A New Statue Controversy

This week, a new statue controversy erupted in Houston. A local organization by the name of An Unnamed Group came out against the removal of statues commemorating the Confederacy. Instead, they proposed erecting monuments to honor Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedung, Pol Pot, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and other defenders of “the little people.”

“Slavery in the American South was a horrible institution,” said a spokesman for the group. “But let’s be honest. Stalin, Mao, and Castro practiced slavery on an unimaginable scale. And they weren’t racist about it. They enslaved everyone. If we are going to celebrate the institution of slavery, let’s honor its greatest practitioners.” The group proposed that, in keeping with the theme, Houstonians be conscripted to build the monuments with materials seized from local businesses.

At a meeting with reporters to discuss his plans to raise taxes, Mayor Turner voiced opposition to the proposal. “We shouldn’t be using taxpayer money to honor slavery. We should be using the money that we take from productive Houstonians to provide food, housing, and health care for those who refuse to work.”

Members of An Unnamed Group were not deterred by the mayor’s position. “He is proposing $495 million in new bonds, much of which isn’t earmarked for any specific purpose. We think that he could use some of that money to build gigantic statues.”

Defenders of Confederate statues seemed confused by the proposal. “Confederate soldiers died for states’ rights, not slavery,” said one. “They believed that each state should decide if it wanted slavery or not, rather than have that decision imposed upon them.” The fact that the Confederate states all wanted slavery and feared its abolition, he said, was just a coincidence and had nothing to do with the Civil War.

An Unnamed Group plans to launch a petition drive to put the issue before voters in November. They are currently collecting cans from along Houston’s roads to raise funds. They said that anyone wishing to make a donation can simply throw a six-pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon out of their car window on the way to work.

 

The Libertarian Party and Non-objectivity

Last week, the Libertarian Party (LP) tweeted: “It’s sad that we can look to North Korea for an example of more freedom than the United States.” The now-deleted tweet was apparently motivated by the party’s mistaken belief that marijuana is legal in North Korea. Though a later tweet offered an apology, the original tweet illustrates the moral bankruptcy of the LP.

To the LP, the only consideration in evaluating a totalitarian dictatorship is the legal status of marijuana. Everything else about that society is ignored–the LP ignores the full context. The fact that North Korea is a massive concentration camp is deemed irrelevant, because, like wow man, they can get high.

This isn’t the first time that the LP has been guilty of epistemological indecency. Indeed, the entire history of the party has been a continuous parade of non-objectivity. For example, while claiming its support for individual rights, the 2016 LP platform states:

We assert the common-law right of juries to judge not only the facts but also the justice of the law.

Known as jury nullification, this means that juries may unilaterally declare a law invalid.

While there are a great number of laws that should be repealed, jury nullification isn’t about repeal. It’s about a case by case determination whether a law is just or not. Which means, there really is no law. The law is what twelve individuals sitting in a jury room decide it is.

Suppose a jury decides that the prosecutor should not have to prove his case beyond a reasonable doubt. This, they declare, is unjust. Suppose they decide that, so long as the evidence is substantial, all doubts should be cast aside. This is nothing but anarchy, and those entering a courtroom will never know what standards may or may not apply. Indeed, there are no objective standards.

Protecting individual rights requires objective laws–clearly stated laws that define which actions initiate force or commit fraud. This is precisely what the LP wishes to abolish.

As another example:

The only legitimate use of force is in defense of individual rights—life, liberty, and justly acquired property—against aggression. This right inheres in the individual, who may agree to be aided by any other individual or group.

According to the LP, an individual has a right to round up a local street gang and reclaim the property he believes his neighbor has stolen. And his neighbor, believing that his life is in danger, has a right to recruit a rival street gang to aid in his protection. If you wonder how this will play out, simply watch a video of the recent riots in Charlottesville.

Despite their pretenses, the LP isn’t about individual rights. They are about following one’s whims, whether it is in a courtroom or in the streets. Objectivity requires standards, and that is precisely what the LP rejects.

The Preservation Mob

The City is currently preparing a 225-page document that details what property owners in The Heights can and can’t do. The neighborhood is designated as an historical district, and virtually any type of construction requires the permission of city thugs bureaucrats. The Chronicle reports,

Until now, officials say, the process for permit approval has been subjective and reliant on substantial guesswork.

