Thursday, July 29, 2010

Setting a Good Example

The Chronicle reports that Houston police chief Charles McClelland has ordered officers to ignore subpoenas requiring them to appear in court before 1 P.M. Citizens aren't so lucky:
Citizens who show up for their trials are not allowed to leave the courtroom — except for restroom breaks or to put money in parking meters — resulting in a wait of up to five hours before their cases begin.
This move was ordered to save on overtime expenses for the police department. Apparently the chief thinks it more important to save a few dollars than honor a court order. I doubt that the chief would be so understanding if a citizen claimed that he committed some crime to save money.

More significantly, the chief is saying that his officers are above the law, while ordinary citizens are forced to waste most of their day. It is bad enough that the police spend a large part of their time harassing citizens engaged in voluntary activities such as prostitution, taking drugs, and visiting strip clubs. Now they get to hassle citizens without even being present.

Monday, July 26, 2010

The More Things Change

In the early 1990s a group of Houstonians attempted to bring zoning to the city. In a debate that lasted several years, they repeated the same arguments that had been made in previous attempts to institute zoning in Houston. And, while one of the city's major newspapers at the time--the Houston Post--city council, and many community "leaders" endorsed the plan, it was defeated in a referendum on my birthday in 1993. It was one of the best birthdays in my life, and made the efforts of several years very satisfying.

Early in the debate I wrote a pamphlet with my friend Warren Ross that exposed the principles underlying zoning and a proper alternative. We distributed this pamphlet widely and during the debate I spoke to numerous community groups, city council, and other organizations. I wrote several OpEd articles and was quoted in the papers semi-regularly. I would like to think that these efforts had an impact on the final vote.

One of the talks I gave during this time was titled "Winning the Battle, But Losing the War." In this talk I predicted that, without the proper moral defense of individual rights, zoning would not go away. And it hasn't. It has changed its form, but the principles that underlie zoning have not been defeated. 

Following the defeat of the zoning referendum, zoning advocates were very sore losers. They made it clear that they would not give up, and they haven't. From the Ashby High Rise to sexually-oriented businesses to billboards, we see the ideas of zoning at work. We see the same, or very similar arguments being presented.

In the aftermath of the zoning debate, I re-wrote our original pamphlet to include the arguments taken by zoning advocates to explain their defeat. Because those arguments are still used today, though on more narrow issues, I am posting links to that pamphlet (which were the first posts on this blog).

The Government versus Freedom, Part 1

The Government versus Freedom, Part 2

The Government versus Freedom, Part 3

The Government versus Freedom, Part 4

The Government versus Freedom, Part 5

The Government versus Freedom, Part 6

The Government versus Freedom, Part 7

Friday, July 23, 2010

Back in the Good Ol' Days

Loren Steffy points out that air travel is far less expensive and far safer than it was during regulation. Citing an article from the Wall Street Journal, he notes
A round-trip coach ticket between New York and Los Angeles was $208 in 1958, according to the Air Transport Association. You can still sometimes find a $208 ticket today, but that 1958 price is $1,570 in today's dollars.

From 1964 to 1973, there was an average of seven fatal accidents a year on U.S. airlines. The fatal accident rate per departure in 1969 was 13 times higher than in 2009
And then he correctly concludes:
Now, it's [air travel] just another form of mass transit. As bad as things may seem now, the good ol' days weren't that great, either. 
Air travel is far more complex than moving people around a city. Yet, we are constantly told that government must provide mass transit on the local and regional level. Private businesses have mastered mass transit between cities and between continents, but they are virtually prohibited from offering such services on the local level. And when government doesn't explicitly prohibit such offerings, subsidized government entities make it impossible to compete.

While the aviation industry remains heavily regulated, even some marginal freedom in the industry has resulted in lower fares for consumers and safer travel. Motivated by their own self-interest--profit--private companies have sought to make travel more affordable and less risky, both of which benefit consumers. The same is true of every industry.

Despite these lessons, we are told that we need more incompetent government meddling in health care, the auto industry, and the financial industry. Private businesses take the blame for government regulations time and again, despite the overwhelming evidence that those regulations lead to nothing but misery.

Back in the good ol' days, when people were taught to think in principles, these scams would be quickly and widely identified for what they are--a power grab. Back in the good ol' days individuals had a genuine respect for the rights of their neighbors. Back in the good ol' days individuals did not turn to the government to cure every cold and bandage every scraped knee. Those must have been good days.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Wishing Won't Make It So

Intentions, according to the Chronicle, are all that matter. So long as Obama's policies and legislative agenda is intended to benefit Americans, the actual results that we will experience are irrelevant:

A new Gallup poll shows that only 44 percent of Americans approve of Obama's overall performance in office, his lowest rating to date, while 48 percent disapprove. According to a CBS poll, almost two-thirds of Americans feel that the president's economic programs have not affected them personally, and only 13 percent say they have helped. 

Why such negative reactions to measures aimed at improving Americans' lives, and after such public outrage at fat-cat Wall Street profligates? 
The Chronicle assumes, and certainly wants us to believe, that because the law is "aimed" at improving our lives, it will in fact do so. Why, the paper wants to know, are we so ungrateful for all of these great things that our benefactors are doing for us? It isn't fair, the paper chides, to berate Obama before we see how his policies play out:
As with health care, the implementation of financial reform will be a long, arduous endeavor with uncertain outcomes. But you have to give the guy credit. He's no fool, and is well aware of the toll his sweeping measures have taken on his approval ratings. 

