Zoning versus the Internet

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The stated purpose of zoning is to control land use within a community to prevent “incompatible” land uses and to promote planning. Most Americans accept zoning as a “necessary evil” that prevents pawn shops and factories from operating in residential neighborhoods. Most Americans are, to paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, willing to cede their liberty for a little security, and in the end, have neither.

Under zoning, you can use your property only as dictated by zoning officials. Zoning officials can determine virtually any aspect of land use, from the type of building to its height, from the type of architecture to the type of people who may inhabit a home. Zoning officials can prohibit the construction of a residence in an area zoned for commercial; they can mandate lot sizes and housing density; they can prohibit “undesirables,” such as Hispanics (as they did in Manassas, Virginia) or students (as they are trying to do in Rochester, New York), from living in certain communities.

Zoning officials can change their mind about what is acceptable and what is not whenever it is politically expedient or the mood strikes them. As an example, in 1994 zoning officials in Fairfax County, Virginia required John Thoburn to plant seven hundred trees at a cost of $125,000 in order to receive permission to open a driving range. Seven years later, zoning officials decided that they didn’t like the location of the trees on Thoburn’s property and demanded that he move some of them. When Thoburn refused to abide by their unreasonable dictates, they had him jailed. He was ultimately held for ninety-eight days and fined nearly $100,000.

Under zoning, property ownership is nominal—in name only. You cannot use your property as you choose, but only with the permission of zoning officials.

Despite these horror stories, most Americans cannot imagine land use without zoning. They believe that a laissez faire approach to land use (or any other value or industry) would lead to chaos.

Yet, everyday millions of Americans prove this to be false. Each day millions of Americans use a value that has virtually no government restrictions, controls, or regulations. The result is not chaos, but organized, voluntary interactions between individuals. That value is the Internet.

Consider what the Internet would be like if the same principles that underlie zoning were applied to the Internet. What if the content, appearance, navigation, and other details of a website had to first be approved by government officials? What if, before constructing a website, you had to first submit your plans to government officials, who would then determine its “compatibility” and ensure that it fits their plans? Do you think that the Internet would be better or worse?

For example, let us say that you want to have a website that will be critical of some government policy or program. But before you can build your site, you have to submit your plans and content to government officials. Their goal, they say, is to ensure that your content is “compatible,” that you won’t misrepresent their proposal. They simply want to be certain that your site fits with the master plan, they claim.

It doesn’t require much imagination to realize that virtually all dissent and disagreement with the government’s plan would come to a screeching halt. The use of your website would be determined, not by your judgment and choices, but by government officials. They would determine how you can use your property.

Certainly, there are those who would argue that the Internet is chaotic. Virtually anything goes, with no central oversight or control. There is an abundance of misinformation and outright lies. There is pornography, racism, and scams. Yet, despite its “wild west” nature, the Internet has become a vibrant, dynamic resource that makes our lives immensely better. With only a modicum of due diligence and common sense, it is quite easy to avoid that which one finds offensive. With a little effort and rational integration, one can separate fact from fiction.

Whatever problems the Internet has, they pale in comparison to what it would be like if government applied the principles of zoning to the Internet. So, what if land use was more like the Internet? Would we have chaos and unlivable cities?

Only two American cities with a population greater than 100,000 do not have zoning: Houston, Texas and a suburb of Houston—Pasadena. Though Houston does not have comprehensive zoning, the city does have a growing number of land-use regulations. But compared to other American cities, land use in Houston is relatively free of government intervention. Arguably, of all American cities, Houston’s land-use policies are the closest to the Internet.

In Houston, developers can respond quickly to changing market conditions. For example, when demand for housing close to downtown increased, developers responded in a myriad of ways. Old, abandoned buildings were converted to lofts and apartments. Lots that once held small, single family homes sprouted three-story town homes. Housing in and around downtown soon became abundant. The result is a wide variety of housing choices.

Further, many of these development projects include mixed-use, that is, retail shops, restaurants, and other businesses were built in close proximity to housing. In many cities, these mixed-use developments are regarded as “incompatible” and prohibited by the zoning code. Yet, in Houston the market responded to the needs and desires of renters and home owners who want to live close to shopping, dining, or work.

The absence of zoning does not mean that property owners can do anything they wish with their land. Many neighborhoods in Houston have deed restrictions (or covenants) that place voluntary limits on the use of property. For example, deed restrictions may prohibit commercial activities and govern the size of house that may be built. But unlike zoning, deed restrictions are contractual and voluntary. Those who do not like the deed restrictions in one neighborhood can move to another neighborhood. And many Houstonians choose to live in neighborhoods with no deed restrictions.