Apparently, the city wants us to believe that the process will become less subjective because they have created a massive set of guidelines. The truth is, the very nature of the process is subjective and issuing mountains of documents won’t change that fact.

If approved, the new guidelines would specify regulations on the size, height and footprint of additions to the historic buildings, as well as detailed stylistic guidance on everything from window frames and doors and siding, chimneys and porches.

In other words, even the smallest details will be determined by government officials, and anyone who dares to disregard the city’s edicts will become a criminal. A property owner could be fined (and perhaps jailed) because he uses siding, moldings, or anything else that the city considers “inappropriate.”

Property owners will be prohibited from using the products and materials of their choice simply because those materials didn’t exist 100 years ago. To the preservationists, it is more important to preserve the historical character of the neighborhood than allow property owners to make decisions for themselves. Preservationists didn’t like what some property owners were doing, and so they passed a law to prohibit the offending actions. The subjective desires of preservationists are to take precedence over the rights of property owners.

If every property owner in The Heights was dedicated to preservation, an ordinance wouldn’t be necessary. The fact that preservationists pushed for an ordinance is their admission of the fact that some property owners are opposed to preservation. But the desires and interests of those property owners were trampled by the mob’s desires. What the preservationists couldn’t accomplish through persuasion they accomplished by parading to City Hall to demand that property owners be forced to conform to what the preservationists believe is right.

When individuals resort to force to impose their desires on others, they implicitly acknowledge that reason is not on their side. Angry mobs are one example. Preservationists are another.

Localism and Hypocrisy

The Texas legislature has attracted considerable scorn for its effort to reign in local governments intent on violating property rights. According to one critic, “It does this by kicking respect for democracy to the sidelines and squashing municipal initiatives like a bug.”

Democracy means unlimited majority rule–the majority may do what it pleases simply because it is the majority. It should not be constrained by things like rights or the Constitution. All that matters is the “will of the people.” And if the majority wants to violate property rights by banning plastic bags, regulating trees, preserving historic buildings, or anything else, it should be permitted to do so.

The advocates of localism do not complain about violations of individual rights. Their complaints are directed at efforts to protect those rights, because protecting rights is often contrary to the desires of the majority. They want the authority to impose their values upon the entire local community. The legislature should be “squashing municipal initiatives like a bug” when those initiatives violate individual rights.

Interestingly, Texas Republicans have long argued for “states’ rights” and complained about the federal government interfering in matters best handled at the state level. The backers of localism point to this fact and call the state legislators hypocrites. While there are elements of truth in this claim, the critics think that the hypocrisy stems from wanting local control in one context and denying it in another.

In truth, the hypocrisy arises from Republicans claiming to support individual liberty while supporting policies that violate that liberty. For example, Texas Republicans complain when the federal government protects individual rights by overturning state laws that restrict abortion or prohibit gay marriage. Republican’s inconsistency on individual rights is the source of their hypocrisy.

Just as municipal governments should not be allowed to impose the “will of the people” on a community, the state government should not be able to impose the “will of the people” on all Texans.

Awareness as a Choice

I was recently watching a minor league baseball game. A commentator noted that one of the young players showed a great situational awareness–the player was able to quickly assess a situation and determine what action to take. Another commentator asked if that was something that is natural or something that can be taught. The first commentator wasn’t sure.

Though this particular issue dealt with baseball, it has much broader implications. Awareness is a learned skill–all skills must be learned.

Awareness is our fundamental cognitive choice. We choose whether to be mentally engaged with our surroundings, or to be passive bystanders. The choice we make determines our level of awareness. And it is a choice that we face every waking moment.

The choices that we habitually make gradually become automatized. If an individual consistently chooses to be mentally active, he “naturally” becomes more aware. But he wasn’t born that way; he taught himself that skill. In contrast, the individual who routinely chooses to disengage his mind will be less aware of his surroundings and events that he witnesses. But he wasn’t born that way either; he also taught himself that “skill.”

Sherlock Holmes makes this point in A Scandal in Bohemia. Holmes asks Dr. Watson how many stairs lead up to their apartment. Though he has traversed those stairs thousand of times, Watson does not know. “You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear,” Holmes says.

We automatically see, but we do not automatically observe. Our eyes automatically provide us with sensory data, but it is our choice to be aware of that data or not.

