On the Bicycle Trail to More Land-Use Regulations

Last week, City Council approved the Houston Bike Plan. The plan is allegedly intended to expand the city’s bike trails from about 500 miles to 1,800 miles. But as I noted in my last post, the plan isn’t really about bike trails. It’s about the city assuming more control over land use in Houston.

The Chronicle reports that implementation of the plan will cost an estimated $550 million, but the plan lacks any means to fund this boondoggle. That didn’t stop Mayor Turner from endorsing the plan.

Mayor Sylvester Turner said it was a growing quality of life issue, and the city needs to provide bike options to economically disadvantaged areas where facilities are lacking and people need more exercise options and sometimes safe routes to work.

“We cannot stand still,” Turner said. “When it comes to the infrastructure, cycling is a major part.”

Not surprisingly, Turner didn’t mention whose quality of life the bike trails will enhance. Houstonians are not monolithic when it comes to bike trails (or any issue). Some want bike trails and some don’t, and many are apathetic. The quality of life of some will be enhanced at the expense of others.

For decades the city has been promoting one policy after another to enhance our quality of life. From billboard regulations to historic preservation, from controls on smoking to the bike plan, each of these policies has been defended as a means to improve our quality of life.

But the quality of life of sign company owners and their employees certainly hasn’t been enhanced. The quality of life of the victims of historic preservation hasn’t improved. Those who will be forced to pay for bike trails they don’t want and will never use won’t enjoy a higher quality of life.

In each of these examples, and many others, city officials and special interest groups have used quality of life as an excuse to expand city control over property use.

Advocates of the bike plan said that they have no intention to force neighborhoods to construct trails if they don’t want them. But as we’ve seen with billboards, smoking, preservation, and other issues, bike activists will ultimately expand their demands. And the city will be only too happy to accommodate them.

The Squeaky Bicycle Wheel Gets the Grease

Bicycle activists (I didn’t know that there were such things) achieved a significant victory this week when City Council adopted the Houston Bike Plan. Lest you think that this is a satirical piece, let me assure you that it is not. I can’t make up stuff like this.

According to the Chronicle,

the plan sets a goal of making Houston a gold-level city based on scoring by the League of American Bicyclists. In Texas, only Austin has been awarded a gold rating by the group, with Houston, San Antonio, El Paso and The Woodlands receiving bronze status, among others….

The bike plan plots tripling the amount of off-street bike trails from the current 221 miles to 668 miles. Much of that relies on trail connections along bayous and within parks and electrical transmission utility easements.

At a time that the city faces an assortment of financial crises, getting a gold-level score from a bicycle league hardly seems like a priority. But this is what occurs when government expands beyond its proper function of protecting individual rights.

Bicycle activists comprise a very small number of Houstonians. According to the Census Bureau, about .5 percent of Houstonians ride their bike to work (it’s wonderful that the government collects such data). But that small number is apparently very vocal, and they have been pressuring city officials to pander to their desire for more bike trails.

When local government expands beyond its proper functions–the police and courts–this type of special interest politics is inevitable. City Council becomes a magnet for interest groups to press for their pet projects, and in the end, those who make the most noise will get the grease.

But the deeper issue isn’t  bike trails or special bike lanes. The deeper issue is that this is just another step in the city’s planning agenda. The city has made it clear that it wants to control development within Houston, and it has made it clear that planning is a “tool” that it will use. The more the city plans, the more the city controls. Whether that planning is aimed at protecting neighborhoods or mandating bike trails as a part of new development is just a detail.

A Flood of Altruism

More than 300,000 home owners in the Houston area can expect significant increases in their flood insurance. The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIH), which insures those homes, is more than $24 billion in debt and Congress is expected to end the subsidies that are bankrupting the program.

NFIH was created because private insurers didn’t want to bear the risk of insuring homes in floor prone areas. So, in typical altruist fashion, the government stepped in. Home owners had a need, and keeping with altruism, others have a moral responsibility to satisfy that need. Further, rather than charge market rates, the government decided to force taxpayers to subsidize those who purchased flood insurance.

In the past decade, Congress has attempted to reform the program on several occasions. But pressure from real estate interests put a stop to reform efforts.

U.S Rep. Ted Poe of Kingwood, sent a letter to constituents last week that stated, “Congressional committees are beginning work on flood insurance renewal, and that ‘preliminary plans allow private insurers greater and easier access to the marketplace.'” That’s a step in the right direction, but we have to wonder what impediments currently exist that keep private insurers out of the market.