In many such areas, homes are located near muffler shops, small manufacturing companies, and assorted other commercial enterprises. While many might find such land uses “incompatible,” the result is lower home prices, which makes home ownership affordable for a greater number of Houstonians. Indeed, Houston regularly ranks among the nation’s cities with the most affordable housing. Houston’s relative freedom in land use has resulted in a myriad of housing options, which allows each individual to find housing that meets his needs and budget.

Over the past one-hundred years, Houstonians have rejected zoning on three separate occasions. Each time, zoning advocates claimed that without zoning, Houston would become unlivable. Considering the fact that Houston has grown from a population of less than 80,000 in 1910 to 2.1 million today, apparently a lot of people disagree with zoning advocates. While other cities are losing jobs and citizens, Houston continues to add both.

The Internet has become wildly successful because individuals are free to act on their own judgment, to offer the products and services of their choosing, to experiment and innovate. Similarly, Houston, which has much greater freedom in land use than other cities, has been an economic powerhouse. There is a lesson to be learned: freedom works. It works on the Internet, and it works in land use. It works everywhere that it exists.

Protect Individual Rights, not the “Right to Work”

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In February, Indiana became the twenty-third state, and the first in the “Rust Belt,” to enact a “right to work” law. The Indiana law states:

A person may not require an individual to:

(1) become or remain a member of a labor organization;
(2) pay dues, fees, assessments, or other charges of any kind…
as a condition of employment or continuation of employment.

While conservatives hail “right to work” laws as a victory for workers, such laws are an attack on the rights of employers. While conservatives hail “right to work” laws as a means to curtail the power and influence of labor unions, those laws are founded on the very same premises as the laws that have given unions so much power and influence.

For example, the Clayton Act in 1914 exempted labor unions from anti-trust laws, which would have otherwise made unions illegal. In 1932, the Norris-LaGuardia Act gave unions further protections, such as prohibiting “yellow-dog contracts.” (A “yellow-dog contract” is an employment contract in which a worker promises not to join a Labor Union or promises to resign from a union if he or she is already a member.) The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 made it illegal for employers “to refuse to bargain collectively with the representatives of his employees.” These laws, and others like them, grant increasing power to union leaders, compel employers to negotiate with those leaders, and effectively prevent employees from contracting their labor as they judge best. “Right to work” laws are intended to counter the laws giving such power to unions.

Where the pro-union legislation forces the employer to negotiate with union leaders, regardless of his own judgment, “right to work” laws prohibit the employer from making union membership a condition of employment, regardless of his own judgment. In both instances, the law prohibits the employer from acting on his own independent judgment.

Morally, a business owner has a right to set whatever terms of employment he desires, including union membership, and employees have an equal right to accept or reject those terms. These are choices that should be left to each individual. Each individual has a right to act on his own judgment, so long as he respects the mutual rights of others.

Unions per se are not the problem. The problem is unions backed with the coercive power of government. Current labor legislation forces businesses to “negotiate” with the unions or be prosecuted for violating labor laws. This is akin to “negotiations” between a banker and a robber—one side can issue ultimatums punctuated with “or else.” And “or else” means the threat of force. America’s labor laws effectively prohibit business owners with unionized labor from operating as they judge best. Right to work laws are based on the same premise.

The power granted to unions by government intervention in the employer/employee relationship cannot be solved by more government intervention in the employer/employee relationship. The solution is to repeal all laws that interfere in the voluntary and consensual relationships between employers and employees.

If employees choose to bargain collectively, that is their right as individuals. Simultaneously, the employer has a right to refuse to bargain with a union or any other group of employees. Employees have a right to act on their own judgment. So do employers. Neither party can morally use government coercion to make the other act differently than he thinks is best. Government has no prerogative in the relationship between employer and employee, other than enforcing the contracts that are freely entered.

So what would happen if unions were stripped of the power granted to them by government? Wouldn’t employers take advantage of their workers? While this is a myth believed by many, history demonstrates otherwise.

In 1914, Henry Ford voluntarily raised the wages of his employees to the rate of five dollars per day—nearly doubling the prevailing wage. At the same time, he cut the work day from nine hours to eight hours. In 1914, there was no union nor were there laws governing the relationship between Ford and his employees. Ford was not motivated by altruism, but by what he called “enlightened self-interest.” What was the result? Years later, he explained what occurred after he raised wages and reduced the work day:

In 1914, when the first plan went into effect, we had 14,000 employees and it had been necessary to hire at the rate of about 53,000 a year in order to keep a constant force of 14,000. In 1915 we had to hire only 6,508 men and the majority of these new men were taken on because of the growth of the business.

Ford recognized that by paying employees a wage that was considerably higher than his competitors, he was able to attract better workers and dramatically reduce turnover. He created a win-win, as do all rational employers.

