Neighborhood burglars

The micro-managers are picking our pockets

Issue: "The narrow runway," Oct. 14, 2000

When Al Gore unambiguously (but characteristically) slammed the door last week on any future oil drilling by U.S. interests in the Arctic north, he also nudged his fellow Americans toward policies that more and more blatantly break the eighth commandment: Thou shalt not steal.

I know that some folks argue that huge, continent-wide no-drilling policies are nothing more than the logical extension of local zoning laws-municipal laws, for example, that say you can't put a mobile home in a historic neighborhood of expensive houses. But that argument, of course, is exactly why some folks argue against all zoning laws in the first place. They've seen how governments will take policies that most of us might reluctantly accept, blow them up to their biggest proportions, and then try to micro-manipulate our whole lives.

All of which is to remind us that a biblical view of justice ought to make us very careful indeed about backing any policies-local, state, or federal-that take away the value of anything owned by somebody else.

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Such a biblical view starts with the awareness that God is the Creator of all things, that He has established the people He created as stewards of the rest of His creation, and that He has ordained that those people will hold what we call ownership rights within that creation. With ownership rights come first the responsibilities of stewardship to the Creator, and then the responsibilities of the Golden Rule to fellow owners and stewards.

But such a biblical view is repugnant to many within the leftist, politically correct camps of our day. Most of them see no distinction between the Creator, the people He has created, and the rest of His creation. Because all three are mystically one and ultimately of the same rank, you might well soon see a mosquito as of equal value with a human being-and then end up worshipping that same mosquito. At first, such theological misunderstanding happens little by little; then the little by little becomes faster and faster.

Forgetting the Creator-caretaker-creation hierarchy leads not just to environmental confusion, but to ethical bewilderment as well. The biblical order of things declares first that even what I think of as ownership is in fact stewardship for the Creator; such a realization keeps me from arrogant misuse of His creation. The biblical order then also declares that I may neither rob my neighbor of his ownership rights by carelessly draining chemicals onto his property-or being so sloppy with my own property that it depreciates the value of my neighbor's. But if those restraints are true-and they certainly are-then neither may I rob my neighbor of the value of his land by using the power of the state to take away its productivity.

This is a marvelous, God-ordained system of checks and balances-itself part of God's created order. But now it has been virtually set aside in the modern scheme of "government-knows-best" property micro-management. Now we have elected leaders who think they're smart enough to prescribe in detail where every home should be built or not built, where factories and shopping centers may be erected but usually where they can't, and where some of the essential issues of life (like oil) may be extracted from the earth, but usually where they may not.

In my own city of Asheville, N.C., for example, a controversial Unified Development Ordinance-in effect for the last couple of years-has meant that not a single new subdivision of homes has been started by any contractor since the UDO went into effect. As a result, young couples are hard pressed to find affordable housing. The same ordinance, according to an architect friend, makes so many demands on property owners that those planning to improve their storefronts often change such plans when they discover the high price both in dollars and red tape. A new Wal-Mart store never made it in part because a noisy minority didn't like details of some of the environmental plans of the developers.

Gone as a result of such arrogant governmental management are thousands of jobs, homes for those who need them, a huge boost for the local tax base, and hundreds of less visible benefits. And in every case, those benefits have literally been stolen from property owners by bureaucracies using increasingly high-handed methods.

To be sure, greedy property owners also have a notably sorry record sometimes, using their assets selfishly, and failing to love their neighbors as much as they do themselves. In that sense, we property-rights folks may be getting our due.


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