Thursday, October 28, 2010

Private Letter Carriers

We are often told that government must provide certain vital services, such as education, roads, and mail delivery. If such services were left in the hands of private companies, service would be poor or nonexistent. But history provides a very different lesson.

Prior to the Civil War private letter carriers flourished throughout the United States. In sparsely settled areas of the country about 300 “western expresses” provided mail delivery.[1] The best known of these companies was the Pony Express. In the more densely populated northeast, two types of delivery companies emerged—“locals” and “eastern expresses”.

The locals were based in the major eastern cities and primarily served local businesses. One of the largest of the locals was Boyd’s City Post in Philadelphia, which employed 45 carriers and delivered up to 15,000 letters a day.[2] The eastern expresses mostly operated between the larger eastern cities, such as Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. Both the locals and the expresses offered their service for considerably lower rates than the postal service.

As one example, in 1844 Lysander Spooner founded the American Letter Mail Company. Spooner believed that he could deliver mail anywhere in the country for five cents per letter, versus the 12 cents charged by the postal service. Not surprisingly, the public loved Spooner’s company and the revenues of the postal service plummeted. Congressmen, who often rewarded political supporters with an appointment as the local postmaster, were incensed and responded by lowering postal rates. Spooner was not to be outdone, and lowered his rates further. Finally, in 1851 Congress strengthened the postal service’s monopoly and forced Spooner out of business.[3]

It wasn’t poor service or outrageous prices that closed Spooner’s business, but literally an act of Congress.

The popularity of the private services was so great that one United States Senator estimated that at least half of the letters mailed in the country were being delivered by private carriers.[4] The success of the private mail companies prompted one economist to write in the New York Review in 1841 that, even though postal services in all western nations were a branch of the government, "we might easily imagine it to be carried on by a private association, without its changing in any degree its essential character."[5]

However, this would have meant the end of an important tool for political patronage. When confronted with the possibility that the postal service might be abolished, Selah Hobbie, the first assistant postmaster general at the time, allegedly cried, “Zounds, sir, it would throw 16,000 postmasters out of office.”[6] This would not have been politically popular, and we are paying the consequences today.

It wasn't market forces--the free and voluntary choices of consumers--that led to the demise of the private letter carriers. It was government coercion that literally made it illegal for them to offer a service that consumers willingly paid for.

The lesson from the private letter carriers goes far beyond mail delivery. The same arguments used to justify the postal monopoly--universal service, affordable rates, etc.--are used to justify government monopolies in roads, education, water and sanitation, and now health care. In each instance the private sector is either prohibited from offering such services, or severely restricted by government regulations, i.e., coercion. And in each instance the results are the same as with the postal service--poor service, fewer choices, and higher costs.

While the primary argument in favor of abolishing the postal service is moral--the moral right of each individual to act according to his own rational judgment--there is abundant evidence that private mail delivery is also practical. When individuals are free to pursue their own values without interference from others, they will find ways to attain those values. It was true of private mail delivery, and it is true of every other value as well.

[1] Richard R. John, Jr., “Private Mail Delivery in the United States during the Nineteenth Century: A Sketch”, p. 138,

[2] Ibid.

[3] Lucille J. Goodyear, “Spooner vs. U.S. Postal System”, American Legion Magazine, January 1981,

[4] John, p. 141.

[5] John., p. 143.

[6] John, p. 144.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Moral is the Practical

A reader--who often does not agree with me--has suggested that I consider the practicality of the ideas I advocate. This is, in essence, a very good suggestion, and it is what I intend to write about more frequently in the future. In the meantime, the suggestion raises an issue worth comment.

Though the reader did not explicitly say so, he implied a dichotomy between theory and practice. This false dichotomy can be traced back to Plato (and perhaps before). It takes form in numerous ways, but each asserts an inherent conflict between the intellectual and the physical, that is, between the mind and the body. And, no matter its form, the physical is always regarded as crass and inferior.Whether it is art versus business, or love versus sex, or reason versus emotions, the physical is regarded as tainted.

