Friday, May 28, 2010

Libertarians and Rand Paul

Kentucky Senatorial candidate Rand Paul is taking a lot of heat for his comments regarding the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Paul stated that the federal government should not be dictating how private businesses operate, and specifically said that businesses should not be forced to serve minorities. He added:
In a free society we will tolerate boorish people who have abhorrent behavior, but if we’re civilized people we publicly criticize that and don’t belong to those groups or associate with those people.
Paul is correct on this issue. The right to property is the right of use and disposal, the right to use one's property as one chooses. So long as a property owner does not use force against others, he may use his property as he deems best.

This of course, does not sit well with most folks. They don't like the idea that some bigot might refuse to serve blacks or prohibit gays from entering his business. They don't like the idea that some people might hold incredibly irrational ideas. Their response is to prohibit irrationality--or at least the ability to act on that irrationality--by using force against property owners.

Racism is vile. It treats human beings as animals, and those who advocate or practice racism deserve our scorn and condemnation. But using force against property owners is not the solution.

That Paul is being labeled a racist for his comments is not surprising. Nor is it surprising that the Libertarian Party of Kentucky (LPK) has condemned his comments.

Paul, like his father, Congressman and former Libertarian Presidential candidate Ron Paul, is often described as a Libertarian. Seeking to distance themselves from Paul's controversial comments, the LPK released a number of statements this week, including:
The Libertarian Party of Kentucky strongly condemns the hurtful comments of Republican senate candidate Rand Paul. (

Founded in 1971, the Libertarian Party believes in achieving liberty through economic freedom and social tolerance, and is the nation’s third-largest political party. (

“Liberty, freedom, and true economic prosperity cannot exist in a system which institutionalizes racism, bigotry, or other kinds of unfounded hatred,” said Ken Moellman, Chairman and Northern Kentucky native. (
The KLP doesn't explain how economic freedom and forcing businesses to serve minorities is compatible. It doesn't tell us why forcing individuals to act contrary to their own judgment is consistent with liberty. It doesn't tell us why their position on this issue contradicts their introduction page:
[L]ibertarianism is a philosophy that holds that a person should be free to live as that person so chooses, and accepting responsibility for their own actions, without forcibly effecting the lives of others.
A consistent and principled advocate of liberty would defend an individual's right to hold vile ideas. A consistent and principled advocate of liberty would hold that individual responsible by condemning those ideas and their advocates. A consistent and principled advocate of liberty would shun such individuals, rather than use force to compel "rational" behavior.

Despite superficial appearances to the contrary, Libertarians are not consistent, principled, or advocates of liberty.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

When Will They Get It?

The world continues to sing its praises of Houston, with the most recent example coming from Joel Kotkin. In an article on, Kotkin writes:
Politicians in big cities talk about jobs, but by keeping taxes, fees and regulatory barriers high they discourage the creation of jobs, at least in the private sector. A business in San Francisco or Los Angeles never knows what bizarre new cost will be imposed by city hall. In New York or Boston you can thrive as a nonprofit executive, high-end consultant or financier, but if you are the owner of a business that wants to grow you're out of luck.

Houston, however, has kept the cost of government low while investing in ports, airports, roads, transit and schools. A person or business moving there gets an immediate raise through lower taxes and cheaper real estate. Houston just works better at nurturing jobs.
Unfortunately, Houston's "leaders" don't get it. They continue to push for more controls and regulations, whether it is outlawing "attention-getting devices", mandating tags on taco trucks, forcing taxpayers to subsidize home purchases, seeking to shut down businesses (such as Spec's and CES Environmental), arbitrarily opposing development, or any of a myriad other interventions that discourage job creation, destroy existing jobs, or both.

City officials act as if Houston is somehow immune to the laws of economics, that if the city trods down the same statist path as other big cities, it will somehow not wind up in the same place. They are wrong. The same cause--government intervention--leads to the same effect--high housing costs and a stagnant economy--no matter where it is enacted.

I do disagree with Kotkin's conclusion:
Houston, perhaps more than any city in the advanced industrial world, epitomizes the René Descartes ideal--applied to the 17th-century entrepreneurial hotbed of Amsterdam--of a great city offering "an inventory of the possible" to longtime residents and newcomers alike. This, more than anything, promises to give Houstonites the future.
Houston's success has not been the result of Cartesian ideas. The city's growth and economic prosperity has been the result of a general respect for property rights. Politically, this ideal was identified and defended by America's Founding Fathers. Its moral basis was identified and defended by Ayn Rand:
The right to life is the source of all rights—and the right to property is their only implementation. Without property rights, no other rights are possible. Since man has to sustain his life by his own effort, the man who has no right to the product of his effort has no means to sustain his life. The man who produces while others dispose of his product, is a slave.
If Houston wishes to continue as the city that others want to be, this is what city leaders must understand. But before that will occur, Houstonians must first demand that city government respect and protect the inviolate right of each individual to his own life, liberty, pursuit of happiness, and property. When they do, and vote accordingly, city officials may begin to get it.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Doublespeak in the Chronicle

I recently finished reading 1984, George Orwell's tale of a futuristic totalitarian state. In the novel, leaders of the state engage in a thorough and constant effort to wipe out facts of reality. As one character states, reality exists in the "collective mind", and whatever the collective believes to be true is true. The individual is always wrong.

