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.

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