This view holds that man's mind is at constant war with his body, that his mind can contemplate the ideal while his body must deal with the practical necessities of life of earth. While the mind can identify what is right, the body must do what is practical. Man can pursue eternal bliss by renouncing this world, or he can seek happiness here on earth. He can save his soul, or he can enjoy life.

As Ayn Rand put it, man is neither a ghost nor a zombie. He is neither a disembodied spirit nor a mindless corpse. He is a being of mind and body, and the purpose of his mind is to identify those actions his body should take. The purpose of the mind is to identify what is practical.

(Of course, what one regards as practical depends upon what one wishes to practice. If one wishes to rule over others then permitting individuals to act on their own judgment is not practical. But this is a different issue.)

To claim that an idea is good in theory but will not work in practice is a gross contradiction. By what standard does one conclude that an idea is good in theory? If a theory does not work in practice, it is not a very good theory.

Each individual has a moral right to live and act according to his own rational judgment, so long as he respects the mutual rights of others. In practice, this means that he may not use force or fraud against others--he may not compel them to act contrary to their own judgment--just as they may not use force or fraud against him.

Many claim that, while this sounds good in theory, it won't work in practice. They argue that many necessities, such as roads and education, would not exist if left entirely to the discretion of individuals. Consequently, government coercion must be used to force individuals to do their "fair share," to place the good of the "community" above their own interests. And they then proceed to ignore the abundance of evidence--such as crowded roads and an educational system that does not educate--that demonstrates that such coercive measures are a failure, i.e., are not practical.

Coercion is impractical because it is immoral. Coercion does not "work" in practice because it is wrong in theory. There is no dichotomy between the moral and the practical.

Monday, October 25, 2010

A New Approach

Two weeks ago I announced a holiday from blogging to give me a chance to re-assess my goals and interests. I had several reasons for this.

Most of my posts address irrational ideas or policies. While this is valuable, and I have learned a lot in writing on such topics, it does get a bit depressing at times. It is important to attack and expose evil, irrational ideas. But fighting against something isn't the same as fighting for something. (Implicitly, in doing the former I have done the latter.) That however, isn't enough for me.

Given the state of our culture, writing about the negative provides an endless stream of potential topics. For some time it has been easy to get motivated to expose the hypocrisy and evasion so prevalent among government officials and advocates of statism. Over the past few months I have found myself less and less motivated to write about the sewer.

For years I have been very interested in finding examples of the practical benefits of freedom. In every industry that I have examined, when individuals are free to act according to their own judgment without interference from others, remarkable things happen. When individuals are free to pursue their own values without arbitrary government controls and regulations, they make their lives immensely better.

While such examples are not nearly are prevalent as I would like, they do abound. They are often more difficult to locate, study, and document than the topics I have been writing on. But they are real, they are inspiring, and they represent the best in man. And these are the things that I want to write about.

Life can be and should be better than preservation ordinances, light rail, and land-use regulations. It is important to fight the parasites and the thugs, but it is more important to recognize the producers. It is important to defend my values, but it is more important to celebrate them.

I have yet to work out the logistics of how I will do this. I will need to spend more time researching. I likely will not post as frequently as in the past.

I will continue to address examples of irrational policies and ideas, though that too will likely be less frequent.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

A Temporary Obstacle

The new preservation ordinance contains a provision that "allows" property owners in a designated historic district to rescind that designation. The Chronicle's print article last week explained the process:
If 51 percent of property owners oppose the designation, the planning director must either recommend to City Council reducing the size of the district or eliminating it. Council is not bound to follow the recommendation.
I previously noted that the principle underlying the preservation ordinance cedes complete control of property use in historic districts to city council. This provision confirms that fact.

The ordinance goes further than ignoring the desires and judgment of individual property owners. According to the Chronicle, even if every property owner in a district wants to rescind the historic designation, council has no obligation to honor that desire. In short, council can do as it damn well pleases. Council can substitute its judgment for that of the property owners and impose that judgment by coercion.

