Friday, June 11, 2010

Doublespeak at City Hall

Having recently read George Orwell's 1984, the idea of "doublespeak" is fresh in my mind. In the world of 1984, government officials distort the meanings of words, uttering such nonsense as "war is peace". But doublespeak is not confined to works of fiction--it is alive and well in Houston's city council. Consider the words of council member Sue Lovell, who is leading the effort to tighten controls on "historic" properties:
I'm all for property rights, too. I'm a property owner, and I'm here to defend that right. I also want to be able to ... defend the history of our city, and so, we're all going to sit down and listen to each other.
The right to property is the right of use and disposal. The right to property is a sanction to use one's property as one chooses, so long as one respects the mutual rights of others. But this is not what Lovell proposes. She seeks to force the owners of "historic" properties to beg for permission to use their property. She does not want property owners using their land by right, but only with the approval of city officials.

Consider what will happen if city officials do not like your proposed use. They will render your judgment irrelevant, and if you do in fact act on your judgment, you will become a criminal, subject to fines and perhaps jail time. This is not a recognition of property rights, but the exact opposite.

Lovell's claims are worse than an evasion. She insists that those on both sides of the issue will "sit down and listen to each other." And what will be the nature of this "discussion"?

On one side--assuming that Lovell even seeks out a principled defender of property rights--will be those who recognize and defend each individual's moral right to his own life, liberty, and property. On the other side will be Lovell and her ilk--those who claim that they have a "right" to compel individuals to use their property in a particular manner. And Lovell will have the coercive power of government on her side.

Throughout the "negotiations" an implied threat will be omnipresent--property owners must comply with Lovell's dictates, or else. Property owners will be forced to cede their rights, or else. And when government is involved, "or else" means "go to jail".

If a private citizen attempted to "negotiate" using such tactics, his actions would rightfully be labeled blackmail. The principle does not change simply because a government official is making the threats--implied or otherwise. The principle does not change by hiding behind sticky sweet bromides like the "common good" or "protecting our heritage". The threat of force makes "negotiations" a mere facade.

The Chronicle reports that proposed changes to the preservation ordinance will "set the stage for a broad, and likely heated, debate about land use and the character of the city." I am doubtful.

More likely, any "debate" that occurs will center on the terms of compromise. The paper tells us that
The city plans to begin negotiating with developers, property owners and preservationists in the coming months about permanent changes to the law, a process Mayor Annise Parker, an advocate for stricter preservation controls, said is likely to end by September.
In other words, the city considers this a done deal and all that remains is to see what concessions it can squeeze out of property owners. Of course, city officials won't admit to any of this. They will continue to pretend that "government control is property rights". They will continue to engage in doublespeak.

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