So maybe we should cut him some slack, and take him at his word when he says, as he did earlier this month, "I know it doesn't poll well. But it's the right thing to do for America."
For the Chronicle the outcomes of health care and financial "reform" are uncertain.  Having abandoned principles, the paper is incapable of evaluating any policy or proposal ahead of time. We must try it, see it if "works", and return to the drawing board if it doesn't. Without principles, the future is a vast, unchartered wasteland in which any might happen. And so, we are urged to give Obama the benefit of the doubt because he claims that his policies are the "right thing to do."

The Chronicle's pragmatism does more than blind it to the future consequences of Obama's agenda. It renders the paper incapable of learning anything from the past. That RomneyCare--after which ObamaCare was modeled--has been a complete failure in Massachusetts is irrelevant. That was there and then; this is here and now. That the Federal Reserve was created to prevent an economic collapse is ancient history with no bearing on the events of today. That government intervention into the economy has failed everywhere does not matter--Obama's stated intentions are allegedly good and that is all that matters.

Fundamentally, the paper is arguing that wishes and desires can and will transform reality. If Obama's wish is to provide affordable health care to all Americans, any means he chooses will suffice. If Obama's wish is to "protect" the economy from greater calamity, the specific actions he takes do not matter. We are not to consider anything except his wishes and stated desires.

We might excuse a young child who throws a temper tantrum in an attempt to transform his wishes and desires into reality. Such a child simply has not learned that no matter how much he wants something, wishing won't make it so. Apparently, that is a lesson that the Chronicle's editorial board has yet to learn.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Private Parks in Houston, Kinda, Sorta, Not Really

In 1976 some concerned Houstonians formed a group call the Houston Parks Board (HPB). According to the group's web site:
They wanted to contribute to the city's parks system through a private organization that would respect their needs and desires. 
Since that time the group has helped acquire 15,000 acres for parks and raised more than $70 million. While this provides considerable evidence that private individuals will support parks, we shouldn't get too giddy over the HPB. Their efforts at raising private money and using voluntary means to expand the city's parks is only part of their story.

Like many such organizations, they are also political players:
In every project the Houston Parks Board works in partnership with community groups, interest groups, non-profit organizations, City of Houston, Harris County, and other entities.
In other words, HPB isn't satisfied to allow individuals to support parks when they choose. HPB also wants to "nudge" them with government coercion. And now HPB wants to do this on a massive scale.

According to the Chronicle's latest rah-rah editorial, the group wants to add 250 linear miles of park space along the cities bayous. HPB's web site gives us a clue as to what is in store:
The Greater Houston Partnership will take the Bayou Greenway Initiative to our elected representatives in the coming months to secure support, and hopefully obtain funding commitments over the next two to three budget cycles.  As that process moves forward, HPB will continue to work with the community, increase its partnerships with other bayou organizations, continue on-going communication with its public partners, and pursue private funding opportunities.
If the Greater Houston Partnership can twist a few arms with promises of campaign donations and other political support, you had better hide your wallet. Because you are going to get to pay for this one way or another, whether you like the idea or not.

The Chronicle is already drooling over the idea, listing 7 reasons why it loves the idea. As is typical, this proposal is going to cure every alleged ill plaguing the city: flooding, air quality, the economy, etc. I am surprised that they didn't claim that the proposal will also rid the city of aphids, reduce the price of gasoline, and clean up the oil in the gulf.

There seems to be no shortage of groups with grand ideas to improve the city. From the preservationists to Renew Houston to HPB, they all claim that life would be so much better if government had more controls on the lives of individuals and seized more of their wealth. Of course, they don't use such language because that would require some degree of intellectual honesty. Instead, they will tell you that it is for your own good, i.e., the "public welfare." After all, they, like David Crossley, are way smarter than you. If you don't believe, just ask them.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

A Plan to Stimulate the Economy

Most people seem to agree that government coercion should be used to promote the "general welfare." Since this term is undefined and undefinable, I have decided to quit trying to convince Houstonians otherwise and use it to my advantage.

If a noisy gang can petition city hall to stop the Ashby High Rise, or prohibit the demolition of "historic" buildings, or outlaw "attention-getting devices," or prohibit parking in one's own yard, then why can't I assemble my own noisy gang to do likewise? Well I can, and I have a cause that will promote the "general welfare."

It has come to my attention that new home construction has slowed considerably. As a result, thousands of construction workers are unemployed. And paint stores, among others, are also suffering. So I propose that city hall mandate that all Houstonians must paint their home at least once every two years. This will employ thousands of workers and be a gold mine for the paint stores. Of course, my company will also benefit, but I do not have my own welfare in mind when I make this proposal. I am thinking of the "greater good," just like the engineers behind Renew Houston.

I think it would be rather easy to assemble thousands of unemployed construction workers to march on city hall. After all, they aren't doing anything else. I suspect that council members would be moved by their stories of hardship, not to mention the sea of butt cracks.

I also think that city hall should do more than simply force home owners to paint. I think that the city should establish a Color Commission to determine which paint colors will be acceptable in each neighborhood. If it is appropriate to tell property owners how they may use their property, then it surely must be appropriate to tell them what color is acceptable.

I personally get tired of driving through neighborhoods where the houses have almost identical colors. Many Houstonians are simply not very daring when it comes to picking paint colors, and I think that it is high time for city council to force them out of their staid conservatism. I think it would be really cool if at least one house on every street was painted Sassy Green.

I will admit that my long-term goal is to have this mandate extended to interior painting as well. That would create even more jobs. But like the preservationists and the anti-billboard crowd, I will be satisfied to get my foot in the door. In about 15 years I will go back to city council, argue that the ordinance simply isn't strong enough, and demand a tougher ordinance.