This is the logical and inevitable result of the principle accepted by council when it passed the first preservation ordinance. At that time council declared that it had the authority to control some uses of some properties. But "some" was only a temporary limitation made necessary by pragmatic political considerations.

Even the current ordinance is a compromise, as acknowledged by Ma Parker. But such compromises are a complete victory for the preservationists. The principle animating preservationists--that the community has the right to regulate private property--is a matter of law. The details, which the preservationists are not entirely happy with, are only another temporary obstacle to their goals. But those obstacles are minor with preservation advocate Ma Parker running the show. After the ordinance was passed, she said:
It is possible under this ordinance to have historic districts have a reconsideration and break off and some parts of those historic districts go away. I'm going to do my best to make sure that doesn't happen.
Considering that she has a gun at her disposal, while those wishing to leave the historic district can do little more than beg for her cooperation, the prognosis isn't good for property owners in historic districts.

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Power of Principles

Last week city council "proved" that I have psychic powers. About 17 years ago I predicted the action that council took last week in regard to the preservation ordinance.

In the early 1990s city council was considering Houston's first preservation ordinance. I spoke before council in opposition to the ordinance. A council member asked me if I had a problem with the 90-day moratorium--which allowed the city to halt demolition of "historic" buildings for 90 days. I replied that I was because in principle there was nothing to stop that council or a future council from extending the moratorium to 120 days, or 200 days, or banning demolition completely. Last week city council banned demolition of "historic" buildings.

Granted, my prediction was not predicated upon psychic powers. It was founded on the power of principles. Having recognized the principle underlying the preservation ordinance, it was easy to predict the future. It was easy to predict how that principle would be applied in the future.

In principle, the preservation ordinance held (as do all land-use regulations) that the use of property is rightfully determined by the community, not the owner. The owner's desires and judgment are to be sacrificed to that of the community. Seventeen years ago the community judged it proper to have a 90 day moratorium. Today it judges it proper to prohibit the demolition of "historic" buildings. The difference is merely a matter of details.

Interestingly, the council member who questioned me about the moratorium scoffed at my answer. I can't predict what future councils might do, he said. He was right, for without principles it is impossible to predict the consequences of any action. Without principles, the future is a realm into which we must blindly venture armed with nothing but a hope and a prayer. Without principles a politician can claim ignorance of what future councils might do--a claim that is not without merit.

Or, he can can make make dire predictions about the failure to address some immediate need--such as Houston's crumbling infrastructure--without reference to other issues, past events, or implications for the future. As a case in point, consider Ma Parker's plea that Houstonians vote in favor of the "rain tax." In Sunday's Chronicle she told us that unless we vote for Proposition 1 we won't be able to pick up our kids from school, will be stranded at work, and will spend sleepless nights watching the bayous.

What she doesn't tell us is precisely how the money will be spent. She doesn't tell us that similar promises by past politicians have almost always fallen far short of the intended panacea (for example, the sports stadiums and the Bayport Cruise Terminal). What she doesn't tell us is that rebuilding Houston's infrastructure will turn into a huge political battle as politicians and voters insist that their pet project receive the highest priority. While she insists that the proposition imposes restrictions on how the new tax money can be spent, she doesn't tell us that politicians make a living finding ways to skirt the law and bring home the bacon to their political supporters. She doesn't tell us because she lacks the means to do so--rational principles.

Just as the eventual result of the original preservation ordinance were easy to predict if one holds rational principles, so the outcome of Proposition 1 (if passed) is easy to predict. It will take longer than promised, cost more than projected, and divide the city into warring factions. I only hope that this time I don't have the opportunity to see my prediction come true.

Monday, October 11, 2010

A Holiday

My posting is going to be sporadic for a while. I have too many business activities demanding my attention (which is good). I am finding it more and more difficult to find time for blogging.

I am also tiring of commenting on negative policies and ideas all of the time, and want to consider a different approach to the blog.

