How Screwed Are You? Somewhere Between 37 and 49.

Here’s a piece I’ve been meaning to blog about for a while, because it’s almost a perfect libertarian just-so story. It’s also why I don’t support the Lew Rockwell/Ron Paul style of federalist libertarianism.

Frequently I hear about how regulations are good to “address social problems.” Some of these, like sewage disposal or even restaurant cleanliness don’t bug me much or at all. Could the free market come up with a regulation system on its own? Sure, it can and it has. But if the government does it, the question for me is one more of means than goals. If government does it fine and everybody is happy with that, then so be it. Let the perfect not be the enemy of the good.

But frequently “social problems” are “quality of life” issues, and the difference between a social problem and someone’s aesthetic preference are blurred to the point of incoherence. Whether it’s Rudy Giuliani banning crates on the sidewalk in the name of Law and Order or the local privileged white yuppie decrying the encroachment of Wal*mart from his favorite Starbucks, people on the left and right forget that the regulations that enforce a certain vision of how other people ought to live their lives can do real harm.

Case at hand: In Oregon, a state so beloved of government mandates that you can’t pump your own gas (yes Oregonians, everybody except New Jerseyans is perfectly free to grab that handle and pump and pump until they’re spent, without a lick or a spit of training), Measure 37 allowed people with rural tracts of land to parcel off pieces of it. In William Kitchen’s case, it was to give to his son and grandson as well as an acre to sell. But there wasn’t access to the parcels Kitchen intended to create, so he spent tens and thousands of his life’s savings to build a road from the main road to that part of his 32.25 acre lot.

Ah, but then Oregonians decided that they didn’t like housing going up on farmland. So people in the city voted to make people in the country keep their land in big, unbuilt lots, or make sure housing was as dense as possible to maximize the stretches of green.

Measure 49 now requires that landowners of high-value, exclusive-use farmland – such as the Kitchens – to subdivide in parcels no larger than two acres.

The problem is that the part he wanted to give to his son needed to be big enough to have a little space, and maybe, I dunno, farm a little. Still, they weren’t scofflaws, those Kitchens.

The Kitchens would have begrudgingly reduced Bill’s parcel to two acres, William said, but another provision of Measure 49 prevented Bill from building his house at the end of the road the family built.

The new rules also compel property owners to cluster new houses near existing homes, which would force the Kitchens to build Bill’s home close to Phelps Road and would leave the family with the road to nowhere

Well, surely the Republicans will put this right, greedy propertarians they!

“This was not the intent of Measure 49,” Rep. Patti Smith, R-Corbett, said, as she toured the Kitchen property. “It was created to fast-track small subdivisions like this. That’s what people voted for, and I think that is good land-use planning. This family did all they could do.”

Translation: we know better than you how to use your land, so suck it, Mr. World War II veteran. Next time build your road faster before we change our minds about what you can do.

Rep. Smith feels bad, and hopes the legislature will ease up on such people, because, um, families. Or something.

But not because there’s anything wrong with trying to decide one rule that will apply equally well to every situation millions of other people have.

Passing laws, even “good” laws like requiring vaccinations or making employers post signs to tell their staff to wash their hands, has a cost on the people being regulated. It may well be that the cost ends up being worth it for some other value (not having Salmonella). But just because the equation works out positively doesn’t mean there isn’t a negative in there.

Unfortunately, people extrapolate from the fairly few and sensible regulations that all regulations are without cost, because any benefit must outweigh the costs. They forget that real 83-year-old World War II veterans might have the fruit of a lifetime of hard work wiped out because someone thinks their life will be easier if they don’t have to think about all the ugly ways other people choose to live.

In this sense, “quality of life” regulations are no different from laws banning certain sex acts: they exist to make some people live the way other people would prefer they live, even without direct harm befalling the people who agitate for the restriction. Just because you think the one you agree with is better than the people on the other team who advocate for the one you don’t agree with, don’t think you’re not doing the same thing. You’re just goring a different ox. But an ox is still going to die a painful death.

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