Thursday, November 22, 2007

A Thanksgiving Day GUEST COLUMN

Thank You

by Dr. Michael J. Hurd of

Most are thankful to God. I am thankful to man -- specifically, to those individuals who (over the centuries) have created the countless things I need for survival and enjoyment: automobiles, plumbing, mass produced food, medicine, electricity, computers, televisions … the list is endless. I know who many of those inventors are, and I can see, feel and enjoy the benefits of their inventions in my daily life. There are many inventors whom I don't know about -- some of them unsung heroes who never obtained the credit they deserve -- but whose contributions to the wealth and comfort around me are evident all the same.

Most feel that the proper expression of thanks is faith -- in what is not exactly clear, just "faith" in some unknown and never-named source or entity. My expression of thanks is expressed through something entirely different: reverence for reason.

Reason represents the best of the human spirit. It is a capacity that virtually all human beings possess to one degree or another. Yet it can only be exercised through choice. The computer I type on now, the lights which illuminate my office, the health I enjoy -- all of these came into existence because of countless choices made by different individuals at different times in history (coupled with many of my own choices, and the choices of those close to me). From Thomas Edison to the less well-known heroes (in business) who market and distribute products in our (semi-) capitalistic system -- I am grateful and thankful to them all. I am thankful not that they exercised faith or went to church or worshipped a mystical entity -- or spent a few hours at a soup kitchen, feeding the homeless -- but rather that they chose to use their intellects in a way from which I (and many others) could benefit.

Life -- and all that life has to offer -- is the ultimate reward of goodness. Goodness enhances life; it does not destroy or take away from it. Anything or anyone who contributes to life -- my life, your life, or life in general -- deserves thanks. I understand that my benefit was not their goal -- instead, their work and its rewards were their goals. Their quest for financial and/or intellectual profit was, quite properly, their goal. I like it when people are selfish in this sense. The more selfishness people possess, the more (in the exercise of that self-interest) they create and produce. That's the means through which the world becomes a better place.

I look around my office, around the country, around the world, and I see the best and the worst of mankind. I wonder if at any time in history we have seen the presence of such heroic genius and unspeakable evil on one and the same planet. I feel love and gratitude when I look at the benefits of rational, productive, and capitalistic civilization. I despise only those who seek to destroy it. My enemy is the last person I would ever love; I only seek his annihilation -- from my presence, if he's not violent, and from existence, if he is.

I don't want to live in a world with more humility, more "compassion," or more faith. The platitudes most of us will hear today are unbearable. I will not turn on the television and listen to the Pope, the President, or the local homeless shelter manager preach them. This is why I offer you the opposite message: I want to live in a world with much less faith, humility and selflessness, and much more reason, productivity, and quest for profit (material, intellectual, or both). Let reason, freedom, and material prosperity flourish -- and the rest will follow.

If only others shared these ideals, how different the world would be. How much our enemies would fear us, rather than spit upon and seek to destroy us.

Nevertheless, I am delighted and grateful that I live in a world where reason and capitalism and rational self-interest have gained as much ground as they have. For this I am indeed thankful -- though only to those who, through their own choices, helped make it possible.

Re-posted by permission.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Hands Off Barry Bonds

Barry Bonds, the former San Francisco Giants slugger who has hit more home runs than any other professional baseball player in history, faces jail time for lying to federal prosecutors about his alleged use of steroids. The use of steroids to build up one's muscles and thereby become a more powerful athlete is illegal. Many would argue that steroid use invalidates the achievements of Bonds and the other athletes who have used them. That is not the point here. Whether steroid use invalidates a sporting achievement is strictly a matter between the sports associations, team owners, the players, and their fans. It is a private matter for these parties to sort out themselves, not a criminal governmental matter. (It may involve the government if Bonds violated a contract and there are lawsuits among the affected parties. However, that would be a private dispute being adjudicated by the courts, not a criminal matter.)