Bonds, Parks, and Libraries

In November, Houston voters will be asked to approve a $495 million bond referendum. Mayor Turner wants $159 million in public safety bonds, $104 million for parks, $109 million for general government improvements, and $123 million for libraries.

Apparently, Turner thinks that the city’s irresponsible management of taxpayer money is justification for getting more money to mismanage. Rather than approving the bonds, voters should be demanding that the city quit wasting our money on things like parks and libraries. Both parks and libraries should be privatized. That alone would eliminate nearly half of the money Turner wants to take from Houstonians.

It is immoral to force taxpayers to subsidize the recreation and education of others. Those who wish to use parks or libraries should be the ones paying for them, not taxpayers.

There are countless examples of privately operated parks and libraries. Disneyland, Sea World, and Thousand Trails are a few examples. And consider The Woodlands, just north of Houston. This privately developed community has 125 forested parks and two hundred miles of hike and bike trails, in addition to dozens of lakes and ponds. Encompassing 23.4 square miles, The Woodlands has nearly eight thousand acres of green space.  Similarly, developers across the nation frequently include parks, walking paths, and lakes in their developments. If taxpayers weren’t forced to pay for our socialized park system, they would have more money to spend on visiting private parks.

The same is true of libraries. The first lending library in America, the Library Company of Philadelphia, was founded in 1731 by Benjamin Franklin. Supported by subscriptions, members were motivated to join the undertaking as a means to pool resources for the purpose of purchasing a collection of books that they could not individually afford. The Library Company continues to operate as a subscription library today.

Similar libraries were established throughout colonial America. For example, the Charleston Library Society was founded in 1748, the Providence Library Company was established in 1753, and the New York Society Library was founded in 1754. These membership libraries were seen as a way for individuals to voluntarily work together to the mutual benefit of all involved.

Or consider Kindle Unlimited, which is a lending service offered by Amazon. For $10 a month, a reader can have up to ten books at a time. If he wants to borrow another book, he simply “returns” one.

Returning to the bond referendum, Mayor Turner wants $109 million for “general government improvements.” The best way to improve government is to limit it to the protection of individual rights. And a step in that direction would be privatizing parks and libraries.

Those who value parks and libraries will voluntarily pay for them. And those who don’t value them should be free to spend their money as they choose.

 

The Shawshank Redemption

Imagine being convicted for a double murder that you did not commit and then spending twenty years in prison. You would be forced to endure unimaginable horrors, not because you killed two people, but because, as the hero of the The Shawshank Redemption puts it, you were a bad husband and drove your wife into the arms of another man.

This is the plot of The Shawshank Redemption. It is a story of unimaginable injustice and the eventual triumph of justice.

Andy Dufresne was convicted of murdering his wife and her lover. Though he proclaimed his innocence, he soon learned that everyone in Shawshank Prison was “innocent.” Except for Red, who acknowledged his guilt and soon became Andy’s best friend.

Despite the brutality that he endures, Andy refuses to give up. As he tells Red at one point, there is a certain part of him that nobody can touch. And Andy won’t let anyone take that part of him away.

Shawshank was filmed in my hometown long after I moved away. But in May 2017, I returned for a visit and toured the prison. It only made me love the movie more because it concretized the horrors that Andy had to endure.

I spent two hours touring the prison. The prison closed years ago and is now just a place for tourists to visit. There were no guards or prisoners present. But even with the absence of guards and prisoners, it was a demoralizing experience, even though I knew that I could leave any time I wanted. Andy didn’t have that choice. Yet, he refused to allow anyone to rob him of what was his–his life and his love it. That is the beauty of The Shawshank Redemption.

Nobody can take our virtue from us unless we allow them. As Red narrates near the end of the movie, Andy Dufresne crawled through unspeakable foulness and came out clean on the other end. When life seems difficult, Andy Dufresne and his unconquerable spirit is worth remembering. We can crawl through unspeakable foulness and come out clean on the other end. But we can do that only if we refuse to surrender our virtue.

Justice for Students

I welcome the recently reported justice department decision to further look into cases of race based admissions standards that are alleged to discriminate against whites and Asians in favor of blacks, Latinos or native Americans.  I welcome it if the focus is on justice.