Similarly, George Westinghouse also provided superior working conditions for his employees:

Working conditions at the Westinghouse Air Brake Company (WA&B) were more than proficient and the company had many new developments in effect for its employees. In 1869 it was one of the first companies to institute a 9-hour work day and a 55-hour work week. [A ten-hour work day and six-day work week was common in most industries as late as 1900.] WA&B also got the reputation for being the first industry in America to adopt half holidays on Saturday afternoons. A series of welfare options were also instituted to better the working and living conditions of its employees.

As with Henry Ford, Westinghouse recognized that better conditions for his employees resulted in greater productivity, and therefore, improved profits.

Industrialists are not the only businessmen to recognize the benefits of “enlightened self-interest.” In 1842, a French house painter—Edme Jean LeClaire—instituted a profit-sharing program for his employees. Recognized as the “father” of modern profit sharing, LeClaire “was determined to challenge the assumption that profit sharing would not increase efficiency and productivity enough to justify the payments made. He was proved right. His business prospered.”

Will every business owner recognize these truths? Will every business owner pay his employees above-market wages and offer greater benefits than competitors? Obviously not. But when employees are free to contract their labor, they can seek better jobs. A rational business owner will seek the best and brightest employees he can find. Such employees are the means by which he will achieve greater profits. When the market is free of government intervention, a less rational business owner will suffer economically.

Both leftists and conservatives would have us believe that government must protect the rights of workers. But there is no such thing as “worker’s rights.” There are only individual rights, and they apply to all individuals, employers and employees alike.

The EPA’s RRP Rule isn’t About Safety

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I wrote this in May 2010. It remains relevant.

On April 22, 2010 an EPA regulation governing renovation, repair, and painting (RRP) took effect. The regulation governs any activity that will disturb paint containing lead and applies to all homes built before 1978 and “child-occupied facilities”. On Wednesday I took the certification course mandated by the EPA to perform this type of work.

I expected the material in the course to be disgusting, and in that regard it greatly exceeded my expectations. (Exceeded in the sense that it was far more disgusting than I imagined.)

The instructor described RRP as a “program” designed to benefit children, who are the primary victims of lead poisoning from the dust of paint containing lead. The consequences of lead poisoning in children are indeed tragic–learning disabilities and brain damage being the most prominent. But combating lead poisoning is not a proper function of government. And RRP is going to do little, if anything, to combat it. It will however, grant the government greater control over the lives of contractors and cost consumers a lot of money.

For example, RRP stipulates the procedures that a contractor must follow to contain paint chips and dust, as well as clean up procedures. After clean up, the contractor must conduct a test to determine if lead dust is still present. This test consists of using an electrostatic rag to wipe a surface and visually comparing it to a card. If the surface does not “pass” you must repeat the procedure. If it fails again, you simply wipe the surface a third time and walk away without any further testing. In other words, it really doesn’t matter if lead dust is present or not. We must simply take the time to clean the surface up to 3 times. This time of course, translates to higher prices for the consumer. I estimate that a typical job that my company does will cost 15% to 20% more because of RRP, and some jobs could double in price.

Consumers will not be eager to pay these additional costs, and many won’t. Which means, contractors who attempt to play by these “rules” will lose work to contractors are willing to risk fines from the EPA.

The containment requires the use of disposable plastic, and far more than we would typically use. This plastic must be placed in a garbage bag of at least 4 mils thickness, and the bag must be secured in a particular fashion. The bag can then be tossed in the trash.

For those of us in Houston this is particularly ironic. The city has mandated the use of disposable lawn bags in an effort to keep petroleum based bags out of the landfill. The EPA is now mandating that we use more plastic, which will find its way into those very same landfills.

If all of this seems completely arbitrary, you would be right. And the instructor essentially said so. For example, on exterior work, the instructor admitted that containing lead dust is impossible. We are simply to “do our best”. But what does this mean? I could make every reasonable effort to do “my best”, and if some EPA bureaucrat disagrees, I am subject to a fine of $37,500 per incident, as well as jail time. And I won’t know that I didn’t do “my best” until after the fact. My life literally rests in the hands of some faceless bureaucrat, who will make his decisions based on his own subjective feelings at the moment.

The arbitrary nature of these regulations was driven home in the opening minutes of the course when the instructor announced that the EPA didn’t have everything figured out and was “making things up as we go along”. Somehow contractors are supposed to operate under these shifting rules. And based on the comments that I heard, they are more than willing to do so.

While jokes about the absurdity of the regulations were common, the general attitude seemed to be an apathetic acceptance. “What do you expect from the government?” was said more than once. In other words, we have no choice but to accept the fact that our lives and livelihood depend on our ability to satisfy the arbitrary, shifting demands of Washington.

I have long been aware of such injustices, but this one really hit home. I run a small business, offering quality, conscientious service to my customers. My life just got immensely more difficult, not because of some error or transgression on my part, but simply because some bureaucrats decided to save “the children”. And in the process, they are going to destroy the lives of a lot of adults, not to mention the children who depend on them.