“Issues in Local Government”

(THIS EVENT HAS BEEN CANCELED DUE TO THE CORONAVIRUS OUTBREAK. I’M HOPING TO RE-SCHEDULE IN THE FALL.)

I like democracy. Democracy is perhaps best exemplified in local government. Hence, I like local government.

You might quibble that that’s not a valid argument, and suggest that the conclusion is a reductio, but hey, democracy is messy.

Anyway, I’m interested in local government. To that end, I’m organizing and moderating a panel discussion at Felician University that you might want to attend if you’re in the neighborhood. Sponsored by the Felician Institute for Ethics and Public Affairs. Continue reading

Imagine: Living in a Socialist America (Run by Republican Aristocrats)

I met these Democratic candidates for Readington Town Committee over breakfast the other day, and asked them what differentiates them from the Republicans who dominate politics around town. Without blinking an eye, they said that as Democrats, they favor a pro-development, pro-business platform against the local Republican machine, which is running against development and against business in the name of “Open Space.”

Image result for elizabeth fiore denise esakof

According Esakoff and Fiore, thirty percent of Readington Township is already open space, large swatches of it off limits to most people, but the Republicans want more: because you can never have too much of a resource that lots of people are excluded from using.  Huge swatches of “preserved farmland” lie in Readington Township alone, acquired at 50-100% “State Cost” i.e., through purchases by the county or the municipality, or through purchase by State Agricultural Development Committee fees. Continue reading

Felician University Event: “Community Policing in Rutherford”

FIRST CALL: “Community Policing in Rutherford,” a conversation about town/county/university relations and related issues, with John Russo, Chief of the Rutherford Police Department, and Gurbir Grewal, Bergen County Prosecutor.

The event is the third in the University’s series on Race and Criminal Justice in America, and takes place Wednesday, November 30, @1-2 pm, Castle View Room, Felician University Rutherford campus (227 Montross Ave, Rutherford, NJ, 07070). All are welcome. Free registration required at the door.

Sponsored by the Felician University Committee for Leadership & Social Justice, the Department of Criminal Justice, the Pre-Law Program, and the Felician UN Fellows Program.


Prior events in the series:

September 27: “Racial Profiling in Bloomfield? A Discussion,” with Professor Mark Denbeaux, Seton Hall University Law School.

November 10: “Police Stops: What Are Your Rights? What Should You Do?” with Maria Lopez-Delgado (New Jersey Office of the Public Defender) and John E. Link (adjunct professor of Criminal Justice, Felician University; former Chief of Police, Clifton, New Jersey).

“Driving While Black”: Vice News Comes to Town

No sooner do I praise my local police department, but Vice News comes to town to trash it.

Of course, this video is worth watching, as well. In the video, Bloomfield’s police chief mentions burglary, something I can speak to from first-hand experience. The question is whether the reduction in the crime rate has come at the expense of individual rights–or not.

Continue reading

Snowmageddon 2016

Apropos of Snowmageddon 2016 on the East Coast, I can’t resist reproducing this email exchange I had with my friend Rick Minto the day before Hurricane Sandy hit in October 2012:

Rick: Hope this note finds you well, and in a position to safely avoid the wrath of Sandy.

Irfan: Carrie-Ann and I have been having this bantering argument about whether Sandy is really dangerous (her) or just media blather and hype (me). Just went to the deli across the street where we managed to split the regulars down the middle on that question. One guy on my side said, “I can’t believe they interrupted the Jets game to talk about this stupid thing.”

Am I ready? No. Am I worried? No. Have I learned from past mistakes? Not really.

Mood music for the occasion….

Continue reading

James Stacey Taylor on Planning Boards and Property Rights

James Stacey Taylor has a short, thoughtful response at BHL to an earlier post of mine here at PoT,which was itself a response to something he had written at BHL. I’ll respond here at PoT when I get the chance.

My thoughts on the subject of property and planning are somewhat in flux, as I try to process the implications of some planning- and property-relevant phenomena I’ve seen while traveling–in Pakistan in 2012, in Nicaragua last year, and most intensely of all, here in Israel and Palestine, where I am right now. I’m also trying to anticipate and think through issues I expect to encounter on an upcoming trip to Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota this fall.