The Real Tragedy of Bullying

An OpEd in Sunday's Chronicle tells us that we must protect kids from bullying. Citing a growing number of suicides by bullied teenagers, Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of Health and Human Services, and Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education, write:
The events of the last few weeks have filled many of us with sadness and anger. They should also fill us with determination to do everything we can to stand up for Seth, Tyler, Asher, Billy, Justin and millions of other young people who can't do it for themselves.
That a teenager would conclude that his life isn't worth living is certainly sad and tragic. But the cause of these suicides goes beyond the taunts of ignorant peers.

Sebelius and Duncan claim that the victims of bullying cannot stand up for themselves. They argue that society must do so. But they fail to tell us why. Instead, all they offer are assertions, which is itself a symptom of the problem.

A proper educational system would teach children to think logically and to judge critically. A proper educational system would provide children with the intellectual tools required to judge the claims and assertions of others. A proper educational system would prepare children for life as rational, independent individuals.

But this is not what public education does. The public educational system is more concerned with protecting a child's self-esteem than teaching thinking skills. The public educational system is more concerned with students passing standardized tests than learning how to solve problems. The public educational system is more concerned with teaching children to get along with others than to think independently.

John Dewey, the father of Progressive education, captured the essence of public education in his book, Democracy and Education:
Setting up conditions which stimulate certain visible and tangible ways of acting is the first step. Making the individual a sharer or partner in the associated activity so that he feels its success as his success, its failure as his failure, is the completing step. As soon as he is possessed by the emotional attitude of the group, he will be alert to recognize the special ends at which it aims and the means employed to secure success. His beliefs and ideas, in other words, will take a form similar to those of others in the group. (pages 16- 17)
Dewey's purpose, and the end result of Progressive education, is to destroy the ability of individuals to think and judge independently. Faced with the taunts and jeers of one's peers, an independent thinking child would reject such bullying for what it is: The mindless ignorance of Neanderthals. However, a child who cannot think for himself can easily allow such harassment to shape his own self-image. He can easily conclude that he is somehow deficient and his life is worthless.

Bullying is a pathetic activity, but there are far worse actions that an individual can take. And destroying the minds of innocent children is one of them.

Friday, October 8, 2010

The Voluntary and the Coercive

On Thursday the Chronicle reported that a vote on the new preservation ordinance has been delayed for a week. That was an expected development, as the various parties are trying to reach a compromise. What is more noteworthy is a comment left by a reader:
I don't understand why it's okay for suburban neighborhoods (and some inside the Loop) to have deed restrictions, but the older neighborhoods can't have essentially the same thing, which is what these preservation ordinances basically are. 
This argument was used by zoning advocates in the 1990s. It ignores a crucial distinction between deed restrictions and zoning/ preservation ordinances. The former are voluntary and consensual, while the latter are mandatory and coercive.

Those who equate deed restrictions and government land-use regulations see a similarity--restrictions on the use of property--and conclude that they are essentially the same. In the process, they ignore the nature and source of those restrictions.

Deed restrictions are a contractual agreement between property owners in a given area. An individual is free to accept the restrictions imposed by that contract, or simply not purchase the restricted property. The choice is his and he can act according to his own judgment. Land-use regulations however, are imposed by government force. The desires and judgment of a property owner are irrelevant--he must abide by the dictates of government.

As evidence, consider the preservation ordinance. Preservationists want to permanently prohibit the demolition of certain buildings, regardless of the property owner's judgment.

Those who see no difference between voluntary choice and coercive mandates are guilty of the worst kind of package-deal. To them, a restriction is a restriction, when it is accepted voluntarily or imposed coercively. To them, it does not matter if an individual agrees to the restriction or is forced to act against his own judgment. Sadly, if they ever do discover the difference it may be too late.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Squeaky Wheel

The ongoing saga that is the new preservation ordinance is nearing its climax, and preservationists appear to be getting their way. The Chronicle reports:
The key change [in the new ordinance], which would permanently forbid demolition or certain alterations of historic buildings in 16 designated districts and three pending ones, was expected to remain intact, according to city officials and activists on both sides of the issue.
Conveniently ignored in this farce is the fact that city officials and activists are deciding the use of property that none of them own. (Granted, some of those on both sides of the issue do own property in the historic districts, but the ordinance applies to all property in those districts.)

