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All elected officials should be required to read, memorize and abide by Article I, Section VIII of the United States Constitution. Abuse of the powers enumerated in this clause has been the cause of more problems than can be identified by any one person. The most devastating problem this abuse has created is that it has created a culture of dependency and entitlement in many citizens that would have horrified all of the founders.

Whatever happened to what Leonard Read called, “The Essence of Americanism”? In short, Read appreciated, as many liberty loving Americans once did, that the state is not the endower of man’s rights, and therefore the state is not sovereign. The essence of Americanism is, in short, a belief in a limited government, where if an individual has a right to her life, then she has a right to sustain that life – by benefiting fully from the fruits of her own labor. When the founders crafted the Constitution and the Bill of Rights there wasn’t a single person who turned to the government for security, welfare or prosperity and that’s because government had no power to take from some and give to others. And therefore people turned to an even more powerful entity for help – themselves. What has caused many Americans to abandon this discipline? What is causing people to yearn for an increase in the welfare state? Has our enormous material prosperity allowed Americans to forget what factors have contributed to this success?

Note, that nowhere in this part of the Constitution (speaking of the powers of Congress) does it say that Congress is to set up and run businesses (aside from the lamentable permission to run a postal system); nowhere does it say that Congress can subsidize businesses; nowhere does it say that Congress can build schools, etc.Now, I have not looked at the KY constitution, but I do not believe many additional powers would be enumerated there either (HT to the student that directed me to section 177 which states that, “The credit of the Commonwealth shall not be given, pledged or loaned to any individual, company, corporation or association, municipality, or political subdivision of the State; nor shall the Commonwealth become an owner or stockholder in, nor make donation to, any company, association or corporation; nor shall the Commonwealth construct a railroad or other highway.” The student rightly points out that “in general practice over the course of years this section has been forgotten to a certain extent .” And the reason being is that someone has overstretched the meaning of “public purpose” from section 156b of the same document which says that, ” cities may exercise any power and perform any function within their boundaries that is in furtherance of a public purpose of a city…” )

Why am I writing on this? Because I simply can’t sit back and read any more letters to the editor proclaiming that “it’s up to the government to make sure that … insert demand here.” A recent letter to the editor of my local paper has spawned my following terse reply:

Dear Editor:

A writer indicated Wednesday that Danville needs more than just restaurants and challenged the leaders of Danville to “wake up and smell the roses” and do something about it.

First, there is no Danville per se – rather there are thousands of individuals in Danville seeking work, recreation, home lives, church lives, etc. What each of these individuals need is different from the next, so it is not clear exactly who exactly this ” Danville ” is and what exactly she needs.

Second, government officials neither have the ability nor the responsibility to create new businesses (and therefore jobs). Individual entrepreneurs, if they see an opportunity, are free to open up any business they wish (with some exceptions in Danville of course). If a mini-golf would be profitable, then I challenge a citizen of Danville to open one. If a mall would be profitable, I once again challenge a citizen (or group of citizens) to build one. I, myself, do not believe these would make money in Danville and have therefore chosen not to risk my personal savings on these endeavors. If I see something that the citizens of Danville really want, I would make every effort to start a business to satisfy those wants.

It is all too common for citizens to rely on governments to provide for the things we want. It’s not possible for government officials, even in a town as small as Danville, to have all of the requisite information and incentives to provide for the things the citizens of Danville want. To believe otherwise and to allow governments to do so would put us all one step further along the road to serfdom. Which areas of our commercial lives provide us with the least satisfaction? Government services, the post office, public housing, etc. Which areas provide us with the most satisfaction? UPS, Apple iPods, Walmart, Applebees, cellphone services, etc. The difference? We are most satisfied with the goods and services that are provided by entrepreneurs that face consequences from treating customers poorly and reap rewards from treating them well.

There is, of course, an important role our city officials can play. They can make it easier for people to start a business: by making sure zoning requirements promote the starting of business instead of stifling it: by better publicizing the procedures one would need to go through to start a business; by working with the state and federal governments to keep taxes low and to keep intrusive regulation to a minimum; and by not playing favorites by unfairly using tax dollars to subsidize some businesses and not others.

