Property Values

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Page B1 of Saturday’s Pittsburgh Tribune-Review offers a window into the mindset of average Americans and their leaders, demonstrating that neither cares a whit about the property rights of others.

First off is a story about the Allegheny County Health Department’s fining the Lithuanian Citizens’ Society of Western Pennsylvania $16,250 for violating the county’s new ban on smoking in "public places," which are not defined as places owned by the public (i.e., government buildings) but as places open to the public (i.e., stores, restaurants, social clubs, etc.). Somehow by opening his establishment’s doors to the public the owner magically forfeits his property rights and is no longer allowed to determine who may partake of a perfectly legal substance within the confines of that property. Furthermore, he may not even permit people to smoke on his own property in the great outdoors if they are smoking "within five feet of doorways."

The bureaucrats of the county health department were kind enough to issue a warning to the Lithuanian Society before slapping on them fines of $250 per lit cigarette, plus "an additional $250 for failing to have a workplace smoking policy." The society, some of whose members probably thought they had escaped to freedom from Soviet and Nazi occupation of their home country, apparently believed that, as owners of the property, they had the right to determine whether or not their patrons could inhale tobacco smoke. In addition, they believed that they were exempted from the county’s smoking ban because "bingos and other charitable events [that] are entirely staffed by volunteers over 18" are indeed exempt (the regulations, as always, are complex and open to a wide variety of interpretations, depending on the bureaucrats enforcing them and the political power of the particular establishment being warned or fined), but since they pay their twice-a-week bingo staff, the health department ruled otherwise.

For politicians, of course, there are three benefits to signing these kinds of laws into effect. First, they get to pose as caring leaders, trying to protect people from the dangers of, in this instance, smoking. Second, having a bureaucracy levy fines on specific, and not always sympathetic, individuals and organizations is much less politically risky than raising taxes on wide swaths of the public. Third, politicians get the opportunity to "stick up for the little guy" when the bureaucrats "go too far."

All three apply here in spades. Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato, who signed the ban into law last October, is now charging that the fine against the Lithuanian Society is "excessive." It’s not inherently wrong, you see, for the society’s property rights to be violated. He just doesn’t want the health department’s enforcers to go too far, which is to say, beyond the point which is politically damaging to those who enacted the anti-smoking ordinance. Onorato agrees with the health department’s assessment that the law applies to social clubs; he just wants the department and the society to come to a "compromise" — that is, a reduced penalty that will bring a sizable enough amount of money into the county treasury, thus satisfying the health department Nazis, without unduly endangering Onorato’s political future. Thus does Onorato attempt to create the appearance of being the friend of the common man while actively engaging in multiple violations of the common man’s property rights. Nice work if you can get it.

Directly below this story of big, bad government’s taking things out on a poor charitable organization is this story of big, bad government’s taking things out on poor people who use mass transit, except the latter story is not quite the same. It’s more the story of big, bad government’s taking things out on the taxpayers who are forced to fund a chronically debt-ridden mass transit system. As so often is the case, however, the debate is not framed to reflect that.

The Port Authority of Allegheny County, which is in charge of bus and train services, is projecting a deficit of $80 million for the next fiscal year. This being a government agency, of course, year after year of huge losses can easily be sustained, but eventually even the government has to face up to reality. The Port Authority is therefore proposing to raise fares and reduce service, a move which makes fiscal sense but will surely still fail to resolve the underlying problem, which is the lack of a profit incentive. As long as taxpayers have to foot the bill, there is no reason for the Port Authority ever to get itself into sound financial shape.

Nevertheless, even these reasonable steps, which are projected to bring the deficit down to a mere $45 million, are being resisted by those who, though not officially part of the political class, share its contempt for others’ property rights. As far as these people are concerned, they have an inherent right to the property of others, i.e., to the money stolen from other taxpayers to subsidize the greenback-hemorrhaging proposition known as mass transit. Those who ride the bus or train ought not to be expected to pay the entire cost of their own transportation; nor should the transit authority be expected to live within its means. Other people should be robbed at gunpoint so that these parasites can continue to ride mass transit for next to nothing.

These holdup artists are shameless! They even staged an all-night vigil near the Port Authority’s headquarters, hoisting signs with slogans such as "We weep for our public transit" and "Less transit means less opportunity." I suppose that’s easier — and safer — than breaking into their neighbors’ houses during the night and stealing the money they believe is rightfully theirs. One doubts that their photograph would have appeared in the newspaper in quite the same fashion had they done that, but there’s no denying that the reality of the act is precisely the same.

Neither politicians nor ordinary citizens in America have any concern for the property rights of others. Oh, they’ll howl in protest if their own rights (even imagined ones, like the "right" to mass transit) are violated, but they won’t give a second thought to their own violations of others’ rights. Politicians will tell you what you may or may not do with your own property and then snatch it from you if you fail to obey their edicts — edicts from which they generally exempt themselves. Non-politicians will demand that you hand over your hard-earned money so that they can get whatever they happen to want at the moment — and then scream bloody murder if their victims balk at even a small portion of their demands.

Property rights are the bedrock of civilization and prosperity. Isn’t it ironic that here in the alleged land of the free Americans and their elected officials are busily engaged in destroying private property rights, while the still officially Communist Chinese government has just passed its first law protecting them? If the Chinese leave us in the dust economically in coming decades, don’t say you weren’t warned. They’re beginning to come to terms with the importance of private property just as we in the West are fast denying it.

Michael Tennant [send him mail] is a software developer in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

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