CLI – Political Visionaries and Other Polluters

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I
have little use for platitudes,
particularly the one telling us
that most Americans believe in
the private ownership of property.
This assumption is doubtless one
of the many unexamined axioms
employed, during the Cold War,
to try to distinguish the American
political system from the communist
regimes. But as a reflection of
popular attitudes among Americans,
it is about as detached from reality
as the platitude about u201Cuser-friendly
computers.u201D

The
mindset of most Americans regarding
property is beset with confusion
and contradiction. It could probably
be reduced to the following proposition:
property owners insist upon the
inviolability of their
interests while, at the same time,
being ardent collectivists when
it comes to the property of others.
Most will strenuously object when
the state interferes with what
they own, but cheer when the interests
of their neighbors are under attack.

Thus
do most people accept the legitimacy
of zoning ordinances, u201Cmaster
plans,u201D eminent domain, housing
and building codes, and nuisance
actions. Their anti-communist
conditioning would likely percolate
to the surface of their minds
if a politician were to openly
defend the purpose of his program
in the same words used by Marx:
u201Cabolition of private property.u201D
Such a phrase would be too blunt
a statement as to the nature of
all political policies;
it would lack in the meter and
syntax with which boobus Americanus
has become accustomed to his
own despoliation. But let this
same politician dress his ambitions
in the language of u201Cland use planning,u201D
and all right-thinking people
— editorial writers included –
will embrace him for his u201Cvision.u201D

The
Supreme Court's now infamous Kelo
decision upheld the power
of states to use eminent domain
to condemn private homes and transfer
such properties to private corporations
for their commercial purposes.
It is a mistake to believe that
public hostility to this case
represents a growing opposition
to eminent domain. This reaction,
I suspect, reflects little more
than an awareness by homeowners
that their property interests
could be taken in the same manner.
Even the state legislation spawned
in response to this decision,
keeping eminent domain powers
from being used to benefit private
corporate interests, is not a
condemnation of eminent domain
itself.

If
Americans perceive that their
interests might be taken or destroyed
by governmental action, they will
scratch around to discover and
exploit some of the ancient verities
that defend property principles.
If nothing more than the interests
of others are at stake, however,
most will settle back in the comfort
of such bromides as u201Cprogressu201D
or u201Cresponsibilityu201D to the community.
It is this dualistic response
that helped to enrage Americans
when u201Ctheiru201D properties were attacked
on 9/11 while, at the same time,
supported far more devastating
attacks on u201Cothersu201D who had nothing
whatever to do with the destruction
of the World Trade Center buildings.

This
same contradictory behavior is
manifested elsewhere as well.
We humans have a desire to maximize
the gains and to minimize
the costs of our activities.
Thus do professional sports franchises
call upon the state to use its
powers of eminent domain and taxpayer-based
subsidies to build stadiums within
which they can conduct their businesses.
The owners of proposed shopping
centers, factories, hotels, industrial
parks, airports, or other facilities,
will often use governmental powers
to reduce their operating costs.
At the same time, they will insist
upon u201Cprivate propertyu201D and u201Cfree
marketu201D principles to maintain
the benefits they derive from
this incestuous relationship with
the state. It is such self-serving
contradictions, I believe, that
account for much of the popular
hostility to the business system.

Another
such practice involves the willingness
of many to dispose of the unwanted
byproducts of their activities
(e.g., u201Cindustrial wastesu201D) by
dumping them into rivers, the
atmosphere, or onto the lands
of others. Such u201Cwastesu201D represent
entropy — i.e., energy unavailable
for productive use — the disposal
of which we have an incentive
to bring about in the least-costly
manner possible. Trespasses upon
others, alas, have been the default
solution for many. If something
is no longer of value to oneself,
forcing others to deal with it
— in the form of smoke in their
lungs, or chemical particulates
on their land or in their water
supply — has become a commonplace
response. Nor is it correct to
confine this behavior to business
interests: the slobs who litter
streets and parks with empty fast-food
containers and cans are engaged
in the same practice.

The
willingness of a person to trespass
the property interests of others
in order to avoid incurring the
costs of his undertaking, is a
form of socialism; what economists
refer to as u201Csocializing the costs.u201D
This behavior is one of the principal
functions of political systems.