I should add that the ordinance must prohibit home owners from doing their own painting. That simply wouldn't be right, as it would do nothing to employ construction workers. I am sure that many will whine about their "rights" and claim that they should be able to do what they want with their property. But there is a bigger issue at stake here--the "general welfare"--and they should be willing to sacrifice for the "greater good." If they aren't eager to do their "fair share," they can think about their transgressions while they rot in jail.

If my proposal strikes you as silly, then consider the "principles" that underlie it. Do you regard it as proper for a small gang to demand laws that control and restrict the actions of others? Do you believe that the individual should be forced to sacrifice for the "common good"? Do you believe that government force should be used to stop the voluntary actions of consenting adults? Those are the "principles" that underlie my proposal. Those are the "principles" that most Houstonians accept.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Both Sides are Wrong

One benefit of being an Objectivist is that both Leftists and conservatives provide an endless stream of material for blogging. One example is Arizona's immigration law. The Chronicle recently ran a piece summarizing the arguments on both sides of the law, and not surprisingly, both sides are lacking.

Let us first consider a few of the arguments in favor of the law.
Arizona must take measures to protect its citizens, their lives and their property.
Since government's only proper purpose is the protection of individual rights this argument is plausible. However, an individual's right can only be violated by the initiation of force--by being compelled to act contrary to one's own judgment (the use of force is proper and just when used in retaliation against those who initiate force). But the fact that an individual is in this country illegally does not violate anyone's rights--his presence is not an initiation of force.

Of course, if he is sending his children to public schools, collecting welfare, or using public health care his actions do involve force. But he is hardly alone in that regard. The solution is not in declaring his existence illegal, but to abolish welfare and other programs that redistribute wealth.
No society can function effectively without a fundamental respect for the law.
This argument is also plausible. But an immoral law--one that initiates force--hardly fosters respect for the law. The law once declared that escaped slaves must be returned to their owners. In Nazi Germany it was illegal to harbor Jews. Only a monster would argue that these laws should have been respected.
Illegal immigrants are responsible for a wave of violent crime.
This is a sweeping generalization. Certainly some "illegals" commit violent crimes, but so do many American citizens. This argument treats all members of a particular group the same, regardless of their actions as individuals. Individuals who commit violent crimes should be severely punished, no matter where they were born.
With so many Americans out of work, immigrants illegally living in Arizona are costing citizens' jobs.
Every individual has a moral right to engage in free and voluntary trade. Nobody has a right to a job. The labor market, like all free markets, is subject to supply and demand. If an immigrant is willing to work for less money than an American, that is his right. It is also the right of the employer to hire whomever he chooses, for whatever terms he and the employee find mutually acceptable.
Until somebody comes up with a better idea, this will do.
This is perhaps the worst argument of all. It acknowledges shortcomings in the law, but accepts them.  Doing "something", it implies, is better than doing nothing, even if that "something" is flawed. 

The arguments in favor of the law are based on flawed premises: We should respect all laws, regardless of their nature; individuals should not be judged on the basis of their own actions, but by those of the group to which they belong; Americans have a right to welfare, but immigrants do not. Most of the arguments against the law are equally flawed.
The law will force local police to focus on immigration, rather than on violence or other crimes.
The police are asked to enforce many other laws that do not violate anyone's rights: Prostitution, drugs, and gambling are but a few. But opponents of Arizona's law do not oppose other laws that do not involve an initiation of force. Why?
Most law enforcement organizations consider the law a bad idea.
The implication of this argument is that truth is determined by a vote. At its core, this is an appeal to majority rule, and whatever the majority determines to be just, proper, or true is just, proper, or true by that fact. 

The number of people who support or oppose a particular law (or idea) has no relevance to the appropriateness of the law. For example, a majority favored putting Socrates to death for spreading unpopular ideas and a majority in the South wanted to retain slavery.

Neither side of this controversy is defending individual rights, for that concept is foreign to both Leftists and conservatives. Both demand that the individual sacrifice his values for some higher authority--society or God. Both treat the individual as a mere pawn, whose life may be disposed of as that authority decrees.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Punishing the Innocent

On Tuesday evening I received an automated phone call from the city of Houston informing me that my burglar alarm permit would expire in 2 weeks. While some may appreciate a friendly reminder of such easily overlooked things, I am not one of them. Further, the phone call was more than merely a friendly reminder--it was also a threat. The city found it necessary to inform me that failure to renew my permit would result in a $500 fine.

According to the Burglar Alarm Ordinance, the purpose of permitting is two-fold:
  1. To reduce false alarms.
  2. To insure that burglar alarms are properly installed, maintained, and operated.
While this might seem plausible, the fact is that the ordinance does neither.

In 12 years I have never had a false alarm. I didn't have one before I was required to obtain a permit nor after. Further, the city has never inspected my alarm to insure that it was properly installed, is being maintained, or that I operate it properly. In fact, the only thing that has changed since the permitting process was adopted is that I must fill out a form and send a check to the city once a year.

The city claims that 95% of the alarms it receives are false and significant resources are tied up responding to these false alarms. I have no reason to doubt the statistics the city cites, but they are irrelevant.

If the city wishes to reduce false alarms, then it should be targeting those who send them. If the city wants to recover the expenses associated with responding to false alarms, then it should go after those who send false alarms. Instead, the city seeks to punish the innocent along with the guilty. More specifically, the city treats all of us as if we are guilty.