Preservationists have been griping since the passage of the first ordinance in the 1990s. Because that ordinance did not prohibit the demolition of "historic" buildings, they have complained that the ordinance has no teeth. It wasn't enough that they had some voice in how owners of historic buildings used their property. They wanted, and have continued to demand, complete control over the property owned by others. Those demands have found a receptive audience in Ma Parker and she is eager to grease their wheels.

The drafting of the new ordinance has been an orgy of compromise. Even the Greater Houston Builders Association, which has historically shown some level of respect for property rights, has caved and is supporting the ordinance in principle. The association is just bickering over details while conceding the moral high ground to the preservationists.

No matter what is in the final ordinance, this isn't over. The preservationists will continue whining and they will be back for more.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Alternative to Government Regulations

A truly free market is characterized by a separation of government and economics. Individuals are free to engage in the economic activities of their choice, so long as they do not use force or fraud in dealing with others. Many believe that this is impracticable. Without government regulations, they argue, consumers will have no "protection" and will be left to the mercy of businesses.

It is important to realize that government regulations do not protect consumers from fraud or dangerous products. Despite an abundance of regulations, Bernie Madoff, Enron, and numerous other businesses have engaged in wholesale fraud. Rather than protect consumers, regulations create a false sense of security. Believing that regulators are preventing fraud, consumers often fail to engage in due diligence.

What is the alternative? Certainly, nobody wants to discover that his doctor is an incompetent hack. Nobody wants to buy tainted food or medicines. Nobody wants to be defrauded.

Even in our heavily regulated society today, there are many alternatives to government regulations. Organizations such as the Better Business Bureau and Angie's List allow consumers to voice complaints about businesses and make recommendations. Organizations such as Good Housekeeping and Consumers Union test products and provide consumers with information to make intelligent buying decisions. Product manufacturers and trade organizations provide certification programs. And in a truly free market it is likely that other alternatives will be developed.

Advocates of regulation posit an irrational, and impossible, standard--preventing fraud and deceit. This is a Platonic ideal that does not and cannot exist. So long as men possess volition, they are capable of engaging in fraud. Rather than regulate and control all businesses, government's proper role is to prosecute those who actually do engage in fraud or knowingly market dangerous products.

The alternative to government regulation is freedom--the absence of coercion in the relationships between men.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Random Thoughts on Gardening

For years I have been a rather avid gardener. Between clippings from various plants and the leaves from 11 live oaks, I create an abundance of debris. I generally try to compost these materials, as the compost is very beneficial for my beds and lawn. I have seen significant improvements where I use the compost.

Just to be clear, I don't compost in order to save the planet. I compost in order to save my yard. Or more specifically, in order to produce healthy plants so that I can enjoy pretty flowers, a lush lawn, and tasty vegetables.

Last winter's freeze took a real toll on my landscaping. My tropicals died back to the ground, and many just plain died. I lost several hibiscus, and those that survived have not bloomed all year. My rubber tree--which once stood about 30 foot tall--not comes in at a paltry 3 feet. But the vines, such as Rangoon Creeper and Star Jasmine--have come storming back with a vengeance.

We had our best tomato and cucumber crops ever, which I attribute to the compost I added to the garden in the spring. And our antique roses produced more flowers than in the past. To some extent, these successes help make up for the lack of hibiscus, which bloom almost year round.

Gardening can be a time consuming hobby. Pruning, fertilizing, planting, watering, and other tasks must be performed regularly. But it is also rewarding. We almost always have multiple plants in bloom, including azaleas, sages, jasmine, roses, hibiscus, and more. These plants attract butterflies, which flitter around the yard most of the year, as well as hummingbirds, cardinals, blue jays, and on several occasions, wild parakeets.