I
recently witnessed an example
of this irresponsible conduct
in the city in which I live. Whole
Foods — a company widely respected
for the quality of the meat, produce,
and other grocery items it sells,
as well as for its employment
and customer policies — wanted
to build a store in my neighborhood.
My wife and I were delighted,
for we could have walked to their
store instead of having to drive
a long distance to one of its
other facilities. A number of
more distant neighbors, however,
were quite disturbed by this proposal.
These people own and stable horses
on their residential properties,
and expressed fear that increased
traffic flow generated by this
store would interfere with their
equestrian interests. (Parenthetically,
this was the same concern they
voiced a number of years ago when
another grocery — which built
a store even larger than that
now being planned by Whole Foods
— was in the planning stages.)

Even
though letters sent to the city
in support of the Whole Foods
proposal outnumbered those received
in opposition by a reported seven-to-one
ratio, the city council — siding
with the horse owners — voted
to deny the project. Recognizing
that the parcel of land for the
planned store was already zoned
for commercial activity, and being
made aware of Whole Foods' exemplary
business reputation, city council
members dredged up crocodile tears
of regret, going so far as to
pass a resolution to have city
government officials help Whole
Foods find a u201Cmore suitableu201D location.
The absurdity that a sophisticated
and intelligently-managed business
like Whole Foods — and investing
its own money – needed a
handful of city hall bureaucrats
to help make a decision of this
magnitude was more than a rational
mind could take.

One
city council member — aware of
the thousands of people who either
showed up or wrote letters in
support of the proposed project
— asked, rhetorically, u201Chow can
so many people be so wrong?u201D How
presumptuous, to assume that those
with differing subjective preferences
could be u201Cso wrong.u201D His statement
unwittingly implicated the virtues
of a system of privately-owned
property in a free-market: those
with differing choices are able
to pursue their desired ends,
each free to commit his or her
resources in the process. There
is nothing u201Crightu201D or u201Cwrongu201D
about my preferring to shop at
a Whole Foods store while my neighbor
wants to shop elsewhere.

Another
council member announced her vote
in opposition to the proposal
by saying that this store did
not satisfy her u201Cvisionu201D for this
neighborhood. Of course, the city
council's rejection of Whole Foods'
petition denied the u201Cvisionu201D not
only of this company, but of the
thousands of people who wanted
the opportunity to shop at this
location. Nor can we forget the
frustration of the u201Cvisionu201D of
the property owner who must now
forego the sale of his land to
Whole Foods.

I
am tired of all the self-styled
u201Cvisionariesu201D who dream of neighborhoods,
communities, or worlds, the costs
of which they want to impose upon
those with a different set of
preferences for their lives. Such
people — including the equestrians
willing to use state power to
enforce their fancies upon others
— are engaged in the practice
of u201Csocializing costs.u201D The principles
upon which they act are no different
from those who pollute the air,
waterways, or lands of others
with their industrial wastes;
nor is their conduct distinguishable
from the teenagers who might drive
by this same parcel of land and
toss their empty soda cans onto
it.

Those
who make a lifestyle out of such
practices remind me of puppies
not yet housebroken. Somewhere
along the way — doubtless in the
school systems that have spawned
such thinking — their minds became
infected with the idea that the
lives and properties of other
people were theirs to play with,
to be moved about in fulfillment
of the u201Cvisionsu201D they have fashioned
for the world. Whether in city
council chambers or Pentagon u201Cwar
roomsu201D or the u201Coval office,u201D the
same destructive games are being
played at the expense of a humanity
that has grown weary of bearing
these unwanted costs.

I
doubt that the equestrian set
will grasp the meaning of what
I pointed out at the public city
council meeting. I suggested that,
in their efforts to get the city
to prohibit Whole Foods' project,
they might consider the importance
of the private property principle.
The day might come, I said, when
someone else might be before the
council with a proposed ordinance
to prohibit the stabling of horses
in an urban, residential setting.
But the arrogance of their self-righteous
stance was too strong to contemplate
such a possibility.

I
don't know what options might
be available to the owner of this
parcel, whose planned sale to
Whole Foods is now a thing of
the past. Perhaps a tattoo parlor,
a psychic reader, or a taxidermist
could occupy the parcel so disdainfully
downgraded from what might have
been constructed. There would
be irony in having equestrian
elitists ride their horses past
a shop devoted to the stuffing
of dead animals.

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