Consider the fact that my permit is still valid, yet the city found it necessary to harass me with a phone call. I have not violated any ordinance and the city has no reason to think that I will. But that did not stop the city from calling me and threatening to fine me for an action I have not taken.

Consider the fact that one of the proper purposes of government is the protection of individual rights and on the local level the police are the primary means of doing this. However, if I do not have a valid permit the police may refuse to respond to an alarm from my home. Which means, I could be beaten, robbed, or murdered, and the police would not respond because I do not have their permission to have an alarm in my home. This is morally reprehensible.

Statistically, the odds are overwhelming that an alarm reported to the police department is false. But what is true in general is not necessarily true of a particular. If 95 out of 100 alarms are false, the police do not know which 5 are not until they respond. It is horrible enough that the city forces us to seek permission to operate an alarm; it is infinitely more so when it refuses to protect our property and lives because we didn't obtain that permission.

If false alarms are truly a problem--and that appears to be the case--then punish the guilty. Fine those who needlessly consume valuable police resources. But do not make the rest of us criminals simply because we want to have an electronic device in our home.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

You Can Fight City Hall

In response to Tuesday's post about libraries my wife emailed me the following comment:
I could relate to Mr. Moderate's comment and story about his father growing up poor and how important the public library was.  It was very important in our family too. Reading books was very much valued to dad and us kids, but we counted on the library for our books and any research. We didn't have money to buy books and of course, no Internet connection. However, Mr. Moderate is thinking all or none...public library or no library. I used to think that too. We're so indoctrinated growing up, it's very hard to even imagine that any big resource like schools or libraries could be owned privately.
There are two aspects of my wife's comment worth investigating further.

The first, and more fundamental, issue is the distinction between the metaphysical and the man-made. Metaphysical facts are those governed by the laws of nature, such as the orbit of planets. Such facts are necessitated by the nature of the entities involved. Man-made facts, such as public institutions like education and libraries, are not necessary--they result from the choices made by individuals. Metaphysical facts cannot be different or altered; man-made facts can be.

Confusing these two types of facts can have disastrous consequences. To regard the man-made as a metaphysical fact is to declare that it cannot be altered, that it is beyond the choice of anyone. It is to declare that "you can't fight city hall" and that taxes are as inevitable as death. But you can fight city hall. The choices made by legislators, bureaucrats, and voters are no more inevitable and unalterable than your choice of attire.

The ultimate result of regarding the man-made as a metaphysical fact is the passive acceptance of the decrees and edicts of politicians and bureaucrats ("you can't fight city hall"). The result is to regard institutions like public education, public libraries, and taxation as beyond question, and a society in which education, libraries, roads, etc. are provided entirely by the private sector as unimaginable.

Examples abound of private businesses providing libraries, education, parks, and virtually every other illegitimate service currently provided by government. Even those who argue that government must provide these services often acknowledge the existence of private providers. Why then, the stubborn refusal to consider the possibility of completely eliminating these improper public institutions?

In a word, the answer is: Altruism.

If you raise the issue of abolishing some public institution, such as education, it does not take long for someone to retort: What about the poor? Without government involvement, it is argued, the poor would not have access to education, libraries, parks, etc.

Again, history provides an abundance of examples to refute this claim. For example, prior to the Civil War public education was virtually non-existent. Yet, there was no shortage of educational opportunities for immigrants, the poor, and minorities. Educator Robert A. Peterson wrote:
In 1767, there were at least sixteen evening schools, catering mostly to the needs of Philadelphia’s hard-working German population. For the most part, the curriculum of these schools was confined to the teaching of English and vocations. There were also schools for women, blacks, and the poor. Anthony Benezet, a leader in colonial educational thought, pioneered in the education for women and Negroes. The provision of education for the poor was a favorite Quaker philanthropy. As one historian has pointed out, “the poor, both Quaker and non-Quaker, were allowed to attend without paying fees.”
While these examples provide practical refutation of claims that the poor must do without if government isn't involved, the primary refutation is moral.

The needs of one man, no matter how dire, are not a claim on the property or money of another. That some may desire an education that they cannot afford does not give them a right to seize the property of others to attain that education. This does not change merely because government acts as the thief.

Each individual has a moral right to take the actions necessary to sustain and enjoy his life. To deny him the fruits of his labor is to deny him the right to live; it is a declaration that the individual does not exist for his own sake, but for the needs and desires of others.

Granted, few make such declarations openly and explicitly. But this is the meaning that underlies claims that you must place the "common good" or "general welfare" above your own personal desires. Further, consider what occurs if you do not "voluntarily" comply--you are force to do so. Your own desires, interests, values, and judgment is irrelevant--you will be compelled to live as others demand.

The logical application of altruism represents the other error that results when the distinction between the metaphysical and the man-made is confused: The metaphysical is regarded as malleable.

The use of coercion negates an individual's judgment. It is an attempt to "persuade" with a club rather than logic. It pretends that a man can be compelled to accept an idea as true, regardless of his own knowledge and conclusions. It ignores the fact that the mind is an attribute of the individual, and nobody can think or reason for another. It is a denial of the fact that man's metaphysical nature is that of a rational, volitional being.

The sad irony is, those who claim that it is impractical to fight city hall simultaneously believe that it is practical to compel the mind of an individual. They are wrong on both counts. As Ayn Rand wrote: "To deal with men by force is as impractical as to deal with nature by persuasion."

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

When the Investigator Calls

In March I moved my office to another suite in the same building. Due to all of the issues involved in moving, as well as my genetic disinclination to seek permission to act according to my own judgment, I did not obtain an occupancy permit from the city for my new location.