The Bonds prosecution is just one more instance of the government assuming de facto ownership of our bodies. Can I ingest a drug of my choosing that my doctor and I believe can treat a rare cancer? No, unless the drug manufacturer invests many tens of millions of dollars to pass bureaucratic hurdles set by the Food and Drug Administration. Can I choose my own medicines, including antibiotics, to treat myself? No, under the prescription laws I must first pay a doctor to make that decision for me. Can I eat foods containing "trans fats" at a restaurant in New York City? No, because the city has banned such foods on the premise that I am incapable of making such choices for myself.

As government officials now make many of the basic decisions affecting our health and well-being, Americans have become infantilized. No longer are we sovereign adults who exercise self-reliance and self-responsibility to govern our own lives. The government makes such choices for us. We now live as children, not free adults.

Every person owns his own body by right. If you own your own body, this includes the right to put any substance you choose into it. If it is illegal for Bonds to make such decisions regarding his body, then his body is no longer his; it now belongs to the government.

If the government owns our bodies, by implication not only can it tell us what we can and cannot put into them, but also what we can do with them, such as whether we can have abortions.

Our freedom will only be restored if each of us individually, fully and without limitation, owns his own body and such ownership right is fully and completely recognized by the government. True ownership of our own bodies means we can do what we want with them, so long as we do not harm another person.

Barry Bonds has hurt no one, except possibly himself, by allegedly taking steroids. That is his right. It is true that Bonds is technically being prosecuted for lying to federal investigators, not steroid use as such. However, he should not have been questioned about steroid use in the first place. Morally, ingesting steroids or any other substance is not a crime.

I say to the government: hands off Barry Bonds. Hands off his body, and hands off mine. I own my own body and have a right to use it as I please.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Frozen Faces and Frozen Minds

The facades of New York's buildings are like faces. Behind those faces are the minds of the architects and engineers who built them and the minds of the businessmen and residents who work and live in them. Those facades -- the face of the city -- have changed remarkably over the past 125 years. Before the first steel skyscrapers were built around the turn of the last century, building heights were practically limited to not much more than ten stories, and typically much less. Four to six stories was most common.

Despite the emergence of skyscrapers, walk around many streets of New York and, apart from the sight of cars parked on the street and people dressed in modern clothes and talking on their cell phones, you could still swear you were in the 1880s.

That 1880s vista has been frozen in place throughout much of Manhattan by New York City's "landmarking" laws. Those laws ban nearly all construction in the large and growing landmarked zones of the city. If any building is to be allowed, it must be a clone of existing building styles. Although some construction ends up getting built on a vacant lot or at the site of a building that must be razed because it is ready to collapse, no new tall buildings are ever permitted. The rare new building in these landmarked zones, as a rule, must be short and blend in with its ancient surroundings.

The city's landmarked neighborhoods often possess a certain charm. In fact, the Landmarks Commission seeks out the charming neighborhoods to landmark. As of this writing, there are 45 landmarked zones in Manhattan. In addition to the landmarked zones, 1100 individual buildings have been landmarked. While it is difficult to say what percentage of Manhattan's 23 square miles is now essentially off-limits to development, one can get a sense of this number by looking at the sheer size of some of these landmark districts:

The Greenwich Village Historic District (established 1969) covers 86 city blocks.

The Upper East Side Historic District covers 57 city blocks.

The Upper West Side Historic District covers 51 city blocks.

The Tribeca Historic Districts cover 49 city blocks.

The Ladies Mile Historic District covers 19 city blocks.

The Noho Historic District covers 14 city blocks.

These are some of the larger districts. 45 of them now encompass much of Manhattan. New districts and buildings are being added every year.

Interestingly, the formation of these districts tends to coincide with a rise in property values of the frozen regions. Each new landmarked building or neighborhood in New York diminishes the potential supply of new places to live and work. As a result, the value of existing property tends to go up.

New Yorkers who already own property feel wealthier because the value of their property has gone up. Moreover, they marvel at the charming neighborhoods of the city that have been preserved seemingly in perpetuity for their enjoyment.