Many readers of 1984 likely believe that such irrationality can only exist in fiction, that actual human beings could not accept and advocate such nonsense. Yet, almost on cue, the Chronicle provides us with evidence to the contrary. In an editorial on the Houston Food Bank, the paper lauds the facility for its efforts to feed the hungry. Ignoring basic economic truths and observable facts of reality, the paper claims:
Food stamps are a bargain. The program is 100 percent federally funded, while administrative costs are shared 50-50 with the state. Not only does it immediately and significantly benefit the recipients, it just as promptly and efficiently benefits local farmers, grocers and other businesses.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that every dollar in SNAP benefits produces $1.84 in economic activity.
The editorial ignores the fact that any money provided by the federal government must first be coercively seized from taxpayers. The editorial ignores the fact that such theft is hardly a bargain for those who have their money taken by force. The editorial ignores the fact that those taxpayers must now forgo spending on the items that they desire, such as a new car, or a home, or a vacation, or a dinner out. The editorial ignores the myriad government interventions that have created the economic turmoil and hunger that it now wants government to correct. But in true 1984 fashion, the paper implicitly suggests that such facts can be wiped out of existence if we simply believe otherwise.

Contrary to the premises underlying the editorial and implied by it, reality is not a creation of consciousness. The facts of reality are immutable, no matter how many people believe otherwise. There is no collective consciousness--there is only the minds of individuals. And it is the minds of individuals that the Chronicle regularly seeks to control and subvert.

Whether it is calling for restrictions on billboards, or advocating land-use regulations, or supporting government control of health care, the paper consistently calls for regulations and controls on the actions of individuals. The paper consistently supports measures that will prevent individuals from acting according to their own judgment. And that is not a fictionalized fantasy--it is a fact that the Chronicle cannot wipe out of existence by pretending otherwise.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Bill White: Get Politics Out of Education

In response to the latest controversy over textbooks, gubernatorial candidate Bill White has called for politics to be removed from education:
Obviously, I would pick a chair who would try to undo some of the damage that is being done as quickly as we can. We should have standards which reflect the views of professional educators and historians and respect the integrity of that process rather than injecting political ideology in the classroom — regardless where that ideology came in the political spectrum.
Unfortunately, White's "plan" won't accomplish his alleged goal. Indeed, White advocates the continuation of political influence on education in Texas. Despite his claim to the contrary, White isn't opposed to mixing politics and education--he simply wants his guy in charge.

The very fact that the chairman of the State Board of Education is selected by the governor makes it a political position. The governor will select someone whose political ideology meshes with his own, and White is no exception. He admits as much when he states that he will pick someone who will "undo some of the damage" being caused by the current conservative chairman.

Further, White ignores the fact that no matter who is in charge, government is imposing one set of values--political and otherwise--upon all of the state's public school students. This alone guarantees that the state board will be a magnet for interest groups, each seeking to influence the board's decisions. No matter what decisions are made, someone will claim that politics is at play. And they will be right.

If White truly wants standards that are devoid of politics, then he should advocate for the privatization of the public schools. He should call for government to get out of the education business entirely, and allow the producers of educational services to determine the curriculum at their school, free from the controls and regulations of government officials. Such freedom would also allow the consumers of those services--parents and students--to choose those providers who best meet their own individual needs and desires.

Contrary to White's assertions, the solution to politics in education isn't changing the state's headmaster. The solution is to abolish public education.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The EPA's RRP Rule

On April 22, 2010 an EPA regulation governing renovation, repair, and painting (RRP) took effect. The regulation governs any activity that will disturb paint containing lead and applies to all homes built before 1978 and "child-occupied facilities". On Wednesday I took the certification course mandated by the EPA to perform this type of work.

I expected the material in the course to be disgusting, and in that regard it greatly exceeded my expectations. (Exceeded in the sense that it was far more disgusting than I imagined.)

The instructor described RRP as a "program" designed to benefit children, who are the primary victims of lead poisoning from the dust of paint containing lead. The consequences of lead poisoning in children are indeed tragic--learning disabilities and brain damage being the most prominent. But combating lead poisoning is not a proper function of government. And RRP is going to do little, if anything, to combat it. It will however, grant the government greater control over the lives of contractors and cost consumers a lot of money.

For example, RRP stipulates the procedures that a contractor must follow to contain paint chips and dust, as well as clean up procedures. After clean up, the contractor must conduct a test to determine if lead dust is still present. This test consists of using an electrostatic rag to wipe a surface and visually comparing it to a card. If the surface does not "pass" you must repeat the procedure. If it fails again, you simply wipe the surface a third time and walk away without any further testing. In other words, it really doesn't matter if lead dust is present or not. We must simply take the time to clean the surface up to 3 times. This time of course, translates to higher prices for the consumer. I estimate that a typical job that my company does will cost 15% to 20% more because of RRP, and some jobs could double in price.