About a month ago a thug "investigator" (that is the title on his card) from the city paid me a visit to inquire about said permit. He promptly informed me that failure to obtain an occupancy permit could result in a fine of $2,000. I thanked him for the threat, which he later repeated when he handed me a citation. I also thanked him for his role in stimulating the economy, but I think the sarcasm simply bounced off his sanctimonious back.

In a remarkable display of technological prowess, the city does not allow us to apply for these permits online. We must drive downtown, where we are allowed to sit in an office while city worker's gab about the television program they watched previous night. When I was finally called to submit my application, the rotund clerk chastised me for signing the document with a red pen. Even though she had 2 pens sitting between us, she refused to allow me to use one to fill out another application. Fortunately, another slave citizen allowed me to use his. Upon the completion of the "interview" and my surrender of $210, I was allowed to return to reality.

As I awaited my inspection, I was in quite a quandary. According to the citation issued by the city's goon "investigator", I cannot occupy my suite until I have obtained an occupancy permit. According to the information given to me by Shamu the Whale Clerk, my business must be operational at the time of the inspection required to obtain an occupancy permit. I did not to bother contacting the city for clarification regarding these contradictory directives, primarily because I suspected that any explanation offered would simply make my head explode.

Fortunately I have some experience with these occupancy permit inspections, so I had a pretty good idea of the petty crap that we needed to do. For instance, we now have a sign above our front door telling us that it is the exit. (This has been particularly helpful, as we had been crawling through the air ducts to leave the building.) We also have a sign on the door telling us that it must remain open during business hours.

I know I sound like a whiner. I really should be grateful that the city is forcing me to succumb to its every whim, because this is really for my benefit. At least that is what the "investigator" told me. And he is probably right, given the fact that I have trouble finding a door unless it is clearly marked "exit". Maybe the city will do me a real favor and make me mark that hole outside so that I can distinguish it from a certain part of my  anatomy.

I thought about posting this prior to my inspection, but wondered if it might have some impact on the inspection. Not that any of the city's code enforcement people read my blog (or can even read for that matter), but Shamu and her colleagues seem to be able to understand some written words and I feared that they might misinterpret this post as being less than obsequious.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

David Crossley is Still Smarter than You

In March I pointed out that David Crossley, head of Houston Tomorrow (HT) thinks that he is smarter than you:
HT advocates, among other things, "smart growth" and "public transit". On both of these issues--and many others--HT advocates the use of government coercion to achieve what it regards as "rational" ends. To HT, compelling you to act contrary to your own judgment is ultimately for your own good...

If you conclude that your money is best spent on a private automobile, Crossley doesn't care--he knows best and he intends to take your money to prove it. If you conclude that a particular use for your property is best, Crossley doesn't care--he knows better and he will force you to include green space, set backs, and whatever else he deems necessary to create a "livable" development. 
Now Crossley provides us with a peek into the back room dealings that he uses to impose his vision upon the rest of the city. (HT: blogHouston)  In late June he gathered a dozen like-minded individuals to map out a plan for the city's transportation. Which means, how you will be forced to spend your money. You see, David Crossley is still smarter than you and he knows the best ways for your money to be spent.

Crossley tells us that the group developed a set of principles to guide regional transportation, one of which is "Go to places that are nameable." At the risk of sounding sarcastic, the tequila must have been flowing pretty freely for the group to regard this as a principle. What place isn't nameable? But lest I forget, David Crossley is smarter them me. This "principle" must have some meaning that escapes us ordinary folk.

Crossley states that his motivation for this rendezvous was a fear that regional transportation planning will not be based on "rational service goals." On this I concur with him. However, my reason is different: No government agency can ever develop "rational service goals," unless those goals are the protection of individual rights. And that is certainly not what Crossley proposes.

Government is an agency of force. Its goals are achieved by coercion. Its plans are implemented by compelling or prohibiting certain actions. Everything it does is backed up with a gun. Crossley wants to use government to impose his vision of regional transportation upon all of us, and he has the audacity to call this rational.

Man's rational faculty does not operate under compulsion. Nobody--including Crossley--can force another man to think, or to accept an idea as true. But individuals--including Crossley--can use force to compel individuals to act contrary to their own judgment. And this is what Crossley seeks. He wants to use the coercive power of government for his purposes. He wants to force you to act as he chooses, rather than by the dictates of your own mind. You see, David Crossley is, and always will be, smarter than you.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Democracy and Libraries

In an effort to balance their budgets, cities across the nation are reducing the money they spend on public libraries. Not surprisingly, the Chronicle finds this "alarming":
For Americans of limited means, and that includes many Houstonians, public libraries are more than just a cozy place to spend a rainy day curled up with a good book. They're necessary tools to access the Internet, to find out about job and education opportunities, to seek out needed social services — in short, to better one's lot in life. 
Consider what the paper lumps together as a way to improve one's life: Searching for job opportunities and learning about social services. The Chronicle believes that looking for work and looking for a hand out are the same. The paper sees no distinction between those seeking to be productive and those who want to live at the expense of the productive. But this is hardly the only problem with the editorial.

The editorial goes on to ask a number of questions that it says needs serious debate:
  • Is our democracy actually put at risk by so many incremental decisions in so many different states and cities to shrink library schedules or close them altogether? 
  • Is there a cumulative effect we're overlooking?
  • Are they really "extras" in public budgets? 
  • Or do they belong in the category of core services? 
As is so often the case, these questions assume answers to more fundamental issues. The editorial does not raise these issues, apparently assuming that they are beyond question. The most important of these issues is: What is the nature and purpose of government? 

