Monday, April 12, 2010

The "Community Good" and Property Rights

We are often told that property rights must occasionally be sacrificed for the "common good". One local blogger repeats this claim, noting that city officials must wage a constant balancing act between the two:
This central dilemma is the tug-of-war between the conflicting objectives of preserving individual property rights and of serving the broader community interest. There is essentially a linear “rights continuum” on which each ordinance must stake a position: with serving the community good over all other considerations on one end, and the complete preservation of individual property rights on the other.
The solution to this "dilemma", according to the blogger, is to find a middle ground. Which means, find a compromise between the "community good" and "the complete preservation of individual property rights." Such a compromise is not possible--it is either-or. Either the city pursues the alleged "community good" or it protects property rights. It cannot, and does not, do both. And the blogger admits as much:
Crafting planning legislation is simply a matter of analyzing the tradeoffs between preserving or sacrificing individual rights in pursuit of a community good, and staking a position on the rights continuum that corresponds to consensus.
In other words, the "community good" is always the deciding factor. When some crumbs can be thrown toward the protection of property rights, the city will do so. But at the end of the day, if property rights must be sacrificed, so be it. And the fact that such a "debate" even occurs demonstrates the precarious status of property rights.

The following situation concretizes this argument: You live in a neighborhood of 100 homes. Your neighbors decide that they don't like your landscaping--it isn't consistent with other homes in the neighborhood. After a debate, 51 of your neighbors reach a consensus--you must plant more azaleas. You protest that your property rights--the right to use your property as you choose, so long as you do not violate the mutual rights of others--have been violated. Your neighbors respond that the "community good" requires such a sacrifice. Besides, they will "compromise" and allow you to pick the color of the azaleas.

But this is not a compromise--you don't want any azaleas. Your judgment has been usurped by a consensus of your neighbors for the "community good", which they can define in any manner they choose.

The fact is, "community good" or "public welfare" or any similar term is undefinable. It can be anything the "community" or the "public" chooses, which means, it is nothing in particular. If, at some future point, your neighbors decide that hibiscus are more to their liking, that choice can be imposed upon you in the name of the "community good".

And while they debate how you may use your property, they evade the fact that you are a part of the community. They ignore the fact that according to your judgment, azaleas are not good. They pretend that their judgment, standards, and values may be forced upon you.

This situation may seem absurd, and it is. But this is precisely what the blogger advocates. If property rights may be sacrificed whenever a consensus can be developed, then property rights are under a perpetual attack. There is nothing to limit what a noisy gang may do.


Christopher said...

Of course the "community good" usually trumps "individual rights". Not always, but usually. For better or worse, that's because we live in community with others, it's the kind of animal we humans are. Rare is the individual who goes off into the wilderness to live alone because he's unwilling to live with this fact of life.

Brian Phillips said...

A community is only a collection of individuals. How is the alleged good of that collection promoted by harming the individuals who comprise it?

The fact is, no group attains rights distinct from the rights of the individuals who are members of that group.