Oregon is in the midst of a fierce battle between property rights fanatics and reasonable people, like moi, who recognize that a unfettered right to do whatever you want with your property is actually a wrong.
I hope the “Big Look” task force that will be holding hearings around the state and recommending changes in Oregon’s land use laws will pay as much attention to broad philosophical issues as narrow legalistic points. For disagreements over values are at the root of property rights debates.
What value does land have in itself, absent development? How do we value the needs and desires of surrounding property owners when deciding how a piece of land should be used? Should people be able to undermine someone else’s values in pursuit of their own satisfaction?
In other areas of life, questions like these can be resolved without the shrill “don’t tread on me!” attitude exhibited by property rights extremists. Smoking was banned on airplanes a long time ago. Everyone, including most smokers, came to understand that your right to smoke is subservient to my right to breathe.
But strangely, a person’s ability to use his or her land without restraint is too often viewed as some sort of sacred right. I say “strangely,” because if anything should be used for the common good, rather than private gain, it is land.
Cigarettes are made by people and for people. They are a human invention. So the cigarette you put in your mouth took skill, time, and money to manufacture. I think it’s stupid to smoke. However, you have the right to buy cigarettes and others have the right to sell them, just like other artificial commodities.
Land is different. The “Creator” made it (leaving aside who or what the big “C” is). Just like the oceans. Just like the air. We don’t allow the oceans to be sold, nor the air. People have the right to use these public goods, but no one can own them. Yet land is treated differently, in our modern societies at least.
For reasons I haven’t been able to understand, someone who owns land tends to think, “This is mine, mine, mine! I should be able to do with it whatever I want, regardless of how my doing affects other people.” Given the interrelatedness of natural and social ecosystems, this attitude is as nonsensical as the owner of a fishing fleet saying, “I can catch fish until they go extinct!” or a power plant operator saying “I can pollute as much as I please!”
My wife, Laurel, and I own ten rural acres. We live next to a couple who own five acres adjacent to a commonly owned lake. Last summer they became indignant when willows along the lakeshore grew so high their view of the water was impaired. Laurel oversees maintenance of the common property in our development and arranged to have the willows cut down. The couple was happy. They enjoyed their view of the lake and felt that it was their right to continue to enjoy it.
Then, in the fall they started construction on a detached garage. A large garage. A garage right in front of our own best view of the lake. We used to enjoy looking at the lake as we walked along the edge of our property. Now we don’t enjoy looking at their new building.
A small skirmish in the land use war. Legally, our neighbors had the right to build whatever they wanted, wherever they wanted. Ethically, that’s another question. For it was evident that they weren’t adhering to the Golden Rule: what they didn’t want done to them, view-wise, they did to us.
Hopefully the Big Look task force will help the citizens of our state understand that Measure 37 tilted the land use balance way too far in the direction of individual property owner rights. The rights of neighbors and other people have to be considered also when determining how land can be used. I doubt that even the most zealous property rights proponent would be overjoyed to hear that a motocross course is going to be built right next to his home.
And then there’s the whole question of whether it even makes sense to own land at all. We just leased a car. We will be using it for three years. We won’t own it during that time. Who cares? What we want is the use of a car, not the ownership of a car. Similarly, if land were used for a price, not owned, the feeling of “this land is my land” would be lessened, and an attitude of “this land is our land” fostered.
When I was involved with an effort to form a sustainable development where homes would have been built on leased lots, I considered whether humanity valued land ownership to such a degree that we’d agree to sell the entire Earth. Though some might view this as a reductio ad absurdum argument against unfettered property rights, I think it is the Oregonians in Action types who are reasoning absurdly.
Here’s an excerpt:
Who would agree to selling the Earth? Leaving aside such practicalities as settling on a purchase price, and securing clear title to the 126 billion acres of land and water, is the Earth for sale?
We might imagine a interstellar entrepreneur landing in her spaceship, and making humankind a generous offer for the third planet from the sun. Would we accept it, or would we be outraged at the very idea that anyone would view our terrestrial home as a commodity with a price tag attached, like a toaster?
It is exceedingly difficult to envision Earth being put up for sale, either to a terrestrial or extraterrestrial entity. Yet bits and pieces of Earth are sold all the time, some large and some small. Generally, this raises no alarm. But perhaps it should.
“I wish to buy this 20 square mile island.” “Very good, sir. I will prepare the papers while you write the check.” This interchange seems completely normal to us.
At what scale, though, does a property purchase become unthinkable, a moral outrage not far distant from selling the entire Earth. Could someone buy a substantial nation? A minor continent? The southern hemisphere? When is it right to convert land to private ownership, and when is it wrong?
There is no simple answer to this question. However, whatever the answer may be, clearly global sustainability is intimately connected with a communal land ethic. Every person depends on Earth for his or her survival. So the idea of making a commodity out of the foundation of life is repellant.
Nonetheless, most people have no problem with making a commodity out of acreages that are parts of the foundation of life, with some mightily resisting as “socialist” or “communist” the notion that land ever should belong to all, and not just to a few. These same people, though, almost certainly would reject the interstellar entrepreneur’s offer to buy the entire Earth.
I'm a grad student in Urban and Regional Planning and this has been a topic that we've been discussing at length in one of my classes. If this is really interesting to you, try reading "Land in the American West," edited by Robbins. It's a great collection of essays about the meaning of land and ownership/rights. Definitely one to check out.
Posted by: Ness | January 31, 2006 at 10:46 PM
Interesting perspective, but one really at odds with how the laws of scarcity and, therefore, human nature works.
Your car analogy for ownership fails miserably. For one, although you don't own it, the dealership does and you have a temporary leasehold of that property. Therefore, laws are set up to treat you like an owner during your tenure, but the dealership owner has to be protected also. So you still haven't avoided the issue of ownership, even though you're leasing.
Cars, also, are depreciable assets. They start out shiny and new, but over time corrode, wear down, etc. and can be recycled in part, to make a new car. Land is a scarce commodity, but it appreciates because demand for it will always increase due to population and need always increasing. It can be redeveloped many times over, but always to satisfy the needs of location for more and more people for work, live, etc.
Until the nature of land, human need, and human nature given scarcity of resources is understood and is reflected in the land use debate, any conjured solution will be unrealistic and impracticle. And yes, no political solution is perfect.
Posted by: Screwtape | February 01, 2006 at 07:22 AM
were you a Native American last lifetime? *s*
I don't disagree with anything you said, but this is a culture of possession-- own my wife, my husband, my land, my my my. It's all about greed and profit.
We obviously impact others by our actions and your example of the lake view is a good one. To say that if I turn my land into a garbage dump, it won't impact anybody but me is nuts. But this is a profit driven culture for the time being at least. Very frustrating for those of us who believe there is more to enjoying life than acquiring things.
Oregon had the land use laws put in place to begin with because people saw what was happening in California and didn't want it here. It worked for a long time until we got a group of people in power who only see value in dollar signs. If you go around the west now to states with no planning, you see the folly of that view-- except once again somebody made money off that helter skelter development-- or thought they did...
Posted by: Rain | February 01, 2006 at 09:30 AM
you are a flippin' socialist.
buy more land , move if you have to, if you dont like the garage.
Posted by: lewis_medlock | February 02, 2006 at 06:19 PM