All of this comes at a price. That price is the violation of their property rights. What of the New Yorker who wants to sell his building to a developer who wants to put up a skyscraper on that land? It is forbidden. What if the owner of a crumbling 1880s-era building wants to replace it with a modern, comfortable building with central air, well-insulated walls and skylights? He can't do it, unless the building he lives in is in imminent danger of collapse. In fact, city officials may require him to install expensive bracing to keep his ancient brickpile aloft. If even expensive retrofitting can keep his building standing, he must employ those methods before he will ever get permission to tear it down or simply let it collapse. If one looks closely, you can see these teetering braced, nearly-ready-to-collapse buildings around the city.

One person's beautiful historic landmark is an uncomfortable, expensive to cool and heat, dreary building to another. Some find 1880s row houses beautiful. Others prefer a gleaming 100-story skyscraper. Regardless, the real debate is not about building esthetics. It is about rights. By what right does one person forbid another the disposition of his property as he sees fit?

Economically, as one would expect, violations of property rights are not without consequences. In the case of New York, as its neighborhoods become expensive "Disneylands for adults" as an unknown commentator described it, businesses and people are being priced out of the city. As the city becomes an uneconomic place to live and work, businesses and people leave the city, or simply do not move here in the first place.

This is not a new trend in New York. The rise of landmarking parallels the rise of other destructive policies that have made New York an expensive place to be for businesses and people. Rent control, imposed at the end of World War II, has made New York's housing the most expensive in the country. Clever and grasping taxes such as taxes on commuters and city taxes on the global earnings of corporations have led most of the Fortune 500 companies that were headquartered here as late as the 1960s to flee the city long ago. To pay for a city-run welfare program including the largest program of free and subsidized municipal public housing in the country, New Yorkers pay the highest taxes in the country, including a combined city and state top marginal income tax rate of 13%. The city's top rate kicks in at incomes that would be considered "middle class."

Like all actions, these actions have consequences, even if they are not obvious to some right now. Eventually, a tipping point will be reached, when the costs of being here become too great. When that day arrives, the owners of their landmarked residences in their charming neighborhoods may find that their property values are falling, instead of rising. They will find that their charming neighborhoods have become less so, now that graffitti is spraypainted on walls and gangs of unemployed hooligans (who live in city housing projects) terrorize them with crime.

New York is, or should be, a city of skyscrapers. Freeze it with landmarking laws and eventually the faces behind those frozen facades will begin to have one expression on them. That expression will be terror.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

"We Are Fighting for the Rule of Law"

On the evening news last night, a Pakistani lawyer spoke these words as explanation for why hundreds of Pakistani lawyers were fighting policemen on the streets of Lahore and other cities in Pakistan. Conservatively dressed, black suited and tied lawyers threw rocks at policemen armed in riot gear who fought back with tear gas and truncheons.

The lawyers were outgunned. Lawyers do not make good soldiers. Used to fighting with words, their rocks were paltry weapons against modern riot gear. Armed in their proper suits and ties to battle in a courtroom, their uniforms were no match for the shields and handcuffs of the riot police. Scores of attorneys were arrested.

The riot was prompted by the actions of General Musharraf, the ruler of Pakistan, to assume dictatorial powers by dissolving the Supreme Court and Parliament, and closing private newspapers. The general also proceeded to install his puppets on the Supreme Court. So far, he has only found enough sycophants for just 5 of the 17 Supreme Court seats. One way the lawyers have said they will fight is by not participating in sham court proceedings headed by cronies appointed by the general.

A lawyer is the essential agent of a society of laws and not men. A lawyer and the courtroom he works in is a forum dedicated to the principle that force shall be governed by reason. Yesterday, we saw the supreme example of the inversion of this principle. Lawyers themselves are being bludgeoned by unrestrained force.

There is some hope for even an Islamic-infused society like Pakistan when scores of its lawyers, some of them trained at top British universities such as Cambridge, will fight for the rule of law. In the long run, reason and the rule of law that is its application in civil society, will always win. However, in the many years between now and that long run in Pakistan, we will see who wins the battle of the streets in Pakistan: the lawyers, the dictator, or the Muslim radicals at their doorstep.