Our pond is also a source of ongoing effort and pleasure. Home to a number of koi and goldfish, it regularly attracts toads who enjoy mating on its fringes. I could live with the toads, given the fact that they eat mosquitoes and other nasty insects, but their nocturnal mating ritual involves an ear piercing noise that makes it almost impossible to sleep. I have on many occasions been forced to disrupt their mating in order to sleep. (That alone makes for an interesting story.)

I am sometimes amazed at what we have created in our back yard. It is a miniature wildlife sanctuary. But its purpose is to provide pleasure to human life.

Monday, October 4, 2010

"Necessary" Regulations

From what I can tell, Glenn Beck considers himself a libertarian. On Friday he was explaining libertarianism to a caller. At one point, Beck said that libertarians don't believe in government regulation. He then "corrected" himself and said that some regulations are necessary, such as those licensing doctors. Beck and his side kick, former Houston talk show host Pat Gray, then explained some of the horrors that would result without such licensing.

Unfortunately, Beck's position is typical of conservatives. Despite his constant talk about principles, he demonstrates over and over than he doesn't have any. For example, he does not complain that regulations are wrong in principle, but that too many go too far. How, and by what standard, does he determine what is "too far"? Without principles he can only decide each issue on a case-by-case basis.

Beck explained why doctors should be licensed: We don't want to discover that our surgeon is a butcher. Certainly this is true, but Beck wants us to believe that the same government he regularly chastises should be in the business of deciding who is competent and who isn't. Where Beck routinely calls for individuals to be more responsible for their lives, when it comes to doctors he argues that that responsibility should be ceded to government.

Not surprisingly, Beck shows no concern for the doctors who are subjected to arbitrary government decrees. His concern is with the patients, who he fears might be subjected to sub-prime health care without government involvement. Patients have a need--to be protected--and the rights of doctors are irrelevant.

The fact is, there are no necessary government regulations. Individuals have a moral right to offer any product or service they choose, so long as they do not use force or fraud. And they also have a right to purchase any product or service they choose.

In the context of health care, this means that anyone has a moral right to offer medical services, including my lawn boy. If he offers to remove my appendix, and I consent, he has not violated anyone's rights. Each of us acted according to our own judgment, even though mine would be extremely poor. But I, and every other individual, should be free to make poor decisions.

Friday, October 1, 2010

An Absence of Principles

Once again the Chronicle editorial board demonstrates its complete lack of principles in an editorial titled "Profit over principle." The editorial chastises insurance companies for refusing to offer child-only policies. With the first phases of ObamaCare kicking in, insurance companies are prohibited from denying coverage to those with pre-existing conditions.

While paying lip service to this concern, the paper argues that it has no merit:
Insurers complain that the new provisions would trigger an influx of consumers with high-cost pre-existing conditions but few healthy ones to offset these costs. That is certainly a possibility, but one that could have been foreseen and guarded against. 
Exactly how is a business to guard against the coercive power of government? How are insurers expected to be profitable--so that they can remain in business and pay future claims--if they are forced to abide by the arbitrary dictates of petty bureaucrats and pandering politicians?  And how are they supposed to foresee what mandates and prohibitions will be placed upon them in the future?

The editorial oozes of altruism--children have a need and insurance companies have a moral duty to fulfill that need. The fact that the insurance companies are being forced to act against their own judgment, and sensible business practices, is of no concern to the Chronicle. According to the Chronicle, insurance companies should not be seeking a profit, but instead should offer coverage to anyone who wants it.

While the paper is eager to sell doctors into slavery and drive insurance companies out of business, it continues to seek a profit. It continues to charge for ad space, despite the needs of businesses who are hurting from the slow economy. It continues to charge subscribers, despite any hardships they might be experiencing. If others have a moral duty to serve the needs of others, why is the Chronicle immune?

Of course, to see the inconsistency of its position, the paper would have to hold rational principles. As it has demonstrated too many times to count, it doesn't.