It’s an enormously complex task to get straight on all of that, especially if one approaches it from the direction of the libertarian literature on property rights. On the one hand, there’s a mismatch between that literature and the facts I’m trying to conceptualize. On the other hand, theorists more directly interested in places like Managua, the West Bank, or Pine Ridge make assumptions about property that I don’t share. So my brain is on overdrive, and hasn’t reached the terminus of the inquiry.

I suspect that I subscribe to a weaker, or at least less expansive conception of property rights than most libertarians do; what I’m working on is how exactly to distinguish the view I hold from pragmatic/progressivist conceptions of property and planning on the liberal left. I think there’s a distinction to be drawn, but I haven’t worked through all of the relevant complexity. I’ll comment when I’ve worked more of it out than I so far have. I’m grateful to Taylor for giving me the incentive to clarify my thoughts.

Postscript: I guess it’s a bit misleading to say that I’ll “respond” to Taylor when I get a chance, since Taylor and I are basically agreeing. What I meant was that I’ll offer some substantive reflections in response when I get a chance.

The only comment I’d make right now, based on a small handful of early comments at BHL, is that Taylor’s critics (and by implication mine) are begging the question against both of us by making tacit but wide-ranging assumptions about the nature of property rights. I won’t speak for Taylor, but I don’t see any intrinsic reason why the existence of planning boards must violate property rights. Property rights could, after all, themselves be sensitive to the need for (government) planning. Libertarians could insist on strong (probably deontic) conceptions of property rights that function as bulwarks against any and all forms of government “interference” (aka “regulation”), but I’m not aware of a successful defense of such a conception of property rights, and don’t find the idea plausible (or even coherent).

Postscript, June 27, 2015: This lecture by Rick Porter of Georgia Tech’s School of Building Construction is a nice primer on zoning and planning in the U.S. from a generally Objectivist/libertarian perspective, from the 2013 Atlas Society Conference; it helpfully reveals both the strengths and weaknesses of that (type of) position.

The lecture starts out well enough, discussing the legitimate basis of zoning in the need for rights-based protections (first 25 minutes or so), but then gets side-tracked in that favorite Randian pastime, the accumulation of ideological horror stories (25-35 minutes). I don’t disagree with what he says there, but it’s a missed opportunity for discussing the real underlying issues in a sustained way.

He ends, unfortunately, with a descent into Randian-libertarian utopianism, suggesting that if we privatize all infrastructure and convert zoning restrictions into private deed restrictions, our problems are resolved. But what goes undiscussed, despite the quick reference to Locke, is the fine-grained content of private property rights: what is it that you own when you own something, like a piece of real estate? Is your ownership right so strong that it precludes zoning laws that prevent your imposing boundary-crossing externalities on others? He’s essentially asked that question around 54:00, but either concedes the legitimacy of zoning in his answer, or appeals to “the market” in a way that doesn’t really answer the question asked (his answer swings between those two claims).

Porter objects to zoning law as “pre-emptive,” but so are the laws of assault and self-defense against assault in the criminal code: an assault is a threat of imminent harm that doesn’t require physical contact, and a right of self-defense gives the victim the right to retaliate before contact is made (and physical harm inflicted), precisely so as to avoid the harms in question. I think the analogy carries over to rights-violative externalities and zoning. The end of the lecture seems to concede that zoning has a legitimate purpose, if properly conceived, but the claim isn’t really developed in the lecture.

That said, I think the lecture is well worth watching, if only for making explicit the facts that need to be dealt with as a preface to a sustained inquiry into the topic.

Here’s the 2014 follow up lecture. I’m “bookmarking” it here for relevance; I haven’t watched it yet.

Postscript, June 28, 2015: Last postscript for now: It belatedly occurs to me that Ronald Coase’s “The Problem of Social Cost,” Journal of Law and Economics III (October 1960) is the classic discussion of this topic, and well worth reading (or re-reading). Here’s a summary.

That said, I reject virtually every major assumption Coase makes in the article, even when I incidentally end up agreeing with this or that claim in it. Coase’s thesis (it’s not really a “theorem”) is often regarded as a critique of the legitimacy of rights-based planning, zoning, and regulation, but I don’t think it succeeds as one, and don’t think Coase thought it did, either. Robert Nozick’s discussion of “Prohibition, Compensation, and Risk” (chapter 4 of Anarchy, State, and Utopia) is in effect a philosopher’s attempt to improve on Coase, but I don’t think it succeeds, either. Nor, as I say in a different post, do I find Hayek’s arguments against “planning” coherent.

