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.

Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law. He is the author of Calculated Chaos: Institutional Threats to Peace and Human Survival.

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