Friday, April 28, 2006

The High Cost of Low Motives

By Tim Peck
Mountain Guardian
April 28, 2006
"A social system is a code of laws which men observe in order to live together. Such a code must have a basic principle, a starting point, or it cannot be devised. The starting point is the question: Is the power of society limited or unlimited? Individualism answers: The power of society is limited by the inalienable, individual rights of man. Society may make only such laws as do not violate these rights. Collectivism answers: The power of society is unlimited. Society may make any laws it wishes, and force them upon anyone in any manner it wishes." -Ayn Rand, "Textbook of Americanism."

In a recent city council discussion on taking private property for public use, council member Holly Jones said, "I will say that probably calling something socialism is not really helpful in going forward with an open mind."

Is this true? Is it “not really helpful” to call a thing by its right name? Would it have been more helpful to call it by one of its more colorful euphemisms? Smart growth? Sustainable development? Progressive?

On April 11, 2006, Wal-Mart withdrew an application requesting rezoning for a small parcel of land just off of Smokey Park Highway which would have allowed adequate open space for the building of a Super Center. The existing zoning for a majority of the site would have allowed the development, but an additional few acres was needed to make the development economically worthwhile. To Wal-Mart’s delight, the owner of an adjacent trailer park had put his property up for sale. There were other buyers interested in the property but Wal-Mart made the best offer.

But, why was a trailer park there in the first place? Asheville does not allow trailer parks within city limits. What happened here is that this mobile home community was in place at the time new laws were passed banning such parks. This trailer park was “grandfathered” in; which means that it would be allowed to survive the new law until it ultimately depreciated and became obsolete. With the property up for sale, it would appear that the trailer park has reached its obsolescence and would now go the way of all trailer parks in Asheville and be swept onto the ash-heap of history.

With the ultimate future of the trailer park settled, the only thing left now was for the buyer to request that this sunsetting trailer park property be rezoned for commercial use and join its neighboring parcel for a total area of 184,000 square feet. This addition to the proposed development site would now be large enough to allow the Wal-Mart project to go forward.

The developers made their sketches and estimates and presented them to city planners. The requirements of a Traffic Impact Analysis were satisfied. The Technical Review Committee approved the project. The Planning and Zoning Commission approved the project. City staff approved the project.

In the course of review, the planners took input from the public and added that input to their own recommendations and came up with a long list of conditions to place on the development project in exchange for approval. Wal-Mart agreed to most of them but objected to a few outlandish conditions, such as paving a side-walk a mile away from the site. The Asheville School took this as a cue to join the extortion bandwagon and demand additional favors from Wal-Mart, such as funding for campus security and the right to tell the retailer what it could and could not sell.

But what to do about the trailer park residents? Would their life-savings pay for relocation? Were they prepared for the inevitable move they would have to make whether or not Wal-Mart purchased the property on which their substandard housing rested?

Not to worry. As part of their proposal, Wal-Mart offered the impoverished residents $4,000 each to help defray moving expenses and lessen the trauma of complying with city laws that prohibit trailer park living.

Problem solved, right? Not so. A handful of local activists called The Cooper Boulevard Community Support Network organized the trailer park residents into a group to protest the rezoning request. They saw to it that the 60% non-English speaking residents were provided with translation services and were afforded the opportunity to be heard expressing their new-found opposition to big-box developments. One by one, they were trotted up to the podium at P&Z to recite statements prepared for them by their college-educated, Anglo handlers. Even some non-Hispanic trailer park residents were duped into joining the chorus of local anti-Wal-Mart political activist and out-of-town college students who all urged the commission to reject Wal-Mart’s plans to provide residents with jobs, convenient affordable shopping and a wad of ready cash.

One key condition that Wal-Mart accepted during their last hearing before the Planning and Zoning Commission was to increase their relocation “offer” to trailer park residents from $4,000 each to $7,500 each; this in return for releasing Wal-Mart from the unreasonable condition of building a far away side-walk. With seven grand in pocket, the single-wide occupants could now afford to move their abundant possessions and even pay for tanks-full of gas along the way.