Consumers will not be eager to pay these additional costs, and many won't. Which means, contractors who attempt to play by these "rules" will lose work to contractors are willing to risk fines from the EPA.

The containment requires the use of disposable plastic, and far more than we would typically use. This plastic must be placed in a garbage bag of at least 4 mils thickness, and the bag must be secured in a particular fashion. The bag can then be tossed in the trash.

For those of us in Houston this is particularly ironic. The city has mandated the use of disposable lawn bags in an effort to keep petroleum based bags out of the landfill. The EPA is now mandating that we use more plastic, which will find its way into those very same landfills.

If all of this seems completely arbitrary, you would be right. And the instructor essentially said so. For example, on exterior work, the instructor admitted that containing lead dust is impossible. We are simply to "do our best". But what does this mean? I could make every reasonable effort to do "my best", and if some EPA bureaucrat disagrees, I am subject to a fine of $37,500 per incident, as well as jail time. And I won't know that I didn't do "my best" until after the fact. My life literally rests in the hands of some faceless bureaucrat, who will make his decisions based on his own subjective feelings at the moment.

The arbitrary nature of these regulations was driven home in the opening minutes of the course when the instructor announced that the EPA didn't have everything figured out and was "making things up as we go along". Somehow contractors are supposed to operate under these shifting rules. And based on the comments that I heard, they are more than willing to do so.

While jokes about the absurdity of the regulations were common, the general attitude seemed to be an apathetic acceptance. "What do you expect from the government?" was said more than once. In other words, we have no choice but to accept the fact that our lives and livelihood depend on our ability to satisfy the arbitrary, shifting demands of Washington.

I have long been aware of such injustices, but this one really hit home. I run a small business, offering quality, conscientious service to my customers. My life just got immensely more difficult, not because of some error or transgression on my part, but simply because some bureaucrats decided to save "the children". And in the process, they are going to destroy the lives of a lot of adults, not to mention the children who depend on them.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Swiss Cheese

Many--particularly those who think that our money belongs to the government--are gleeful that the Swiss Parliament appears poised to remove the secrecy long associated with Swiss bank accounts. The Chronicle, not surprisingly, illustrates this point:
The accounts are disappearing because tax collectors in this country and across much of Europe finally had enough of that secrecy. They were losing revenues because of the labyrinthine walls of privacy ordained and enforced by powerful Swiss bankers.
In other words, nobody has a right to hide their money from the taxman. Anyone who wishes to maintain some privacy regarding their financial affairs must have nefarious purposes:
Ah, yes, secrecy … that was always the source of the appeal of these accounts for wealthy dictators, industrialists, movie stars, Nazi thieves and others of notoriety and fame.
Ayn Rand once said something to the effect that if someone decries communists and his mother-in-law in the same breath, you can be certain that the true source of his animosity is the mother-in-law.  The paper equates dictators and industrialists, Nazis and movie stars. The paper's wrath is not directed at the thieves and murderers who used Swiss bank accounts to hide their loot, but at productive individuals who sought to hold onto the money they earned.

More importantly, the paper sees no distinction between production and brute force. It sees no difference between a banker and a bank robber. In the process it advocates theft on a scale that rivals "wealthy dictators" and "Nazi thieves".

Due to a number of commitments and projects, my posting my be irregular and shorter than normal over the next few weeks.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Feeding at the Government Teat

With the State of Texas facing a budget deficit of $18 billion, on Sunday the Chronicle offered advise on how not to balance the budget:
One is that the state budget must not be balanced on the backs of Texas' poor and uninsured. That would be mean-spirited; it's also false economy. Most programs for these Texans come with generous federal matches that make them a bargain. In any case, failing to insure the uninsured only drives them to emergency rooms, where costs for care spiral.
Nothing is said of the taxpayers who will be forced to pay for this.  Apparently the paper finds it acceptable and just to balance the budget on their backs. It is "mean-spirited" to ask individuals to be responsible for their own bills; it is not "mean-spirited" to force me to pay another's bills.

Refusing to question their premises, the paper boldly asserts that taxpayers must pay for the health care of the poor and uninsured, but offers no reason as to why. The payer doesn't tell us why the family struggling to pay its mortgage and medical bills must be forced to pay for the health care of its neighbors. The paper just assumes that we know why, and agree.

This deception goes even further. The paper claims that, because the state receives "federal matches", these programs are good for Texas. We should conveniently ignore the fact that any money the federal government doles out must eventually be taken from someone. And while Texas is fighting to secure its place at the federal teat, the other states are doing likewise. This interstate rivalry to feed at the federal trough, we are to believe, is a "bargain".

In its zeal to pit the poor against the non-poor, Texans against non-Texans, the paper simply ignores the fact that any "benefits" the government distributes to some must necessarily come at the expense of others. The paper shows no concern for the victims.