Given that, I’ve never quite understood the intensity and scope of the libertarian-Objectivist animus for “regulation.” The animus seems to stand or fall with the idea that all government regulation violates a ban on first-uses of force, but even apart from the conspicuous lack of an argument for the ban, along with the absence of an argument for its application to all government regulation, the principle needs more explication than it’s ever gotten: in order to grasp what the principle says, we need to know what counts as a first use of force, and the principle itself doesn’t tell us.

In any case, it’s not at all obvious to me that regulations designed to thwart (what their architects regard as) first-uses of force must themselves always be first-uses of force. They could be just what their architects say they are: non-rights-violative regulations designed to thwart rights violations. The examples Coase cites in his paper make clear that there is no shortage of potential candidates for regulation in the name of rights. If you reject his analysis, as I do, at least some of those potential candidates become actual ones, and ought to be regulated.

(The preceding comments may well have re-invented the wheel. See Matt Zwolinski’s excellent discussion of the same issues in “Libertarianism and Pollution,” in the Routledge Companion to Environmental Ethics. Differences of detail aside, I basically agree with the approach he takes.)

James Stacey Taylor on local government

I highly recommend reading this blog post by James Stacey Taylor at BHL on local government. I couldn’t agree more with Taylor’s central claim–that local government matters, and that anyone interested in politics should spend some time observing or participating in it. But I think I disagree with the specifically libertarian inference Taylor draws from the experience he describes with the Hopewell, New Jersey Planning Board. (I spent a decade living in the same general vicinity as Taylor, and like him, used to teach at The College of New Jersey. So I have a first-hand sense of the issue he’s describing.)

Taylor seems to infer from his experience that we ought to have less local government rather than more. I agree that when it comes to Planning Boards, we ought to limit their powers. I also agree that local government ought to be more evidence-based and transparent. But I don’t think the general lesson–less government–is the right one.

For one thing, I don’t think Taylor’s experience is really unique to local government. You find the same sort of behavior everywhere, including in the “organic, voluntary” activity he favors. Just imagine that the patch of land he describes was handed over to private developers without the intermediate step of having to pass through the Planning Board. Is there any reason to believe that developers wouldn’t have wanted to create a mini-city in the middle of what is now an open field? If there’s money to be made, they’d do it, and as for unintended consequences, if they could shift the costs to someone else, they’d ignore them and insist on the privacy of their non-existent data.

You might say, “They shouldn’t be allowed to shift the costs to someone else.” Correct. But that requires extensive government enforcement of laws that demand the internalization of externalities. Put it this way: would Taylor advocate the outright abolition of local Planning Boards? Having spent a fair bit of time observing them (in New Jersey), I would say “no.” They need to be put in their place, not abolished.

Second, I wonder whether Taylor would agree that in many cases, the unregulated parts of our lives could use more regulation. Regional differences may be at work here. Taylor lives in west-central New Jersey. I live in northeastern New Jersey. Patterns of life are quite different in the two places. But consider aspects of life that a northeastern Jerseyite would want regulated more tightly by government.

My first pick is traffic. I’ll just assert the proposition: we need more, and stricter, enforcement of traffic laws. We need to force people to slow down, to get off their cell phones while driving, to yield at yield signs, to stop at stop signs (or lights),  to use their turn signals before they turn, to pay tolls, and not to honk their horns for purely expressive reasons.

Second pick: noise ordinances. Most towns have noise ordinances on the books, but many towns treat their noise ordinance as though enforcement of it were a frill or luxury. I see violation of a noise ordinance as a rights-violation fully on par with battery. Just imagine living next to a construction site and being woken up every damn morning by construction activity that’s begun before it’s legally permitted to begin (or that continues well into the night). Or imagine living next to a golf course where the landscapers habitually start work–with mowers and blowers–at 4:45 am, three hours before it’s legally allowed. You call the police and they act as though they have better things to do than enforce the law. My inference: we need more government.

Incidentally, it’s an interesting thing how one is to enforce noise-related violations within a private contract. Right now, my upstairs neighbors are making enough noise to wake the dead. That violates the lease agreement we’ve all signed with the landlord, which involves a promise to one another to keep the noise down. But how do I get that “legally enforceable” promise legally enforced? I could go to the landlord. He’ll ignore me. I don’t have standing to take my neighbors to landlord-tenant court. I’m not a landlord. But the lease’s being violated is a clear-cut rights violation. It’s a breach of contract. What’s happens to rights violations like this? The answer is that in the name of less intrusive government, they go unenforced. But the result is a diminution in some people’s quality of life. (Lovers of quiet are, to paraphrase Ayn Rand, America’s most persecuted minority.)