While the trend seems to be towards privatization of flood insurance, there are those who continue to advocate for an altruistic program. SaferSmarter, a coalition of housing and insurance groups, advocates a risk-based pricing system along with subsidies for low-income homeowners. And guess who will get to pay those subsidies–either taxpayers or other homeowners. In either case, the result will not be risk-based pricing.

Subsidies are used to encourage actions that would otherwise be economically irrational. For example, government gives subsidies to renewable energy companies because private investors have concluded that such companies are unlikely to make a profit. Companies such as Solyndra would never get started without subsidies.

Subsidizing flood insurance encourages individuals to purchase or retain homes in flood prone areas. They don’t have to bear the full cost of ownership. Much of the risk is passed on to others.

The only proper and long-term solution is to remove altruism from the flood insurance market. Free the insurance companies to price policies according to their assessment of the risks. And free taxpayers from bearing the costs that morally should be borne those who live in flood prone areas.

Planning Leads to Land-use Regulations

Joe Webb, chairman of Blueprint Houston, an organization that helped draft the city’s General Plan, recently repeated the statist mantra that planning isn’t the same as zoning. At the same time, he noted that the plan will help the city control development and make neighborhoods better.

Technically, Webb is correct. Planning is a process of identifying goals and the means for achieving them. Zoning is a tool used by government to control land use and development. While zoning seldom exists with planning, planning can exist without zoning.

However, a plan without the means of implementation is useless. If the city is going to use the plan to control development and make neighborhoods better, at some point land-use regulations will be required. Whether those regulations consist of something comprehensive like zoning or a more piece meal approach is merely a detail. The end result is the same–the city will assume the power to regulate development.

In principle, the city has already assumed this power. The preservation ordinance is the most obvious example. That ordinance gives the city the authority to completely control development within historic districts. It is only a small step to expand that power throughout the city.

Webb explained that the General Plan is simply a way for Houston officials to coordinate the plans of the city’s various departments to improve efficiency.

The city of Houston is a $5 billion corporation. We don’t have a business plan. Think of the general plan as our business plan. It helps us make decisions, policies, move forward. How do we grow the city. How do we build the city? We’re building it for not just for us but for future generations, so we want to do it well.

Government is not a business, nor can it be operated like one. A business depends on the voluntary choices of its customers. Government is an agency of force. A business cannot compel you to purchase its products. Government regulations compel you to act as it deems appropriate.

There is nothing wrong with improving the efficiency of government, so long as government is limited to the protection of individual rights, including property rights. But making government more efficient in violating our rights is not something to applaud or desire.

The Wall vs. Principles

The Department of Homeland Security has started condemnation lawsuits against some Texas property owners. The government is using eminent domain to seize land needed to build the border wall. While repeatedly feeding us stories of the crimes committed by illegal immigrants, the federal government is now embarking on its own crime.

The alleged purpose of the border wall is to keep America safe. But how safe can we be if the government can seize our property whenever it chooses?

Benjamin Franklin once said, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” His words are as true today as they were in the eighteenth century. Those who would abandon the principle of individual rights for safety will soon have neither.

A principle, wrote Ayn Rand

is “a fundamental, primary, or general truth, on which other truths depend.” Thus a principle is an abstraction which subsumes a great number of concretes. It is only by means of principles that one can set one’s long-range goals and evaluate the concrete alternatives of any given moment. It is only principles that enable a man to plan his future and to achieve it.

An exception to a principle invalidates the principle. If individual rights, including property rights, can be violated for a “noble cause,” then they can be violated for any cause. Individual rights no longer exist as a sacrosanct principle, but merely serve as a loose guideline that can be disregarded whenever it is politically expedient.

This is precisely what is happening in regard to the border wall. A large number of Americans support the wall, and if the rights of some land owners along the border must be sacrificed, so be it. But if the property of Americans living in South Texas can be seized today, why should we think that the property of any American won’t be seized tomorrow? And without principles to protect our freedom, that is what will happen.

Silencing the Independent Thinker

For decades, Regressives have been waging a war on Houstonians. The individual battles of that war have been fought primarily in the political area, but the target of the war is not political. The target is the independent thinker.

The political battles—outlawing billboards, zoning, historic preservation are a few examples—have all been based on the same premises. Morally and politically, each of these battles was founded on collectivism. Each was based on the premise that the individual is subservient to the group, such as the neighborhood or the community. Each held that the group—not the individual—is the standard of value.