The Chronicle long ago accepted the premise that life requires sacrifice, that politics is nothing more than a battle to secure government favors. The only question open to the paper is who will sacrifice and who will benefit, who will gain government favors and who will suffer the consequences. What the paper doesn't realize is that, in the end, nobody benefits and all will suffer.

What happens, for example, when those forced to pay for the poor and uninsured can no longer afford their own bills? If the paper remains consistent to its self-imposed blindness, it will simply advocate for expanding government further. And what happens when the victims refuse to "play"? What happens when the number of potential victims dwindle, when the parasites outnumber the productive?

Feeding at the government teat is a dangerous and destructive endeavor. It may provide succor for the moment, but when a new group of piglets appear--and they will--yesterday's litter will be old news. The federal sow will not be able to push them aside, for they are unprepared to fend for themselves. She must grow more teats to feed her growing family. One need only look at the growth of welfare programs to see the dependency borne of feeding at the government teat.

Texans do not need more teats. They need to be weaned.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Everybody Draw Mohammed Day

Even though "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day" isn't until May 20, I could not contain my excitement to exhibit my "artistic" abilities.


Thursday, May 13, 2010

Property Rights and Flooding, Part 4

Anyone who has lived in Houston for long knows that flooding can be a problem. Heavy rains can quickly fill bayous, causing them to spill into neighborhoods and flood homes. The principle of “first come, first served” provides with guidelines for protecting property rights in regard to new development, but what of existing development. How do we address flooding in existing neighborhoods while also respecting property rights?

We must begin by recognizing the sanctity of property rights--property rights may not be violated no matter the number of alleged beneficiaries. The "common good" does not supersede the good of any individual. Never. This includes recognizing and respecting the property rights of taxpayers.

Second, we must recognize that individuals who own or purchase homes in an area prone to flooding must take responsibility for their decisions. Their misfortune does not justify robbing taxpayers to pay for repairs to their home, subsidize their insurance, or take measures to reduce flooding. The responsibility lies with the home owners, not the taxpayers of the city or county.

Third, we must get the government out of the flood control business. Government's proper purpose is the protection of our rights, not protection from floods. Floods do not violate our rights; government taking our money does.

Fourth, the idea that bayous and streams are "public property" should be rejected. These waterways should be privatized, either through auction or by other means.

If individuals want flood control, they should be willing to pay for it. As we can easily observe in countless examples, individuals voluntarily pay for security services, arbitration, education, and a multitude of other other services provided by government for "free". If they regard flood control as a value, they will pay for it as well.

Some may want me to provide specific, concrete details as to how this might work. As I have said previously, I would not attempt to speculate how free men might solve a particular problem. Motivated by the desire for profit, free men find innovative solutions that would never occur to me. This is true in every field, from agriculture to medicine, from transportation to computers, from energy to education. And it will be true in flood control as well.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Property Rights and Flooding, Part 3

For the past 2 days I have examined the principle of “first come, first served” and its application to land use and flooding. My examples involved relatively simple situations, in which the number of property owners was limited and easily identified. Today I will begin to look at how this would apply to a more complex situation—flooding in Houston.

To set the context, this discussion was originally motivated by the efforts of the Harris County Flood Control District (HCFCD) to purchase homes along Hunting Bayou for the purpose of widening the bayou. Many home owners are reluctant to sell. When I challenged this, a reader asked why the rights of a few—the reluctant home owners—should supersede the rights of the many—those whose homes will be protected from future flooding.

Despite appearances, and the wording of my reader’s questions, there is no conflict between the rights of the respective property owners. Rights pertain to action—the freedom to act without interference from others. Only the use of force can prevent an individual from acting as he chooses; it is only through the use of force that an individual’s rights can be violated.

The reluctant home owners are not using force. They are simply refusing to provide their consent. They are not compelling those who might benefit from the HCFCD project to stay in their home, nor are they prohibiting those potential beneficiaries from taking other actions to protect their property. In the absence of force, it is a gross misrepresentation (to be kind) to claim that the reluctant home owners are violating anyone’s rights.

HCFCD however, is violating the rights of taxpayers throughout its jurisdiction. Those taxpayers are forced to pay for HCFCD projects, regardless of their individual judgment, consent, or potential benefits. And, while it is unclear how HCFCD will proceed if the reluctant home owners continue to refuse to sell their homes, the use of eminent domain to seize those properties is likely. In short, it is a government agency that is engaged in the violation of rights, not the home owners.

Flood control is not a proper function of government. HCFCD should be abolished. Any flood control efforts should be undertaken by private individuals and businesses. Further, those who take actions that damage the property of others should be held accountable.

As discussed yesterday, if an individual develops his land in such a way that it will cause bayous to fill more rapidly, and thus flood homes, then he must take efforts to prevent this from occurring. He must build retention ponds, decrease the size of his development, or take other actions to mitigate the damage. If his efforts are insufficient, then he would be responsible for the resulting damages.