Third, idiosyncratic example: parking. For most of my adult life, I’ve lived in apartments where parking was tight. In one case, I rented a garage on the rental property so as to guarantee having a spot. In other cases, there was assigned parking. What do you do if someone parks his car in front of your garage (ignoring the NO PARKING sign as though it wasn’t there), or parks in your assigned spot (and you’re not willing to park in someone else’s)? If you complain to your landlord, you’ll be told, reasonably enough, to call the police. But if you call the police, the bizarre answer you will get in New Jersey is: “Sorry, we can’t do anything about it. You’re on private property.”

Pause on the absurdity of that answer. If someone were breaking in to your apartment, and you called 911, it would make no sense for the police to say, “Sorry, we can’t do anything about it. The break-in is taking place on private property.” But I’ve repeatedly had the “sorry, can’t help you” experience when I’ve called the police re parking. As it happens, the police’s “sorry, can’t help you” response involves a misstatement of state law (I’ll spare you the details*), but the fact remains that as written, state law is simply too weak on this issue. It puts too much of the onus on the victim of the rights violation to rectify the situation and not enough on the person who’s blocking one’s garage or parked in one’s assigned spot. Again, my inference: we need more, activist government in the name of rights enforcement.

I would defy any anarcho-capitalist to produce the non-governmental version of the resolution of disputes of the preceding variety. I had the opportunity to see what such attempts at “resolution” might look like when I spent time in the West Bank city of Bethany, which effectively lacks a government. (Officially, it is in Area B under the Oslo Accords, under joint Israel-Palestinian control. But de facto, it lacks a government.) Bethany is practically a controlled science experiment in anarchy. Suffice it to say that things really didn’t turn out the way anarcho-capitalists claim they will. Bethany is a case of “the Wild West” in the Near East–or maybe the Wild West in the Wild West Bank. (Incidentally, I don’t mean to be saddling Taylor with anarcho-capitalism. I have no idea what his views are on that. I just mean to be saddling anarcho-capitalists with Bethany. And yes, it’s that Bethany, the one where Jesus was buried. Burying him was one of the things that the Romans “did for us,” by the way. I’m not sure Jesus would have been buried under anarcho-capitalism.**)

Give me long enough, and I could extend this list pretty much indefinitely.

Anyway, I’m grateful to Taylor for a thoughtful post which broaches some interesting and important issues.

*Postscript, added later: The link in the text goes to the section of New Jersey’s state code governing private property and non-consensual towing. But here is the written response I got from the local Police Department after complaining about their refusal to tow vehicles that were blocking my egress from my garage.

The area of the garages at [name of apartment complex] are private property. The owners of the property basically give authority to building management to maintain the lands. If management feels a vehicle is parked on their property (that does not belong or parked improperly) [they] will call the Police. The Police will issue a summons (management will be called to court as a witness/complainant). The Police cannot tow the vehicle, because it is on private property. Management actually calls for the tow truck. The main road of the complex is considered quasi-public. In this area, the Police can summons and tow.

It’s worth wondering how any of this convoluted legal analysis is supposed to help someone whose garage is blocked but needs to get the car out of it to go to work. I ended up taking a taxi to and from work at a cost of over $100. That happened several times before I made my complaint to the police. In fairness to my local PD, they’ve been pretty responsive about other things, including my insistence that they paint a stop line at an ambiguous intersection so that it was crystal-clear where to stop. From an email to me from the local police chief: “Stop line placed on Watchung roadway. —Chief Goul.” Thanks, Chief.

**Postscript, added later: On second thought, the last two sentences before the asterisk are ridiculous assertions which I’ll leave in the text but now disown. Tradition has it that Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimethea, who wasn’t in any relevant sense a Roman. I only wrote what I wrote as an excuse to throw Monty Python into the mix, but it’s totally inaccurate and potentially offensive–to Christians, anarcho-capitalists, and above all Christian anarcho-capitalists–so I hereby repent and take it back. I concede: Jesus might well have been buried (and for that matter, crucified) under anarcho-capitalism.