creates reality. Leonard Peikoff, The Ominous Parallels

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant breathed new life into Platonism. However, Kant put a twist on Platonism and held that the world we perceive is a creation of the “collective consciousness”. All that is required to achieve some goal is for the collective--such as a race, a city, or a nation--to believe it. In current parlance, all we need is hope--reality will mold itself to our desires.

This was the view held by Houston's zoning advocates in the 1990s. Today it is held by Peter Brown in his calls for a "common vision”, by the advocates of the SmartCode, and by the New Urbanism movement. Each embraces a Platonic ideal, to be determined by a consensus (they only differ in the size and constituents of the participating group) and implemented through government regulations and control.

In the 1990s Jim Greenwood, the leader of the pro-zoning movement, promised that he would develop a consensus on zoning. Then-mayor Kathy Whitmire supported zoning, telling the Chronicle:

That consensus reflects the will of the people in this community. I have certainly heard from a lot of neighborhood groups about the need for protection.

Both Whitmire and Greenwood dismissed the principles that underlie zoning, implying that the "will of the people" would somehow allow Houston to avoid the destructive consequences experienced in cities with zoning. In other words, if enough of us put our mind to it, then reality would somehow conform to our desires. Today, Peter Brown agrees, previously stating on his web site that he would:

Update Houston’s planning and development standards; adopt a comprehensive plan to realize our shared VISION for the future and to shape the quality growth our citizens want.

The problem with other cities, Brown, Whitmire, and Greenwood would like us to believe, is that the citizens there were not united in their vision for the future. That dissension undermined the collective will. In other words, zoning (or “planning”, as Brown calls it) hasn't worked in other cities because the people didn't believe strongly enough.

Some have realized that a city-wide consensus is impossible to achieve. Land-use regulations applied uniformly throughout a city are too rigid and do not account for the various opinions of citizens. To overcome this, the advocates of the SmartCode seek to shrink the size of the group involved:

The SmartCode enables the implementation of a community’s vision by coding the specific outcomes desired in particular places. It allows for distinctly different approaches in different areas within the community, unlike a one-size-fits-all conventional code. To this end, it is meant to be locally customized by professional planners, architects, and attorneys.

In other words, rather than struggle to get all of Houston to agree, what we really need to do is to get the citizens in a neighborhood to agree. Each neighborhood can create its own Platonic ideal and then force it upon recalcitrant neighbors.

Some might argue that this is simply democracy in action, that the “will of the people” should reign supreme. Such claims ignore the fact that America was founded as a constitutional republic, not a democracy. A democracy means unlimited majority rule—the majority may do as it pleases because it is the majority. But rain dances will not coax water from the sky, no matter how many participate in such mystical endeavors. The fact that the majority believes something to be right and proper does not make it so.

The advocates of consensus, “common vision”, and all of its variants believe that the collective can and should establish an ideal for the city. And when the voluntary actions of individuals fail to achieve that result, government must use regulations to achieve the desired state. Ignoring the obvious failures of past attempts to create their fictitious Utopia, they march forward with their banner of civic pride. But they do not know their destination, for they have abandoned the only tool that allows them to project the future—thinking in principles.

Tomorrow, we will meet the man who taught them that principles are useless, that what worked yesterday won’t necessarily work today, that our only concern should be the expediency of the moment.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Plato's War on Houston: From Zoning to "SmartCode", Part 1

That is what I mean when I say that “right” is the same thing in all states, namely the interest of the established government; and government is the strongest element in each state, and so if we argue correctly we see that “right” is always the same, the interest of the stronger party…

To be really precise one must say that the ruler, in so far as he is a ruler, makes no mistake, and so infallibly enacts that which is best for himself, which his subjects must perform. Plato, The Republic

The Greek philosopher Plato died more than 2,300 years ago, yet he is waging war on Houston today. His ideas live on, made manifest in the myriad proposals to shape the city through government regulation and controls.

Plato held that this world is an imperfect reflection of true reality, that knowledge of that reality is available only to a select group of elitist intellectuals, and those intellectuals must rule over society for the good of all. We see Platonism reflected in past calls for zoning, Peter Brown's proposals for planning, suggestions that Houston implement the "SmartCode", and the entire "New Urbanism" movement. Each embraces the fundamental ideas of Plato.

Plato began by postulating an ideal that exists in another realm and decrying the imperfection of this world. In the language of the advocates of land-use regulations, the ideal consists of segregating land-use (traditional zoning), or pedestrian friendly, multi-use developments (New Urbanism), or a mixture of the natural and the man-made via "transects" (SmartCode). And like Plato, they advocate government coercion when their ideal does not materialize in the world we inhabit.

During the Progressive Era, segregating land-uses to prevent "incompatible" land-use was regarded as the ideal. The result was Euclidean zoning, which has subsequently been demonstrated to be devastatingly destructive. Fortunately, Houstonians have rejected zoning on three separate occasions. Not to be deterred, the Platonists went back to the drawing board.

Today, the ideal takes a different shape and form. Decrying urban "sprawl", the decay of the inner city, and dependency on the automobile, their ideal now consists of denser, multi-use developments that are pedestrian friendly and tied to mass transit. In other words, the ideal of 100 years ago is no longer an ideal. But while their ends may have changed, their means remain the same--government coercion, regulations, and controls.

There is nothing necessarily wrong with seeking to improve the world in which we live. Indeed, that is a part of my motivation for writing this blog. But the ends to not justify the means. A better world will not, and cannot, be achieved through tyrannical means.

In this context, the error of the Platonists is that they divorce their ideal from reality. They posit a world that fails to account for or recognize that individuals desire different things in life, that the things they--the Platonists--value may not be shared by all Houstonians. Yet they seek to impose those values upon the entire city through government mandates.

This Platonic ideal rests largely on a homogeneous view of mankind. It assumes that the values of some are in the best interest of the entire society. The “enlightened” few believe it their duty to spread their wisdom through the coercive power of government. And those malcontents who hold different values and refuse to go along should properly be compelled to put aside their "selfish" desires. In short, the individual is to be subservient to the demands and decrees of "society". In this view, society—the “will of the people”—is the supreme ruler, and the individual is obligated to obey.

To a significant measure, Houston has rejected this view. City government has refrained from enacting many of the draconian restrictions and regulations found in other cities. City government has more consistently recognized the property rights of individuals. But in recent decades this has changed—in the past thirty years city council has enacted ordinance after ordinance that restricts individual freedom. And all of it has been done in the name of some ideal—such as “quality of life”.

But this ideal remains elusive, for it is divorced from our world. This however, has not stopped the Platonists from seeking government power to impose their views and values upon all of Houston. And their efforts put them at war with every Houstonian who values his freedom.

Plato is the Commander-in-Chief in the war on Houston. But he has numerous generals. Over the next two days, I will introduce two of them. Their ideas too, live on.