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.

Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law.

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