The Chronicle has long made clear that it believes government should provide for the needy, regulate the economy, and control our lives. As evidence, simply consult virtually any editorial printed by the paper. But this is not the purpose of government as envisioned by the Founding Fathers or by the facts of reality.

The Founders held that all men possess "certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." They held that the purpose of government is "to secure these rights"--to protect the rights of individuals from violation by other men and by government. And the Founders were correct.

Rights are a sanction to act without coercion or the permission of others. Rights recognize the fact that the sustenance and enjoyment of life require action. Rights recognize the fact that each of us want different things from life and should be free to pursue them as we judge best (so long as we respect the mutual rights of others). Government's purpose is to protect this fundamental moral right. Nothing more, and nothing less.

The Chronicle sees it much differently. The paper believes that government should compel or prohibit certain behavior. Whether it is forcing individuals to subsidize the health care of others or prohibiting certain types of land-use, the paper believes it proper for government to make it illegal for individuals to act according to their own rational judgment. And whose judgment should decide what is legal and illegal? The paper makes that clear: The majority.

Mistakenly believing that America was founded as a democracy (it is a constitutional republic) the paper believes that the "will of the people" should reign supreme. If the majority favors enslaving doctors or dictating how property owners may use their land, that position is proper and just merely because the majority supports it. This is--as the Founders correctly noted--nothing more than mob rule. It is a tyranny of the masses, in which truth and justice are determined by taking a vote.

Public libraries--like public education, public health care, public parks, public roads, and a litany of other public services--violate the rights of individuals by compelling them to provide financial support regardless of their own judgment. It matters not how many people support these institutions or believe that government should provide them. 

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Lawn Bag Mandate: Immoral and Impractical

On Wednesday I complained about the city's mandate that citizens use biodegradable leaf bags. Two readers responded with suggestions on how I could deal with the situation. One suggested that I buy a mulcher (perhaps sharing the cost with neighbors) and use the mulch in my beds. Another suggested that I hire a private company to haul away my yard debris. Both of these are certainly alternatives, but they miss my primary point.

(I hasten to add that posts such as this are not intended to discourage comments. I often do not have sufficient time to respond to comments as fully as I would like, and rather than leave a comment sitting in limbo, I approve it and write a brief response. Posts such as this provide me with the opportunity to respond more fully.)

Neither reader questions the city's "right" to impose such a mandate upon the citizenry. Both imply that this is proper and we must toe the line. Both suggest alternatives that would allow me to avoid the mandate.

While it is true that I have choices, those choices have been limited by government fiat. As one example, I cannot choose from among the wide assortment of lawn bags available--I am limited to one type of bag.  Both readers argue that I have other choices--such as mulching or using a private company--so what is my complaint? Such suggestions ignore the nature of those choices, as well as the full context.

Through my tax dollars I am already paying the city for solid waste service, and I have no choice in that matter. To use a private company (or buy a mulcher) means that I must spend additional money for a service that I am already forced to pay for.

To illustrate this point, consider another service provided by government and supported by tax dollars--education. A parent who is unhappy with public schools certainly has the option of home schooling or sending their children to a private school. But the cost can be significant, and many, if not most, middle class families cannot afford that expense because they are already forced to spend their education dollars on the sewer that is public education. In reality, most parents really don't have a choice in the matter. To claim otherwise is to drop the context.

Admittedly, the cost of a mulcher or a private trash service is considerably less than a private school. But the principle is the same--I am forced to pay for a government service regardless of my own judgment, needs, or desires. And if I don't like the service that I receive, I must pay for it again.

Few of us would tolerate this from a private company. We would complain to the company and demand that we get the service that we paid for. We would take our business elsewhere if the company refused to provide satisfaction. But we wouldn't be forced to pay 2 companies for the same service. Yet, when government is one of the service providers, this is precisely what occurs.

When government expands beyond its legitimate function--the protection of individual rights--it necessarily limits our choices. Government intervention necessarily limits and restricts our ability to act morally--according to our own rational judgment. My readers suggest that there are practical alternatives. But there is no dichotomy between the moral and the practical. When my choices are limited, whatever choices remain cannot be deemed practical for they necessarily limit what I can achieve in practice.

For example, if I pursue the mulching suggestion I must spend at least $200 to get one that would be sufficient for my needs. If I immediately place the mulch in my beds I will then have to deal with a nitrogen deficiency in those beds--decaying organic material depletes nitrogen. I would then need to add nitrogen to my soil, which would require additional expense and time. Further, I would need to regularly test the soil to be certain that I am adding the proper amount of nitrogen. Too much nitrogen can promote certain fungal diseases and too little can stunt plant growth. The time, effort, and expense involved in this process must necessarily come from somewhere.

This allegedly "practical" solution would require that I give up other values. If I must spend money on a mulcher, soil testing, and nitrogen supplements, I will necessarily have less money for other values. If I must spend time mulching, spreading the mulch, testing soil, and adding nitrogen, I will necessarily have less time for other values.

I have a moral right to live my life as I choose, so long as I respect the mutual rights of others. Government's purpose is the protection of this right. Yet, the city's bag mandate prohibits me from acting as I judge best. It forces me to spend money and time contrary to my own judgment, whether I use the city's bags or pursue some alternative.