Some may find this problematic. The developer could complete his project, collect his money, and ride off into the sunset long before damages occur. The damaged parties may find it difficult, if not impossible, to sue the developer. If we drop the context, this would certainly seem to create an unjust situation.

A responsible business does not invest millions of dollars into a project without giving considerable thought to the consequences. A responsible developer would not buy land, clear it, build infrastructure, and attempt to sell that land without identifying and addressing potential liabilities. If he did not do so, the market would devalue his development and he would have difficulty selling the land to builders. In addition, he may find it impossible to purchase insurance.

In this context, insurance companies play an unheralded role. Because an insurance company must pay when damages occur, they take great strides to reduce the likelihood of damages. The insurance company’s desire to profit—to collect premiums and not pay claims—will motivate it to require the developer to take reasonable efforts to mitigate the possibility of future damages. The insurance company would refuse to insure a project that stood a strong likelihood of massive future claims.

This does not mean that the developer or the insurance company must be omniscient or infallible. This is an impossible standard. It does mean that they must examine the known facts and judge them accordingly. Despite the best efforts of these businesses, flooding may still occur. But the same is true of our current rights-violating system.

The principle of “first come, first served” provides us with clear guidelines in regard to new development. But what of existing development? What of areas that are heavily developed and prone to flooding, such as neighborhoods around White Oak Bayou, Braes Bayou, and Hunting Bayou? Can we apply the principle of “first come, first served” to these situations? This will be my topic for tomorrow.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Property Rights and Flooding, Part 2

Yesterday I addressed the principle of "first come, first served", which serves as a primary means for resolving apparent conflicts in property rights. Today I will begin to apply this principle to the issue of flooding.

Property owners along a waterway (and often far from a waterway) can take actions that create or worsen flooding for other property owners. For example, property owners upstream may develop their land, causing heavy rains to fill a river more rapidly and flood property downstream. Or, downstream property owners may impede the flow of a river, causing it to back up and create flooding upstream.

These can be highly complex situations, and it may be extremely difficult to identify cause and effect. But that does not mean that we throw our hands in the air, declare the situation hopeless, and cede the entire matter to government. It means that we begin by fully understanding the applicable principles and apply them within the context of our current knowledge. This does not require omniscience or infallibility--both of which are impossible of any human being, and even more so of government officials. It does require a recognition and respect for the property rights of all individuals.

To illustrate the application of "first come, first served", let us assume that 3 men--Tom, Dick, and Harry--own land along a stream. Dick owns land in the middle of the other 2. Let us consider different scenarios, how their property use may impact the others, and how we should apply property rights to those situations.

Scenario 1: Dick owns a home on his land, while the land owned by Tom and Harry is undeveloped and unused. Neither Tom nor Harry may do anything with his land that later interferes with Dick's ability to use his home. Tom, who is upstream, may not develop his land and cause so much water to fill the river that Dick's house floods. Harry, who is downstream, may not block the river and cause so much water to back up that it floods Dick's house. Dick's prior use of his property prohibits the others from interfering with that use. The same would apply if Dick used his land for crops—the others may not take actions that would harm or damage the crops.

Scenario 2: Dick is still the only property owner who has developed his land. On occasion, a heavy rain causes his land to flood, with the water sometimes entering his home. He decides to build a levee to prevent this from occurring. During a heavy rain, the levee causes Tom's land to flood and he claims that Dick has violated his rights. But what use has Dick denied Tom? If Tom is using his land to grow corn, and the flood destroys his crop, his claim is legitimate. If Tom is not using his land then the flood has denied him nothing--no value was destroyed or harmed.

Scenario 3: None of the men have developed their property. Harry decides that he would like to create a small lake on his property and partially blocks the flow of the stream. While he creates the desired lake on his property, he also permanently floods a portion of Dick's land. In this case, Dick's rights have been violated. Though he was not using his land for any human value, the newly formed lake denies him the ability to ever do so. His property has been permanently altered by Harry’s actions, and this has occurred without Dick’s consent. Just as one cannot steal a neighbor’s car because it has been sitting in the driveway for months—i.e., is unused—one may not “take” a neighbor’s property by permanently flooding it.

These scenarios hardly exhaust the possibilities. And some situations may be much more complex, with hundreds or even thousands of property owners impacting the situation. Government has a legitimate and proper function in this regard: to identify and define the respective rights of the property owners, as well as what would constitute a violation of those rights.

This does not mean that government should demand, dictate, restrict, and regulate land uses. If Tom wishes to develop his land, he is free to do so. But his use may not harm the property of other owners. This might require him to limit the scope of his development, or build retention ponds, or take other measures to prevent downstream flooding if such flooding would violate the property rights of others. He should be free to act according to his own judgment, and then be held accountable for his decisions.

