CV – Historic Preservation

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I
have just returned from the Midwest, where I attended the wedding
of one of my daughters held at a B & B owned by another daughter
and her husband. While there, I had occasion to observe the efforts
of a local governmental "historic preservation commission"
to impose its architectural preferences on an adjacent building
also owned by my daughter and son-in-law. The B & B facility
was a home, built in the late 1850s. The adjacent building is a
large garage, constructed only fifteen years ago, that the owners
— who now live in the B & B – want to convert into innkeepers’
quarters for themselves, so as to make the B & B a more economically
feasible operation.

The
commission has the legal power to insist upon its architectural
tastes before approval of the garage renovation can take place.
The commission wants the garage to be redesigned to conform to a
Victorian style of architecture, even though the B & B, itself,
is not of Victorian design. It also wants architectural plans
submitted for its approval, without telling the owners, in advance,
upon what specific features they would insist. As the demands of
this body would add significant but untold costs to the business,
my daughter and her husband are giving serious consideration to
selling what is already a marginally-profitable operation.

So
commonplace are such intrusions upon the lives of Americans that
most people might be inclined to say "so what?" After
all, most major cities have zoning laws, building codes, licensing
requirements for conducting businesses, urban renewal authorities,
powers of eminent domain, and historic preservation commissions,
to name the more prominent examples of governmental regulation of
private property. This is just "the way things are" in
modern society, so let us concentrate our attention on more important
matters: the Michael Jackson case; television's so-called "reality"
shows; or runaway brides!

There
is one sense in which commissions such as this act to "preserve
history," and that has to do with repeating the historic nature
of all political systems: to war against the private ownership of
property. The state manifests itself in no way other than as a well-organized
disrespect for the inviolability of property interests. If the lives
and other property interests of people were regarded as sacrosanct,
impregnable to lawful coercion, the state would cease to exist.

The
state – and its parasitic functionaries and beneficiaries –
wants one thing: to be able to substitute its decision-making
will over property owned by others, but without having to
incur the costs of doing so. In economic terms, this is known as
"socializing costs," which makes all political
systems socialistic by definition. In this case, those who sit on
"historic preservation commissions" want to force owners
to maintain their property interests in a manner that satisfies
the preferences of commission members. At the same time, people
who sit on "urban renewal boards" — and they may even
be the same persons! — want to force owners to have their properties
demolished and be turned over to owners selected by the state.
Thus, whether specific properties are to be preserved or
destroyed is irrelevant to these state authorities. What
they insist upon is their power to decide!

This
kind of thinking has metastasized to such an extent that it is no
longer remarkable to most people. This insidious mindset has permitted
the erosion of conditions essential to a free and productive society
and, for this reason, is a far greater danger to social order than
any so-called "terrorist" attacks could ever be. At their
base the 9/11 atrocities were a deadly attack on property interests,
themselves a consequence of decades of United States' foreign policy
invasions of the property interests of other nations. The events
of that day were rendered horrific to most Americans because they
fell outside the bounds of acceptable usurpation to which their
minds had become conditioned.

I
suspect that most of the advocates of governmental control of privately-owned
property are also — and rightfully so — critics of those who engage
in pollution as a way of disposing of industrial or other waste
byproducts. What is noteworthy is what the polluter, the urban renewal
proponent, and the historic preservation advocate have in common:
the resort to property trespasses as a way of accomplishing their
ends. Each is engaged in the externalization (i.e., the socialization)
of costs. Because our actions are not 100% efficient, the manufacturing
process will generate some amount of entropy (i.e., energy not available
for productive work). This is otherwise referred to as "industrial
waste," which some manufacturers may choose to dispose of in
the least-costly manner (e.g., dumping into rivers or the atmosphere)
Through such means, these costs get imposed upon other property
owners.

But
those who use the state to impose their decision-making upon property
owners are engaged in the same process of socializing costs. The
historic preservationist, for instance, would like to see a particular
building preserved, but is unwilling to incur the cost of purchasing
that building from the owner. Instead, he or she gets the state
to intervene to force the owner to forego more profitable alternatives.
The difference between what the owner is allowed to do with
his property, and what he or she would be free to do in a
society that respected property interests, is a genuine cost
to the owner that the preservationist is not willing to personally
incur. Such is the position in which my daughter and son-in-law
now find themselves: the preservationists seek to add costs to the
B & B business that will make the business less profitable than
it already is.

People
who are unwilling to respect property boundaries as a limitation
on the extent of their decision-making, have never become socially
housebroken. Their relationships with others reflect not a consciously-derived
set of principles, but an unfocused reaction to whatever is before
them. Like the reptilian brain that operates on a "see-act"
way of thinking, the hidden costs and the unintended consequences
of their actions are simply not part of their calculation. If they
value a given end, it matters not to such minds whose lives and
property interests will be conscripted in service thereto.

Life
involves a continuing synthetic dance between the processes of change
and stability, with the exaggeration of either ultimately leading
to death. Because we become easily attached to systems and objects
of wealth, mankind has generally suffered more from the tendency
to preserve the status quo than from innovation. The preservationist
tendency is enhanced by the very benefits generated by a creative
environment, as people come to prefer the relative certainty of
what they have to the risk of loss that can accompany change. Such
thinking underlies our devotion to institutionalized systems, with
their emphasis on standardized products and behavior, equilibrium
conditions, and promises of security. But, as the historians remind
us, institutionalization and standardization can lead to the downfall
of civilizations. In the words of one observer, there is nothing
so deadly as an insistence upon repeating past successes.

The
unpredictable nature of complex systems makes it dangerous to empower
the state to regulate this interplay between changefulness and stability.
There is no objectively "correct" balance to be struck
by anyone, certainly not by state-empowered men and women whose
claim to do so rests on nothing more substantial than the enjoyment
of the lawful authority to employ violence to enforce their visions
upon others.

Because
all values are, by definition, subjective, there is nothing "wrong"
in some people wanting to preserve remnants from the past. Most
of us find ourselves attracted to just such ends in one form or
another, just as we find ourselves drawn to the new. But as with
any other condition in life, the balances to be made between these
variable influences are best left to the inconstant vagaries of
individual tastes. The only process, of which I am aware, that serves
such a multiplicity of subjective interests is a marketplace which,
by definition, requires a respect for the inviolability of private
property interests.

If
there is a market for preservation, people will be free to satisfy
their demands as they would for any other products or services.
They can commit their own resources to whatever end they value,
be it the maintenance of an old building or the conservation of
a redwood forest. But the marketplace, grounded in property principles,
is incompatible with the efforts of some to achieve their ends by
coercively imposing costs upon those who do not choose to bear them.
It is one thing to value remnants from the past; it is another to
become worshippers of antiquity who function as clock-stoppers for
the creative processes upon which both lives and civilizations depend.

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