Every individual student has huge potential to advance himself or herself by the application of reason and integrity in the pursuit of the student’s own independent goals through honestly acquired academic skills. The student’s education can then lead to a highly productive career for which that individual can be justifiably proud. Effort must be applied individually in the face of some formidable obstacles such as limited financial resources, health problems, learning disabilities, economic downturn, family opposition, bad teachers, accident and yes racial or group discrimination.  This nation is replete with examples of people who have forged such lives in the face of adversity.  Just read the story of George Washington Carver for one example.

So, why impose upon the Individual student who has earned her place academically the injustice of rejection because the standards for the group with white skin were elevated?  Or, why heap upon the applicant admitted under lowered standards another injustice because he is assigned to the group with black skin? His lower achievement in preparation for college likely means greater chance of failure. It will also add fuel to the suspicion that what he does achieve of his own was instead due to his classification in the group with black skin.  Any quota system is a deliberately planned injustice. No one is rewarded for individual achievement and everyone is punished as a member of a group.

Remember, Martin Luther King said, “I have a dream that my four little chi1dren will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”  Well, I have a dream that someday all our children will be afforded the justice they deserve, where they will be treated as individuals who forge their own character and are judged by it, regardless of ethnic or racial group.

Yes, review these cases and apply justice to the individuals. Ignore the group.

Deed Restrictions

Two of the stated purposes of zoning are preventing “incompatible” land use and protecting neighborhoods. Both of these issues can be addressed without the coercive means of zoning. Deed restrictions (or covenants) provide the means to limit land uses through voluntary, contractual means—by respecting property rights.

Deed restrictions attach to the deed for a parcel of property, and thus become binding on subsequent purchasers of the property. Deed restrictions can be used to establish land use requirements, such as establishing minimal home sizes and architectural features. Many subdivisions use deed restrictions to prohibit commercial activities within residential areas.

Many see no difference between zoning and deed restrictions. Zoning is mandatory and coercive, while deed restrictions are voluntary and contractual. If an individual does not like the deed restrictions attached to a particular home, he can purchase a home with less restrictions. Deed restrictions respect property rights allowing individuals to act on their own judgment, rather than being forced to act as government officials decree.

Most deed restrictions contain provisions for amending or even abolishing the covenants. Thus, the property owners who are party to the contractual agreement with their neighbors have the means to make changes to what is prohibited or required. As an example, one neighborhood in Houston—Lamar Terrace—voted to abolish their deed restrictions to allow commercial development after they concluded that their land was more valuable for that use, rather than the single-family homes the covenants required. The property owners in the neighborhood, not non-owners and government officials, were able to use their property as they thought best.

Deed restrictions allow both developers and property owners to quickly respond to changing market conditions. Lamar Terrace had originally been a suburb of Houston when it was built in the 1950s. But as the city expanded, and particularly after the construction of The Galleria nearby, property owners believed that the area had more valuable uses.

Interestingly, many areas of Houston do not have deed restrictions and commercial uses exist in close proximity to homes and apartments. While this decreases the property values of homes, it also makes homes more affordable in those areas. Houstonians have choices—deed restrictions and higher housing costs, or no deed restrictions and lower housing costs. Each individual is free to choose which best meets his needs, desires, and budget.

In most communities, deed restrictions are enforced by a homeowner’s association (HOA). In contrast to the almost unlimited powers of zoning officials, the HOA has very specific and limited powers. In short, the difference between deed restrictions and zoning is the difference between voluntary choice and coercive imposition, between the private agreements of individuals and the dictates of public tribunals. It is the difference between respecting property rights and their wholesale violation.

Manipulating Consumers

During its regular session, the Texas Legislature revived a program that offers a tax rebate of $2,500 for the purchase of an electric car. This is on top of the $7,500 tax credit offered by the federal government. While I am certainly in favor of lowering taxes, these programs are intended to manipulate consumers.

Much of the tax code is designed to reward taxpayers who act as the government deems desirable. If you own a house, donate to charity, or purchase certain products, your actions are rewarded with lower taxes. If you fail to take the actions the government wants, you are penalized with a higher tax bill.

Government would like us to believe that we have a choice in the matter. But that is akin to saying we have a choice when the tax collector proclaims, “Your money or go to jail.” Alternatives offered under the threat of physical force do not represent a choice.

These types of programs reward obedience to the government’s desires. If you buy an electric car, install solar panels, or do any number of other things that the government deems desirable, you will be allowed to keep more of your money. The greater your obedience, the greater your rewards. Conversely, less obedience translates to having more of your money taken by the government.