So far I have addressed relatively simple examples in which the relevant property owners are easily identified. But what of more complex situations, such as Houston? How do these principles apply when there are thousands of property owners involved? This will be my topic for tomorrow.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Property Rights and Flooding, Part 1

In response to a post last week, a reader asked:
Why are the property rights of the affected residents any more important than the property rights of the upstream property owners who are flooded through no fault of their own due to increased stream flow from developments yet further upstream? Should the mid-Bayou residents try to sue to force the further upstream property owners to install retention ponds and other flood control devices, when it is not possible to determine which property is truly at fault?

How do you determine whose property rights are more important? Should the reluctance of a few be allowed to destroy the property of many?
These are very good questions. There may appear to be a conflict between the rights of the respective property owners--property owners along a waterway can impact the property of others. But this "conflict" is a mirage, and a proper understanding of property rights provides us with solutions to such problems while simultaneously recognizing and protecting the property rights of all. In other words, it isn't an issue of the rights of one individual (or group of individuals) superseding the rights of another.

The right to property is the right to own, use, and dispose of material values. Property rights provide the owner with a sanction to use his property as he chooses, so long as he does not violate the mutual rights of others. But what of those situations in which one owner's use does interfere with another's use, not through criminal intent, but through negligence or ignorance? More specifically, how do we address situations in which one property owner causes flooding on the property of another?

Before I address flooding in particular, an applicable principle must be discussed. That principle is: "first come, first served". This principle--with roots in both Roman and English common law--holds that first use of property establishes ownership and specific rights associated with that use. For example, let us say that I own a pig farm out in the country. Nobody lives nearby and the odors do not offend anyone. Years after I started my farm a number of people buy some nearby land and build homes. They soon begin to complain of the odor coming from my farm. My pig farm clearly interferes with their use of their property. Whose property rights should prevail? Should I be allowed to continue my pig farm, or should I be forced to cease operations? The principle of "first come, first served" provides the answer.

My prior use established my right to use my property for that use. In regard to the home owners, the offending odors were clearly evident before they built their home. The "nuisance" existed prior to the construction of their home, and by building a home nearby they "came to the nuisance" (a corollary principle of "first come, first served"). Any harm that they suffer could have been avoided simply by recognizing the existence of a nearby property use that they would find offensive and acting accordingly, and thus their claim that I am violating their property rights is invalid.

To regard their claims as valid would be to destroy all property rights. When purchasing a property, individuals have a responsibility to identify the existing conditions and insure that they are compatible with one's intended use. Further, one may not use that property in such a way as to interfere with the previously established rights of other property owners.

It is important to understand that this does not create a conflict between the rights of current and future property owners. A future owner may use his property as he chooses, but he may not arbitrarily demand that others cease their prior use--to do so would negate their rights. The current owner has established his rights via his use, while the future owner has yet to do so. The future owner must recognize those existent rights.
In short, if you don't like the odors that come from a pig farm, don't build a home next to a pig farm. And if you do build a home next to a pig farm, don't complain about the odors.

However, let us say that I decide to expand my farm to such an extent that the odors begin to reach a neighborhood that existed prior to my expansion. In this situation, the home owners have a legitimate complaint. When they built their homes no nuisance existed, and my subsequent property use created the nuisance. Their prior use established their rights, and my later use cannot interfere with the use of their property.

By applying the principle of "first come, first served" to property, many disputes over property rights--particularly those regarding nuisances--can be resolved. To repeat: Property rights provide the owner with a sanction to use his property as he chooses, so long as he does not violate the mutual rights of others. Once an individual has established a particular use of a property, he has a moral right to continue his use indefinitely. Individuals who come along later may use their property as they choose, but they may not interfere with the prior owner's use.

I should add that if I sell my pig farm to another individual, he gains all of the rights of that property. He does not need to tear down the pig farm and go to the back of the line. When I sell ownership in the property, I am selling my rights to that property, and subsequent owners may continue my established use. If they change the use of that property, they do go to the back of the line. And that brings us to the issue of flooding.

Admittedly, flooding is a more complex situation, but the same principle applies: The first users of land establish their rights, and subsequent property owners cannot interfere with those rights. Tomorrow, I will begin to apply this principle to the issues raised by my reader.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Pro-Zoners Sing the Same Tune

For decades zoning advocates have promised that the evils of hell would be unleashed upon Houston if we did not adopt comprehensive zoning. The prognosticators have claimed that the city won't attract businesses, that our quality of life will suffer, and Houston would never become a "world-class city". Despite three failed attempts to force zoning down our throats, and the fact that such predictions have proven to be utterly false, zoning advocates haven't changed their tune. They are just changing a few of the lyrics.

Now, the claim is that the city won't attract "information workers", that is, young urbanites who want to live in hip cities. And, according to such hipsters as failed mayoral candidate Peter Brown, Houston ain't hip. What we need, according to the Brownster, is for the city to provide "incentives" to developers to create a more "urbane vision". (HT: Gus Van Horn) Froma Harrop writes:
No one is being forced to do anything, he [Brown] told me. "But if the city is going to pay the piper, we play the tune."
And if a developer doesn't march to that tune, then what happens Mr. Brown? He gets tossed in jail, has his property seized, or both. But I suppose you wouldn't call that force. Just like you have insisted that "planning" isn't really just a code word for zoning.