One Response to “The Proper Role of City Governments”

  1. Rod says:

    Here in PA, the Pennsylvania Municipal Planning Code requires all municipalities to have a planning commission or a planning committee to oversee land development and make recommendations to the councils and boards of supervisors on land use issues. In our area, the county and six area municipalities have gone a step further and have formed a “regional planning commission” through an intergovernmental agreement that binds them together.

    The supposed advantage of this regional body is that it allows the municipalities to get around the requirement under the PMPC to provide for all uses of land within the boundaries of individual municipalities. (
    When the PMPC was written, somebody apparently recognized how much zoning could infringe on property rights, and they did not want to allow a municipality to devise a zoning code that only allowed big lots and expensive houses. Their motivation was not capitalism and economic liberty, however: the wanted all municipalities to accept a “fair share” of such things as “low-income housing,” as well as other obnoxious and undesirable uses of land like junkyards and adult bookstores.

    The regional planning commission gets around the fair share requirements by counting the high-density housing inside the boroughs as well as the junkyards out in the townships. While regional planning has not been tested yet in court, the regional planners think they can survive challenges on exclusionary zoning and “curative amendments,” which are amendments to the zoning code that can be demanded whenever the zoning omits mention of a particular use.

    Developers can still make a claim for exclusionary zoning or a curative amendment if the land area in a zone is too small for the given use. In 1998, Panda Energy, a Houston-based merchant power company, sought to build a four-unit combined-cycle gas fueled power plant near the tiny village of Palm. Panda claimed that “electric power generating facility” was a listed use in the LIC (Light Industrial and Commercial) zone, and it was, because at one time the supervisors had considered building their own trash to steam power plant. Panda showed also that the zone where electric power generation was also allowed, the Outdoor Storage (OS) zone, was too small to allow for enough setbacks from the road and adjacent properties. (The OS zone was also where landfills, junkyards, and adult uses were permitted.)

    Panda walked away from a zoning hearing fight when their shelf-registration of a $350 million limited partnership expired on Wall Street. Enron had dried up all venture capital for merchant power plants.

    At the same time Panda was going on, the area municipalities were working on regional planning. It’s just dumbfounding that absolutely none of our local officials were opposed to regional planning. Their view apparently was that they should have more power to deny landowners the use of their land, because the regional plan that resulted had switched the zoning in many areas from higher-value uses to “R1” — the zone where one needs two acres of land for a single building lot. The adoption of the regional zoning map literally took millions of dollars out of those unlucky landowners’ pockets.

    But back to your post, and how municipal officials and even professional planners cah’t begin to know what the needs of the residents of a municipality are. It’s an epistemological problem, really: there are so many variables involved, and it’s also next to impossible to study the needs without bias.

    Our county planning commission was pushing regional planning, so their professional planners basically did everything, including writing the regional plan. At the outset, they conducted a survey — something they had learned in land planning grad school — in which they sent out a mailer to every household and asked the residents to fill in what they thought the area needed.

    It would have been good if these planners had taken a course or two in psych, because then they’d know that the sample they would get back would be “self selected” and be skewed by such things as all the environmental wingnuts getting together to say the same thing.

    The way it worked out, the survey was completely worthless as a source of information, but it also was flawed fatally by assuming that central planning actually works. When I pointed out in an editorial that central planning had so goofed up agriculture in the Soviet Union that fertile lands like the Ukraine would have a failed wheat harvest every year, the local folks bent on regional planning said they did not think lessons from the Soviet Union applied.

    Then just last year, our local chamber of commerce got $50,000 of state grant money to pay for a bunch of planners from Carlisle to do a study on what could be done to revitalize business. Those bozos just recycled the regional plan and spent a week in town in order to reach the conclusion that we need to have — don’t laugh; I’m not making this up — “eco-tourism.”

    The idea is that this area is so far around the bend with environmental “ambience” that folks from the suburbs and Philadelphia will want to come up here for the weekend to dine and spend a night in a bed-and-breakfast.

    Instead, the chamber should be lobbying for lower taxes (back when I was a supervisor in the 80’s, the township levied NO real estate taxes. A zero rate! How’s that for a stimulus?), and fewer land use regulations.

    An explanation of our zero mill tax: the township abolished the police department and no longer needed the property taxes, as a half-percent earned income tax, liquid fuels taxes, an occupational privilege tax and a per capita tax was more than enough. Since then, successive boards of supervisors have found ways to spend money so that it’s now necessary to have a real estate tax.

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