Politics is not a primary, and political positions are derived from one’s views on more fundamental philosophical issues. Let us consider Regressives as an example.

Regressives believe that the “will of the people” should rule supreme. If “the people” endorse a particular policy, then that policy is proper and just. For example, if the property owners in a neighborhood vote for historic preservation, then all property owners are forced to abide by that vote. The judgment and desires of individuals are subordinated to the group. This, Regressives want us to believe, is proper and just.

But what if the property owners in that neighborhood later vote to repeal historic preservation (which they can do)? According to the premises of the Regressives, this too would be proper and just. How can this be? How can opposites both be proper and just?

To Regressives, this contradiction poses no problems. To them, truth and justice is determined by a vote. The collective consciousness determines reality. If enough people agree, what was true yesterday is not true today.

If truth is determined by the collective, then an individual’s judgment is inherently flawed. The individual is incapable of identifying the truth. The individual must subordinate, not only his actions, but also his judgment, to the group.

The independent thinker poses a threat to this view. He judges for himself, and is willing to stand on his own judgment, no matter how many may disagree with him. He is willing to challenge conventional wisdom and popular ideas, not for the sake of provocation, but because he rationally disagrees.

To the Regressive, the independent thinker is a rebuke of their world view. And that is why they seek to silence him and force him into submission.

Ending Discrimination Against the Incompetent

An unnamed organization announced last week that they are going to pressure Mayor Sylvester Turner to add incompetent and unproductive workers to the list of groups protected by the city’s pending anti-discrimination ordinance. “It’s discriminatory to fire someone just because they are lazy or don’t possess rudimentary job skills,” said an anonymous spokesperson for the group. “These people have families to feed, and it’s unfair to judge them based on how they don’t perform on the job.”

The group listed five characteristics that they wanted protected by the ordinance:

  1. Unsatisfactory performance ratings
  2. Refusing to perform assigned tasks
  3. Swearing at customers
  4. Bringing a pack of stray dogs to work
  5. Speaking only in Pig Latin

Mayor Turner said that he hadn’t been contacted by the organization, but he was willing to listen to their suggestions. “Houston is a city of inclusion,” he said, “and if any citizen feels like he is being unfairly treated, then we have a responsibility to do everything in our power to protect him or her. The incompetent have a right to receive a decent paycheck, even if they do nothing to actually earn it.”

The Houston Business Alliance was quick to scoff at the proposal. “Bringing a pack of stray dogs to the office threatens the safety of other employees,” said a spokesperson. “Two or three might be okay, but an entire pack is just too many.”

The anonymous spokesperson hinted that the unnamed group may seek to ban other forms of discrimination in the future, claiming that it’s Mission Statement states: “People shouldn’t be allowed to judge others. We seek a culture in which all judgment of others is prohibited.”

Supporters of the anti-discrimination ordinance were hesitant to expand the scope of protection. Former Mayor Annise Parker, who tried to jam the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance down Houstonians’s throats, said that, while she supports the rights of the incompetent and lazy, they don’t make enough money to contribute to political campaigns.

The incompetent movement emerged as a potent political force during the Obama Administration with Vice President Joe Biden serving as the unofficial leader. In recent years, incompetents have come out of their parent’s basements and become more active in attempting to shape political policy. Their inability to hold a job has given them ample time to assault opponents and lobby legislators.

Unchallenged Premises

For decades, statists have confronted Houstonians with a seemingly endless series of policy proposals allegedly intended to make our city better. From outlawing billboards to zoning, from historic preservation to anti-discrimination, activists and politicians have claimed that without more government controls and regulations Houston will descend into depravity and economic ruin.

Underlying all of these proposals and claims are certain premises that the statists refuse to justify. Unfortunately, the victims of these proposals seldom challenge those premises. And the primary reason for that failure is the fact that the victims generally accept those premises. As a result, they can only bicker over details and complain that a particular proposal goes “too far.”

The anti-billboard ordinance is one example. When it was first proposed, the billboard industry responded that the ordinance was too draconian. They didn’t oppose the premise underlying the ordinance, merely its details.

The anti-smoking ordinance is another example. Restaurants and businesses originally opposed the ordinance, claiming that it would impose too many hardships on them. Like the sign industry, they didn’t oppose the premise underlying the ordinance, merely its details.

It both instances, the victims accepted the premise that government has the right to regulate and control their activities in the name of the “public interest.” Having accepted that premise, they could only argue over what constituted the “public interest.” It is no surprise that both ordinances were adopted and eventually expanded. The victims had morally and intellectually disarmed themselves.