What the article doesn't tell us is the nature of government "incentives". They generally consist of something like: "We would really like you to do this. Or else." The "or else" means, government officials will make your life a living hell at every opportunity.

Given Houston's success in creating jobs and attracting residents--all based on the voluntary consent of those involved--why do some insist that the city resort to coercive measures such as land-use regulations? Pro-zoners have a ready answer:
"The whole dynamic of what it took to succeed has changed," insists Rice University sociologist Stephen Klineberg.

Early last century, Houston boomed as a terminal for the East Texas Oil Field. "You didn't need education to make money," Klineberg says. Energy remains the big employer, but today it's a knowledge industry -- more about servicing producers around the globe than pumping the nearby crude.
In other words, that was then, this is now. If the city is to continue to succeed, it must get "smart", and to the pro-zoning crowd, "smart" means government controls. The uneducated entrepreneurs and visionaries who turned a swamp into the energy capital of the world were simply lucky.

Despite Klineberg's arrogant claims, what it takes for a city (or a nation) to succeed hasn't changed. Houston's relative freedom, particularly in land use, has allowed individuals to act according to their own judgment, even when others refused to see their vision. For Houston to continue to succeed, it must rediscover the principles of freedom. It must reject the siren song of the pro-zoners.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Flooding and Freedom

The Harris County Flood Control District (HCFCD) is currently buying out home owners along Hunting Bayou as a part of a $175 million project. Many of the home owners are reluctant to sell, with some having lived in their home for nearly fifty years. As the Chronicle puts it:
It is the personal side of the Flood Control District's own dilemma: inconveniencing a few for the benefit of many. 
On the surface, this might seem reasonable. The paper reports that the neighborhood around the bayou has experienced flooding in 1979, 1980, 1983, 1989, 1993, 1994, 1997, 1998, 2006 and 2007. Bribing a few home owners to move for the purpose of deepening and widening the bayou might save the remaining homes from flooding. But there is nothing reasonable about this particular situation, or the HCFCD in general.

If someone chooses to live in an area that floods, they should bear the consequences of their decisions. They should not expect others (read taxpayers) to pay for repairs. They should not expect taxpayers to pay for flood control. (The same applies to those with homes along the beach.) Individuals have a right to live where they choose; they do not have a right to force others to bear the costs.

Some argue that flood control is a proper function of government, that without government no individual or business would undertake such a massive project. Without government involvement, the argument goes, many more areas of the city would be prone to flooding. Such claims imply that the ends justify the means.

It is highly speculative to claim that absent government nobody would undertake flood control efforts. To make such a claim is to say that individuals do not value their property and will not take measures to protect it. There are more than 60 billion examples that this is not true--Americans voluntarily spend that many dollars each year on private security for the purpose of protecting their property.

I will not purport to have all of the answers on this issue. Flood control is a complex subject and it is not my expertise. But I am an expert on the application of property rights, and the recognition and protection of those rights has been demonstrated time after time to solve the most complex of problems. Recognizing the moral right of individuals to use their property as they choose, so long as they respect the mutual rights of others, often results in solutions that few can dream of.

As one example, consider Houston's underground tunnel system. The system connects dozens of downtown buildings, providing shopping, dining, and ease of travel. It was built entirely by private businesses, who worked together to create convenience for the tenants of their buildings and enhance the value of their properties. The tunnel system benefits the many, and inconveniences nobody.

Those who claim that we need government involved in flood control assume that, because they lack the vision to conceive of private solutions to flooding, such solutions cannot exist. Since they can't figure out how it would work, they conclude that nobody else can either. They are wrong. And when men are free, they can prove them so.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Pro-Business Promotes Quality of Life

Before the proposed merger between Continental and United was finalized Mayor Ma Parker, County Judge Ed Emmett, and Greater Houston Partnership Chairman Patrick Oxford sent a letter to the chairmen of the two airlines. Houston, they argued, is the best location for the headquarters of the merged company.
Houston has a favorable business environment, low cost of living and excellent quality of life for our citizens...

Our environment supports business and encourages entrepreneurship.
I agree that Houston is generally more pro-business than other cities. However, Ma and the gang at city hall are just playing cheerleader--they are telling the chairmen one thing while telling the citizens of Houston something entirely different. While pleading for jobs they present Houston as a utopia for businesses; while begging for electoral support and appeasing constituents they bash local businesses.

For example, the city did not hesitate to use its coercive power to delay the Ashby High Rise. Nor did it have any problems shutting down a Spec's Liquor Store after previously granting approval for the store. The city has harassed CES Environmental Services. The city has long waged war on sexually-oriented businesses and outdoor signage, making it clear in both word and action that such companies are not welcome in Houston. I seriously doubt that the owners of these businesses would say that the city "supports business" or has a "favorable business environment". All of these restrictions and controls--along with many others--were "justified" on the basis of promoting "quality of life".