Now, with all this in place, it appeared that Wal-Mart would be in a good position for a favorable vote in city council. However, despite the long and costly chain of agreements, approvals and delays, the world’s most successful retailer had yet to face it greatest challenge: A majority of politically-motivated “progressive” council members who were elected to office by the same people making up the anti-Wal-Mart opposition and eager to throw their weight around and score points with local elites who really don’t like shopping around common, indigenous mountain poor people.

Opposition continued with organized letter-writing campaigns to council members and the local media. Aggrieved activists organized rallies, action meetings, and public forums. And propaganda cinema was shown repeatedly to audiences eager to catalog a potpourri of formula arguments – mostly built on sand.

The final showdown occurred on the morning of the public hearing at city council when Wal-Mart withdrew its application for rezoning after a neighborhood petition was validated. The introduction of this petition would now require a supermajority vote of 6 to 1 which would be far from likely. In fact, a simple majority of 4 to 3 was considered out of reach.

Thus would the city be able to use zoning to knock down sound and legal development projects that they felt were unpopular with their constituency.

But let’s return for moment to question of the displacement of the trailer park residents. In the beginning, they were in solidarity with the opposition to Wal-Mart. They were asked by activists to, “Please help us prevent Wal-Mart from opening yet another store in West Asheville. They plan to evict 60 families from a trailer park on Smokey Park Highway (Patton Avenue) and build a supercenter (sic).”

It looks like this may be another case of “be careful what you wish for.” They opposed Wal-Mart and won. By their own actions they prevented Wal-Mart from distributing to them a total of $375,000 to soften their fall. Who would help them now? Another buyer was in the cue and would likely offer them no more than a hearty handshake and a salutary “don’t let the door hit you.”

Re-enter the Cooper Boulevard Community Support Network. Now here’s a group that knows how to keep its eyes on the prize. With the Wal-Mart project defeated (with their help) and the trailer park residents still facing eviction by the next evil developer, this support network sprang into action once again to champion social justice. The threesome decided to appear before city council during public comment and recommend that the city pass legislation that would make any buyer of trailer park property displacing 10 or more residents liable for their relocation.

Where did the magic number 10 come from? By their logic, any conflict of a lesser quantity would simply be “a matter between tenant and landlord.” Reaching the threshold of 10 or more would “make this a community problem.” Council member Robin Cape concurred claiming that such a solution recognizes a certain “social value” present in this conflict.

Another solution proposed by the Network, which also recognizes that elusive “social value,” was their recommendation that the city enter into a land trust to protect the trailer park. But what does this mean? The rightful owner of the property has provided affordable housing for the city’s poorest for decades and has chosen to dispose of his property as he sees fit. Will the government now step in to take it and deprive the property owner the use and disposal of his property? Why? For the greater common good? Does this not place society’s producers in the position of involuntary servitude?

What is all this talk about “the greater good,” “10 or more,” and “social value”? Do groups compete with individuals for a claim to rights? Who wins that competition?

The simple truth is that there is no such thing as social value; only individual value. There is no such thing as group rights; only individual rights. The concept of “the common good” is a phantom cooked up by the left to which no one can lay their finger.

What we are talking about here is, in reality, the brutish democracy of collectivism. Any time a majority of thugs can assemble and vote against the legitimate rights of an individual, we have established a regime that cannot respect the rule of law or recognize the moral supremacy of the individual liberty. Collectivism must necessarily deny individual rights. As Ayn Rand puts it: "The violation of an individual's rights means the abrogation of all rights." Collectivism demands sacrificing the achievers and producers to the whims of mobs and parasites. The result may be socialism writ small, but writ nonetheless. And on whose back? Mine today, yours tomorrow.

So, in the end, which is more helpful? Calling it what it is: Socialist -- or calling it what it can never be: Progressive?