Half Past the Month

November 10, 2021

A Self-Destructive Representation

“Wrath is cruel, and anger outrageous, but who is able to stand before envy? — Proverbs 27:4.

OBSERVERS OF LOCAL city councils are puzzled by the ineffectiveness of new voting blocs elected in recent years. They rode in on a clear mandate to improve the lives of constituencies in economically distressed quarters of their cities, that and ensure something they called “equity.” 

The question is raised, though, whether these blocs aren’t more interested in chastising the prosperous districts than improving their own — to be driven by resentment, in other words, high-minded and politically correct resentment but resentment nonetheless.

A harsh judgment, to be sure, but a review of the blocs’ councilmanic initiatives is telling. Their projects and programs rarely address disincentives inside their districts. They typically seek to command action or money from outside their districts.

These are in the name of affordable housing, convenient shopping or other worthy goals but, again, they all depend on taking money from someone elsewhere and giving it to the politically designated herein. As such, their projects are highly publicized but predictably limited and transitory, benefiting well-connected individuals rather than the community at large. In general, their economic-development strategies resemble those used in Gary, Indiana, for the past couple of decades — plenty of complex TIF districts and regional taxing units managed by obscure authorities.

Please know that most of these same goals could be achieved by simply getting bungling, intrusive city halls out of the way. On council shelves are dozens of measures —  if not opposed by these blocs — that would repeal restrictive neighborhood zoning, relax work regulations and professional licensing and generally benefit anyone investing in the disadvantaged areas.

Instead, political energy is wasted in oddly apolitical rancor. The blocs’ reaction to rioting, for example, was not an emphatically expressed concern over damaged property or a call for public safety but a demand that police officers, assumed to be racist, jump through purifying hoops — the wearing of body cameras, attending social-justice training sessions and such. And most perverse, high crime rates in their districts are tolerated so long as the larger community can be blamed in some way. 

To understand all of this you must appreciate the power of envy to divide and destroy. And because the members in these blocs see themselves above all as advocates of social justice (liberals, some might say) they cannot bring themselves to champion the one thing that ameliorates envy — the natural right of each of us regardless of race or address to protect and own property.

For there is another way to look at property. Aside from its role in Western Civilization and the socio-economic model that has brought even the most disadvantaged of us historic prosperity, a right to private property has a moral aspect. It is emblematic of the Golden Rule, i.e., we would treat someone else’s property as we would have others treat our own. 

The sociologist Helmet Schoeck has thought carefully on the subject. He concludes that the desire to level things regardless of productivity or merit, to punish one group by arbitrarily transferring wealth and power to another, springs from an inability to come to terms with personal resentments:

“The merciful effect of private property is evident, though it is seldom recognized. It is not the cause of destructive envy, as the apostles of equality are always seeking to persuade us, but a necessary protective screen. Even where there have ceased to be any enviable material goods or where these have for some reason been withdrawn from envy’s field of vision, there still is the evil eye and envious, destructive hatred directed against the other person or group. It might almost be said that private property first arose as a protective measure against such envy.”

Schoeck’s test is a simple one. Let’s take one of those measures off the council shelf, one that doesn’t threaten others with higher taxes, forced consignment or a demand for social tribute, but rather directly and only improves the lives of the disadvantaged constituency. Let’s see if anyone in your particular bloc will vote for it.

A suggestion would be to repeal a city’s business personal property tax, an action which state law now permits for every Indiana city. Without the tax on equipment, the disadvantaged areas represented by the blocs, because property and buildings there are underpriced, would have an immediate advantage. Relocating businesses and new businesses, year in and year out, would bring more and better-paying jobs than does the occasional public-private boondoggle.

The problem, we predict, will be that it would be applied uniformly (equitably) throughout the city and therefore offer nothing in the way of shaming others for being better off. — tcl


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