Property Rights, Slavery, and Same Sex Marriage – Thinking in Essentials 3

Not long ago I came across a description of a film that was to be shown at a local movie theater.  The film is the first of a six part documentary about the history of Vermont called The Vermont Movie.  A part of the description refers to the myriad factors in Vermont history that: give the Green Mountain State its egalitarian ideals.

This raised my philosophical hackles and made me cringe a bit.  Some time later, in the October 24th edition of our local paper, the Caledonian Record, there appeared a brief article describing the film.  A quotation from that article gives rise to this installment in my “thinking in essentials” series of posts.

From 1777 to the present, Vermont has been a beacon, a haven, a refuge, an idea, a symbol, a state shaped by independent and courageous decision-makers, thinkers, political leaders, workers, artists, immigrants and innovators.  It was the first state to outlaw slavery, to allow same sex civil unions, to call for the impeachment of President Nixon, and to protect the environment with Act 250. 

The author obviously believes that each of the listed achievements are significant milestones that should be equally celebrated.  At first reading, you might be thinking: Abolish slavery?  Who could argue with that?  Give same sex couples the same rights as heterosexual couples?  Well, duh.  Call for the the impeachment of President Nixon?  Excellent, he was a crook!  Protect the environment?  Well of course we want clean air and water.

When presented with such a list, it is a good idea to determine what the essential element is in each and decide if they are consistent.  If they are, great, but if they are not then you need to ask yourself what might be the intent of the author in putting them all together in the first place.

Under slavery, some men, slave holders, give themselves the power to compel others, slaves, to work to achieve the values of the slave holders rather than those of the slave.  Thus, abolishing slavery is nothing less than declaring that no man has the right to control the life, liberty, or the pursuit of happiness of another.   Put another way, it means that the rights of all individuals, properly understood, must be protected equally and no man has the right to use force to violate those right.

Same sex couples often face significant hurdles, social and otherwise, especially when the government does not recognize their union.  These hurdles range from being barred from seeing an injured or ill partner in the hospital, difficulty in leaving an estate to their partner, being taxed differently from other couples because the government does not recognize the relationship, difficulty in adopting children, dealing with custody issues, and so on.  In many cases, institutions might be willing to allow all of these things, but are barred by government regulations defining these relationships.  By allowing same sex civil unions, the government is protecting the right of individuals in same sex couples to live their lives and pursue their happiness in the same manner as heterosexual couples do.  Again, this is to say that the rights of all individuals, properly understood, must be protected equally.

The impeachment of President Nixon was brought about by his attempt to cover-up the break-in of the Democratic party headquarters by people associated with his re-election campaign and administration.  Both the break-in and the cover-up were violations of individual rights; the break-in violated the rights of those who worked in the Democratic party headquarters, and by extension the whole party, while the attempted cover-up was a fraud put over on the American people as a whole.  Calling for President Nixon’s impeachment was a recognition that individual rights should not be violated, regardless of who is attempting to do so.

So far, things are looking consistent.  All of these examples, at root, are recognition that the rights of individuals, properly understood, should be protected by the government.

But what about Act 250?  Before giving the essentials of Act 250, we need to take a look at what the law is.  Act 250, or Vermont’s Land Use and Development Law, is a law passed in 1970, the purpose of which is to “promote community development through public policy,” and this is over and above the zoning requirements.  Any significant development project must obtain an Act 250 permit before it can begin.

Contrary to what the quotation above implies, Act 250 is about far more than environmental concerns.  Other factors that are considered include impact on traffic, educational facilities, scenery, local development plans, and a large number of others.  In all of these, the standard is that the development not cause “undue impact,” though no guidelines are given as to what constitutes “undue impact.”

Who then gets to decide what is considered “undue impact”?  The district planning commission which accepts input from the “parties” in the matter – the person wanting to develop the property, the property owner (if different), the town, “any adjoining property owner or other person who has a particularized interest protected by this chapter that may be affected” – as well “friends of the commission” which is basically anyone the commission wants to allow to present “evidence.”  In a paper by Margaret DeWeese-Boyd summarizes this nicely as: “the law encourages participatory democracy,” or something akin to majority rule.

This has the effect of preventing a property owner from developing his property if anyone else can convince the planning commission that it will cause “undue impact.”  Do you own a large tract of land that you’d love to sell to Wal-Mart?   Every store owner in town is likely to be considered an interested party and voice their opinion that it will cause “undue impact” on downtown merchants and therefore should not be permitted.  Perhaps you own property on a ridge line that might be suitable for wind power.  In this case anyone who would be able to see the turbines could claim that they cause “undue impact” on the view, and thus should be denied a permit.  Or perhaps you want to build an apartment building, in which case anyone who feels that apartment buildings do not fit their desired aesthetics for the town can call for the project to be halted.  In many cases, out of state environmental groups are likely to be considered “friends of the commission” and allowed to present “evidence” that such a development would cause “undue impact” on….something.  While the article by Margaret DeWeese-Boyd states that a large percentage of Act 250 applications gain permits, it does not provide information on how much of a delay is involved because of this process or how many projects are not even proposed in the first place due to the real and perceived difficulties.

In all these cases, the essential fact is that the rights of the individual property owner to use their property in the way they think is most beneficial are violated, not because the use will cause actual damage to another’s property, but rather because someone feels the use will result in something they don’t like.   I have written before about property rights being the foundation for all other rights so this boils down to the fact that the rights of the individual are not to be protected, but rather are subject to the whims of not just a majority but potentially a minority as well.  Which is the same as saying that the individual rights of the property owner have no protection at all.

This is obviously very different than the first examples in the quotation given above.  Imagine if there was a “planning commission” in the antebellum South determining the fate of slavery.  It is not difficult to imagine that some residents would claim that freeing the slaves would cause an “undue impact” on the economic growth of the area and thus should be denied.  Or that such a commission in a conservative religious state would find that allowing same-sex marriage would cause “undue impact” on traditional family values and thus should be denied as causing harm to the community.

No rational person should accept such arguments, not just in the case of slavery or same-sex marriage but also in the case of property rights.   All the rights possessed by a human being are interconnected such that violating one is tantamount to violating them all.

This summer I read Ayn Rand’s essay “Extremism,” of the Art of Smearing” which is part of Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal.  In this essay she discusses how people can smear someone or something by grouping it with other things that are only superficially related.  Her first example was the act of “moderate” Republicans calling the Communist Party, the Ku Klux Klan, and the John Birch Society all “extremists.”  This had the effect of portraying the John Birch Society, which was at worst guilty of libel, as evil as mass murderers (the Communist Party) and racist lynch mobs (the Ku Klux Klan).   The analysis in this article is an demonstrates that the same technique can be used to “shine” as well as smear.  To give an unearned luster by association.

Just as the John Birch Society did not merit the just condemnation given to the Communist Party or the Ku Klux Clan; neither does Vermont’s Act 250 merit the praise rightfully given to abolishing slavery, legalizing same sex civil unions, or calling for the ouster of President Nixon.

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