Cities should be made beautiful, but not at the expense of freedom

TRACKSIDE © by John D’Aloia Jr.

November 19, 2002

"Such is the nature of man, such the tendency of power in a nation as well as a single person. It makes a perpetual effort to enlarge itself, and presses against the bounds that confine it. It loses by degrees all idea of right but its own; and therefore that people must be unhappy indeed, who have nothing but humble petitions and remonstrances (sic), and the feeble voice of a charter to oppose to the arms… that claims a right to bind them in all cases whatsoever." Thus spake the Reverend Samuel Cooper in a sermon on October 25, 1780.

The Founders studied the historical propensity of government to enlarge itself and saw in history their own circumstances, a growing British control of their lives with freedom being ground under foot. To establish a government that would enable freedom to flourish for their descendants, they dedicated themselves to breaking loose from the dominion of the British crown. They were not in the majority. Various estimates exist as to their number in the population of the colonies; most fall in the 20 to 33 percent range, with an equivalent number of dedicated Tories. The rest of the population was indifferent. Think of it, our country and our freedoms were brought about by a minority of the citizenry. What they had were ideas, powerful ideas that they advanced in every manner possible. Samuel Adams drove them on, saying: "It does not take a majority to prevail ... but rather an irate, tireless minority, keen on setting brushfires of freedom in the minds of men."

The Founders’ political ideas were embodied in the Declaration of Independence and codified in the Constitution. Their core belief in Natural Law and a servant government is summed up in the Declaration’s passage that starts: "We hold these Truths to be self-evident...." The Constitution established a strictly limited government, mindful of Thomas Jefferson’s belief: "The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground." The Founders knew that unless constrained by the constant vigilance of the citizenry, government would expand and erode the freedom they gave their lives to achieve.

The Founders also knew that freedom could not exist in a decadent society. They were as concerned about an internal moral collapse as they were about a foreign invader. Samuel Adams wrote: "A general dissolution of principles and manners will more surely overthrow the liberties of America than the whole force of the common enemy. While the people are virtuous they cannot be subdued; but when once they lose their virtue then they will be ready to surrender their liberties to the first external or internal invader." Samuel Adams was not alone in such a belief. James Madison said: "To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical idea." Richard Henry Lee wrote: "A popular government cannot flourish without virtue in the people." One only has to turn on television or read the popular press to realize that the Founders’ worst fears are coming to pass. The virtue quotient in our culture and in our political system is approaching zero. Kansans electing a pro-abortion big government governor is solid evidence of our civic and personal duty failings. We have complacently allowed government to become a freedom-devouring Leviathan.

The Founders had a strong belief in private property rights. Only with the right to own and make use of property could citizens be independent of government, not beholden to it for their very subsistence. Cooper and Jefferson well understood the devastation that could be caused by the crown seizing land; we know it today as the power of eminent domain. What the two probably could not have conceived of are zoning agencies, but their beliefs apply. Complicated and restrictive zoning laws usurp private property rights and give The Clerks the ability to control land and force its use as they see fit. The concept of freedom does not give government the power to dictate the use of property. What it does provide for is that the activities of one property owner cannot violate the rights of another property owner. It is government’s duty to protect these rights, not usurp them.

The Federalist provided a succinct statement of the forces at work, big government versus freedom, when it cited a statement made in the zoning case of Euclid vs. City of Ambler: "That our cities should be made beautiful and orderly is, of course, in the highest degree desirable, but it is even more important that our people should remain free."

See you Trackside.


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