Certainly, this is not the most threatening issue facing the nation or the city. But if we accept such minor violations of our rights then we pave the way for much more egregious violations. It isn't a matter of degree, it is a matter of principle.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

From Pancakes to Nightmares

With Congress proposing a seemingly endless litany of inane bills, it is no surprise that many get little public attention. Fortunately, we have that bastion of investigative reporting, The Onion, to inform us of HR323, known as the IHOPs Should Stay Open All Night So We Can Get Some Pancakes Act. In addition to mandating the operating hours of IHOPs, the bill would also allocate $2 million to study whether pancake batter is the same as waffle batter.

In a blatant display of political power, the bill's sponsors have made it clear that the purpose is to fulfill their own whims. They want to be able to eat pancakes at any hour of their choosing, and the judgment of others is to molded by force to satisfy that desire. This of course, is nothing new.

Houston politicians for example, want to make the city "greener." So they have mandated that citizens use biodegradable leaf bags, tightened the building code, used stolen money to caulk the windows of the elderly, and numerous other "eco-friendly" activities. They want to "protect" neighborhoods, so they erected arbitrary barriers to the construction of the Ashby High Rise and want to strengthen the preservation ordinance. They don't like the "visual blight" of billboards and "attention-getting devices" so they have engaged in a decades long war to rid the city of the former and simply banned the latter.

And the atrocities are not limited to Houston. In Washington, politicians force mortgage companies to make loans to people that the lenders do not believe can repay the loans, and then those same politicians blame those same mortgage companies when those same lenders do not repay the loans. In Washington, politicians have long shackled doctors and insurance companies with mountains of regulations, and then blame those same doctors and insurance companies when they must charge for the time and resources required to meet Washington's mandates.

Similarly with the IHOPs Should Stay Open All Night So We Can Get Some Pancakes Act. IHOP will have to raise its prices and then the company will be blamed for making pancakes unaffordable for the middle class. And the Washington, in its infinite wisdom, will enact some kind of pancake price controls.

You may laugh at The Onion's satire and believe that it is absurd to force IHOP to stay open all night. But if you accept the principle that government may force the citizenry to act contrary to their own voluntary judgment, it is precisely the kind of absurdity that will, and has, become a reality.

One man's absurdity is another man's "public interest." What one man regards as vital to the "common good" another may regard as absurd. When men are free to act on their own judgment, they can pursue ideas that others deem absurd, but they may not compel others to support or act on those ideas. Freedom--the absence of coercion--sanctions each individual's moral right to act according to his own judgment, so long as he respects the mutual rights of others.

However, when the power of government can be used to coerce individuals to act contrary to their own judgment, some are forced to act in support of ideas they consider wrong, evil, absurd, or all three. The result is far worse than the fictional absurdity of HR 323; it makes life--here in the real world--a nightmare for those whose lives are destroyed in the process.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Houston's Biodegradable Leaf Bags Suck

In April the city of Houston started forcing residents to use biodegradable bags for lawn debris. We were told that this was for our own good, as it would help the city avoid fee increases and thus save citizens money. When citizens complained about the bags, the city responded that the bags were fine. The city is wrong on both counts.

The bags are more expensive and hold less. But I have no choice in the matter. Only one size is available. I must use the city-approved bags or build a compost pile so large that I will surely receive a visit from the health department. 

The bags have a conical bottom, which makes no practical sense and significantly reduces the amount the bags can hold. The tops consist of some stupid butterfly design that match the bottoms in their impracticality. But again, I have no choice in the matter. I must use these stupid bags if I want the city to haul away my yard debris.

I can normally fill 4 or 5 bags when I clean my roof. The process takes about an hour. I attempted to do this over the weekend with the city's new eco-bags, and after 30 minutes of struggling to fill 2 bags and clearing about 10% of my roof, I gave up. I'm not certain what I'm going to do, but it is clear that it will take much longer than it has in the past. Of course, the fact that I must waste hours on this project is for my own good, not to mention the good of the planet.

Just to be clear, I'm as "environmentally friendly" as the next guy. I think that human beings should exploit the hell out of the environment, but I think that we should be friendly to one another as we do so. And that friendliness consists of respecting property rights and engaging in voluntary trade. I think that a society in which individual rights are recognized and protected is the only environment proper to human beings, and it is the only environment in which individuals can truly be benevolent and friendly.

In such a society landfills would be privately owned and trash collection would be provided entirely by private companies. I would be free to accept the terms of the trash collection company--including the use of "eco-bags"--or not. That of course, is not the kind of society that we live in.

Instead, my own judgment is rendered moot by the dictates of petty politicians who want to pander to the ecology crowd. My choices are simply wiped out by the stroke of a pen, while I am told that it is for my own good. The arrogance of those who make such claims is superseded only by willingness to use force to impose their values on me and all of Houston. And that, just like the biodegradable leaf bags, sucks.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Don't Sweat the Small Stuff 46

Selling the Tetons
The State of Wyoming may be selling 1,366 acres in the Grand Teton National Park. The state, which has been getting $3,000 a year by leasing the land for grazing, is asking $125 million. Imagine what the federal government could raise if it sold off its land holdings. We could actually pay off a large part of the national debt. Unless of course, Congress decided to throw the money down some sewer like nationalized health care.

And They Get to Vote
A poll taken by the Marist Institute for Public Opinion found that 26 percent of those questioned did not know from which country the United States won its independence. Twenty percent didn't bother to even guess, while 6 percent named a country other than Great Britain, including China, Mexico, and Japan. Apparently all of that money that we've been throwing at public education is starting to pay off.