As I previously wrote:
For politicians to claim that they will improve the city’s “quality of life”, they must necessarily embrace one particular conception of the term. They must accept and implement one view of “quality of life”, to the exclusion of all others. And the “quality of life” that they embrace will be imposed upon all individuals, no matter their own personal views on the subject. All Houstonians will be forced to accept and live by the “quality of life” advocated by public officials.

There is only one context in which any public official can legitimately speak of “quality of life”. There is only one context in which all Houstonians can embrace the same conception of “quality of life”. And that context is individual freedom—the right to pursue your individual values and goals without interference from others, as long as you respect their mutual rights. Indeed, freedom is the ultimate in “quality of life”.
Freedom--the absence of coercion--is pro-business. Its relative lack of land-use regulations provides Houstonians with greater freedom in the use of their property than most cities. It is this freedom that is a primary cause of the low cost of living touted by Ma.

Ma Parker, like most government officials, wants to have our cake and eat it too. She wants to brag about the city's relative "pro-business environment" to business leaders, while appeasing noisy constituents who demand controls and restrictions on businesses in the name of "quality of life". The truth is, "pro-business" and "quality of life" are not antagonistic--they have the same root cause. And the sooner city officials discover this fact, the sooner they can truly be pro-business.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Lemonade and Berries

This past Sunday was Lemonade Day--a day when an estimated 50,000 of Houston's youth set up lemonade stands across the city. The idea started 5 years ago when the daughter of a Houston businessman asked for money to buy a pet turtle. Her father said "No" and she decided to sell lemonade to raise the money. She never bought the turtle, but her efforts were the start of a program to teach children about business.

The story reminds me of my own business experiences as a child. I grew up in a rural environment, and wild blackberries seemed to grow everywhere. During the summer I would pick the berries and peddle them to relatives and neighbors. Not only did I make a little money, but my customers often shared the pies and cobblers they made with the berries.

Because the blackberries didn't ripen until late in the summer, I could engage my entrepreneurial spirit until August. Fortunately, a strawberry farm was located a few miles from my house. When I was in junior high I would ride my bike to the farm early each morning and pick strawberries for 10 cents a quart. Like the little girl who wanted a turtle, I had a particular item that I wanted to purchase with my money--a week at basketball camp.

I suspect that my parents could have afforded to pay for my trip. But had they done so I would have missed out on a very valuable lesson. From an early age my parents taught me that if I wanted something I had to earn it, and they often provided opportunities to earn money. For example, I was sometimes hired to help with their screen printing business, and when I was older I was paid to remove stumps from our land.

I have a lot of pleasant memories from my childhood, but those that involve making money (and spending the money that I earned) are among the most pleasant.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Truth is not Subject to a Vote

On Sunday the Chronicle opined that the primary motivation behind some opposition to red-light cameras is money.
A frequent charge leveled against the use of cameras to catch red-light violators is that their prime purpose is making money for municipalities rather than improving traffic safety. As it turns out, a prime mover behind a petition drive to force a referendum on the issue in Houston knows all about how to make money off traffic tickets.
The paper goes on to tell us that public safety should outweigh the interests of "self-serving" lawyers--we must put aside our personal interests for the "public good". The editorial implies that we should simply dismiss anyone who stands to profit from a particular policy decision.

On the other side of the issue is the majority of Houstonians:
An opinion survey commissioned by the group [Keep Houston Safe] found that two thirds of likely Houston voters back the system, with that support consistent across political, racial, and socioeconomic lines. Seventy-seven percent of respondents agreed that cameras were a reasonable way to curb red-light runners, and 71 percent believed that the cameras make Houston safer.
In this age of democracy, the will of "the people" reigns supreme. If 71 percent of those polled "believe" that red-light cameras make the city safer, then it must be true. The actual facts are irrelevant--if we want to determine the "truth" all we must do is take an opinion poll.

Reality however, is not as cooperative as the advocates of majority rule would like us to believe. The facts of reality are not determined by a vote. The number of people who believe a certain idea does not determine its truth. That most people once thought the Earth to be flat did not make it so. The majority can be, and often is, wrong.

Just as the paper implies that the "public good" supersedes that of individuals, it also implies that the will of "the people" supersedes the judgment of individuals. In mind and in body the individual is subservient to others. In thought and in action the individual must cower to the dictates of the majority. Such a view is morally wrong and disastrous in practice, for there is no atrocity that cannot be "justified" on such a basis.

The Founding Fathers rejected tyranny in any form, whether a tyranny of one (the King) or a tyranny of the many (democracy). Indeed, James Madison--the father of the Constitution--wrote:
There is no maxim, in my opinion, which is more liable to be misapplied, and which, therefore, more needs elucidation, than the current one, that the interest of the majority is the political standard of right and wrong.
Right and wrong, like truth, is not subject to the whims or caprice of the majority. And that is a fact, no matter how many people believe otherwise.