The pattern will continue until Houstonians challenge the premises that underlie government’s steady expansion of power. Until Houstonians challenge collectivism and its moral base–altruism–government will continue to assert more control over their lives and businesses.

Altruism holds that individuals have a moral duty to self-sacrificially serve others. According to altruism, we must place the welfare and interests of others before our self-interest.

Collectivism holds that individuals must subordinate themselves to the group, such as the community, one’s race, or the State. The individual must put aside his self-interest in deference to the “public interest.”

Every statist proposal is founded on the alleged virtue of self-sacrifice. And the opponents of those proposals are denigrated for putting their self-interest before the public interest.

Those who value their freedom must begin by rejecting altruism and collectivism. Those who wish to defend freedom must challenge the statists to justify self-sacrifice and subservience to the collective. Until they do, they can only bicker over the details. Until they do, they will continue to lose the debate, and with it, their freedom.

Made in Texas

According to The Texas Tribune, “Under federal law, wine can have an appellation of origin from a state if a minimum 75 percent of its grapes are grown in that state. The other 25 percent can come from anywhere.” The Texas Legislature is considering a bill that will require Texas winemakers to use 100 percent Texas-grown grapes if they label their products “made in Texas.”

The wine industry is divided on the proposal. As one proponent put it, a company could import wine from California, “slap a picture of the Alamo or a longhorn on it” and label it “made in Texas.” Certainly, a product made in California shouldn’t be labeled “made in Texas,” but should the government (federal or state) be stipulating what constitutes “made in Texas”? And why is the government involving itself in such matters?

Some might argue, as the proponent of the law implies, that labeling a product made in California “made in Texas” is fraudulent. And that would be true. Since fraud is a violation of individual rights, it might seem that government should be setting the standards for what constitutes “made in Texas.” But before we can address that issue, we must first identify and examine the premise that underlies this concern about where a product is made.

For decades, we have exhorted to “buy American.” We have been told that buying American products will create and sustain American jobs. We have been told that buying American products is patriotic. But as philosopher Harry Binswanger explains, “buy American” is un-American:

Giving preference to American-made products over German or Japanese products is the same injustice as giving preference to products made by whites over those made by blacks. Economic nationalism, like racism, means judging men and their products by the group from which they come, not by merit.

This same collectivist premise underlies concerns about “made in Texas.”

The mere fact that a product is made in Texas does not make it better. Rational individuals recognize that fact and seek the products that best meet their needs and desires. This is true of smart phones, automobiles, and wines.

Instead of worrying about where a product is made or how it is labeled, legislators should be concerned about protecting our freedom to produce and trade. Removing the regulations and controls that restrict our economic freedom will do far more to stimulate the Texas economy than a law stipulating the proper labeling of wine.

A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

Statists often like to present their policies and programs as a free market solution. Emission trading, which Wikipedia calls a “market-based approach to controlling pollution,” is one example. Carbon emission trading assigns “property rights” to emissions, which allow the holder to emit a set quantity of a particular substance. Those who emit less of that substance than they are assigned can sell their “rights” to those who want to emit more.

Because this scheme utilizes “property rights” and involves trading, many view it as a free market solution to global warming. But such claims evade a fundamental difference between a free market and emission trading.

The essential characteristic of a free market is the freedom to produce and trade products and services without coercive interference from others. But freedom is precisely what is missing from emission trading.

Emission trading is founded on the premise that rights are granted by government. On that premise, individuals are not free to act as they judge best, but only as the government decrees appropriate. These so-called rights are actually permissions, which may be revoked anytime government deems it appropriate.

The solution to pollution is not some government mandated trading scheme. The solution is the recognition and protection of actual property rights.

An individual who damages another person’s property is morally liable for that damage. This is true whether the damage is caused by negligence on the road, vandalism, or the emission of pollutants. However, the damage must actually occur and be objectively proven.

Claims of potential harm are not grounds for legal culpability. In this were the case, then nobody should be allowed to drive a car, since every automobile trip involves the potential of an accident and harm to others. Indeed, virtually every interaction with others has the potential to do harm.

If property rights were recognized and protected, pollution would not longer be a contentious political issue. Property rights protect the freedom of individuals to create and use material values, so long as they respect the freedom of others to do the same. In a culture that recognizes property rights, individuals would be free to pollute, so long as they do not damage the property–including air and water–of others.

To learn how property rights can be applied to air and water, you can download Chapter 13 from my book, Individual Rights and Government Wrongs, by clicking here.