Perhaps worse than this ignorance of one of the most basic facts of American history is that these individuals get to vote. I think it is fairly safe to say that anyone who doesn't know about the Revolutionary War is certainly not going to understand the proper role of government, the principles on which this nation was founded, or the sanctity of individual rights. They will be easily influenced by any charlatan who panders to their whims.

Polls like this make we wonder if some kind of test should be required for voting.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Whose Life is It?

On Monday the Chronicle opined on a recent report that found two-thirds of Texas children flunked a physical fitness test. The editorial, which is subtitled "It's our duty to get Texas kids more fit," concluded:
The state of Texas has an interest in changing this picture, no less than it does in improving student performances on standardized academic tests. Failure to meet physical fitness standards has lifetime consequences every bit as serious as flunking algebra.
Physical fitness shouldn't be treated as an elective that can be modified or even eliminated at state lawmakers' whim. Let's get exercised enough to change this, Texas. 
The paper doesn't tell us why the fitness of Texas children is a proper concern of state legislators or what interest the state has in this issue. Apparently, we are supposed to swallow the bait with no explanation.

I assume that, if pressed, the paper would argue that childhood obesity ultimately costs taxpayers more in health care costs. Therefore, the state has an interest in promoting fitness because it will save us money in the long run. But this begs the question: Should government even be in the health care business? And the answer to that question is an emphatic NO.

The Chronicle implicitly regards children as property of the state, whose fitness is a proper concern of lawmakers. This of course, is nothing new. Through public education, vaccination requirements, and myriad other laws the state has long asserted its ownership of children within Texas.

And this ownership isn't limited to children. Anyone living in the state is subject to an abundance of regulations and controls premised on the belief that the state may dictate how we live our lives. From occupational licensing to taxation, from land-use regulations to protecting the environment, the state has steadily assumed greater and greater control over our property and our lives. Increasingly, we may live--not as we choose--but as the state deems appropriate. Increasingly, we may live--not by right--but with the permission of government officials. This isn't what the Founding Fathers had in mind.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Misrepresentations, Fallacies, and "Deregulation"

It is summer in Texas and that means that it is time for the annual chorus of voices decrying "deregulation" of the electric industry in the state. As an example, Bay Area Houston (BAH) declares that "Electricity deregulation has failed." While this certainly makes for attention grabbing headlines, it is a gross misrepresentation of the facts.

The most relevant fact being misrepresented is that the electricity industry is still heavily regulated in Texas. The web site of the Texas Public Utilities Commission states:
We are responsible for regulating certain services provided by telephone and electric utilities in Texas and for protecting utility customers.
The electric industry has been operating in a mixed economy--a mixture of freedom and government controls--since "deregulation" in 2003 (and long before that). Yet BAH blames "deregulation", that is freedom, for higher rates. He doesn't even consider the possibility that perhaps it is the government controls that have stifled innovation and led to higher rates.

Instead he provides an excellent example of the fallacy of post hoc. Since higher electric rates occurred after "deregulation" BAH concludes that it must be "deregulation" that is to blame. He conveniently ignores the controls imposed on utility companies that lead to higher costs--such as the fact that a company cannot generate, transmit, and sell electricity to consumers. A web by the Public Utility Commission states:
In the past, one company provided all parts of your electricity service (generation, transmission and distribution, and retail sales). With competition, these parts are separated into different companies.
Neither the PUC nor BAH tells us that the vertical integration that existed prior to "deregulation" was prohibited in the name of competition. In other words, the practices that allowed a company to operate more efficiently were banned by government fiat, and now the market is taking the blame.

The irony of the PUC's web site is that while promoting consumer choice it actively limits producer choice. Consumers are encouraged to shop electric retailers--to act on their own judgment. But producers who deem it economically practical to generate, transmit, and sell electricity cannot act on their judgment. The decrees of politicians and bureaucrats are imposed on the utility companies and the utilities take the blame when the results are not to the liking of the public.

Higher electric rates are not the result of "deregulation", but of continued government intervention. That BAH and his ilk don't see this isn't surprising. When they look at the government's failed monopoly on education they don't call for more freedom, but more taxpayer money and more government controls. When they looked at soaring health care costs they don't blame the mountains of regulations imposed on insurance companies and doctors, they demand more government controls. When the financial industry collapses they don't blame the 1,500+ regulatory agencies overseeing that industry, they declare that the industry isn't regulated enough.

BAH, who labels himself a "consumer activist", is unconcerned about producers. (And he isn't concerned about consumers either, or he would be advocating freedom for both producers and consumers.) He is concerned solely with needs, the needs of consumers:
[Consumers] need reliable energy, with long term contracts, no cancellation fees, and a fair and reasonable price. 
And when "deregulation" does not meet this need, government must intervene. Government must place more shackles on the producers of electricity so that consumers can have "reasonable" prices. However, BAH doesn't have the honesty to state this openly. Instead, this is what he offers:
A small group of citizens approached the City of Houston with an idea. The City has negotiation power resulting in a 5 year contract at 9 cents a kWh. The citizens asked the City to require their chosen provider to offer the same rate to the homeowners and businesses of Houston....
We believe this idea has merit. The City will not resell electricity or provide billing services or customer support. They will only negotiate a rate and require the provider to voluntarily offer the same rate to its citizens. [emphasis added]

What does it mean to "require the provider to voluntarily offer the same rate" to Houstonians. How do you require someone to act voluntarily? When government is involved, such requirements are backed by force. When an individual or business is forced to act a particular way, the action cannot be called voluntary. And this is the essence of BAH's position--he wants to use government coercion to satisfy the whims and demands of consumers. And he's not about to let facts or logic get in his way.