Thursday, 27 March 2014

The Triumph of Ethics over Practicality: A Tale of Two Cities

With a hat tip to reader Mark, and a big thank you to writer Jerry Kirkpatrick, here three years after Christchurch’s destruction is a topical Guest Post comparing the progress of two cities one year after devastation by tornado.
The results are as clear as that of any well-set-up laboratory experiment. Which model do you think is being followed in Christchurch ?

My title this month—the triumph of ethics over practicality—is sarcastic because I believe, as Ayn Rand taught, that the moral is the practical. My reference is to the continued unquestioned acceptance and dominance of altruism as the equivalent of ethics. And just as unquestioned, the premise that self-interest is bad.

The two cities are Joplin, Missouri, and Tuscaloosa, Alabama. About a year ago [at time of writing], both were hit with devastating tornadoes. A year later Joplin is thriving, largely revived and rebuilt. Tuscaloosa, on the other hand, still has un-demolished ruins, vacant lots, and businesses awaiting permit approvals to rebuild.*

This is an old story, of course: West vs. East Germany, South vs. North Korea, the US vs. the USSR. Why is the lesson never learned that capitalism works and socialism—central planning of any kind, including urban planning—does not? The answer once again is ethics, especially the primacy of altruism.

The pursuit of profit, the alleged reasoning goes, especially in an emergency situation such as the aftermath of a tornado, is unconscionably selfish and self-evidently harmful. This requires careful thought and planning by experts who know what is best for the public, those poor distraught victims. “It is our duty to serve,” the urban planners and other do-gooding bureaucrats rush in to say, “and serve we will.”

To be more explicit, the reasoning continues, egoism is evil and self-sacrifice is noble, the public servant being the most noble of all. All work and effort is expended for the sake of others, often at great personal sacrifice. This largesse is manifested, as Ayn Rand scathingly pointed out, in

the most wasteful, useless and meaningless activity of all: the building of public monuments” (The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 89). Monument builders in return expect gratitude and prestige from their constituents, a form of “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.

The public monument of these two cities is Tuscaloosa, a “showpiece,” as the city’s recovery plan states, of  “state-of-the-art urban planning,” with “unique neighbourhoods that are healthy, safe, accessible, connected, and sustainable,” anchored by “village centres”—and unfinished, one year later.* The Tuscaloosa plan, however, the Wall Street Journal comments, “never mentions protecting property rights.” It’s the monument that counts, the “state-of-the-art” plan.

That is because a public monument is always presented as “a munificent gift to the victims whose forced labor or extorted money had paid for it,” (Virtue, p. 89). In the case of Tuscaloosa the “forced labor and extorted money” was taxation, construction moratoria, and restrictions and regulations that increased the cost of doing business by thousands, even hundreds of thousands of dollars. Rights were irrelevant.

Joplin, on the other hand, took the free market route by suspending licensing and zoning regulations and allowing home and business owners to make their own decisions as to when and how they were going to rebuild. No monuments were built in Joplin.

What underlies the monument building mentality, whether it was construction of the pyramids in ancient Egypt or a military arch in the local park, is a theory of human nature. Egoism assumes that human beings are capable, resilient, self-directing and self-controlling. Altruism assumes that we are weak, inept, and in need of leadership from the more knowing and competent others, a ruling elite. It is not surprising then that a self-responsibility theory of human nature underlies egoism and capitalism. A theory of dependence underlies altruism and socialism in all of its variants. It is what underlies the theory of external control psychology.

The monument builder is the one who vocally preaches self-sacrifice and in the end collects the sacrifices. The monument builder is a public servant who thinks of him- or herself as doing very important work. Practicality is irrelevant. Ethics—the ethics of altruism—is paramount. Thus, monument building becomes self-congratulatory but it often lacks external praise, as from one’s constituents who might not always see the builder’s work as “very important” or appreciate the builder’s “sacrifices” that have been made.

The need to build more monuments becomes significant. More “forced labour and extorted money”—in today’s parlance, increased taxes, more regulations, and elaborate public works programs—become required.
The monument building mentality quite simply is that of a dictator.

Alternate TextJerry Kirkpatrick is professor of international business and marketing at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, and is author of ‘Montessori, Dewey, and Capitalism: Educational Theory for a Free Market in Education.’
This post
first appeared at Jerry Kirkpatrick’s Blog in May, 2012.

NOTES:

* As of August last year, while Joplin enjoys its new city, Tuscaloosa still has “pretty pictures of projects rather than completed projects. Explains the site, (written by local government types, and remember this is August 2013, two years and four months after the disaster that cut a six mile swathe through their city),

Progress on rebuilding has been slow, thanks largely to the slow flow of federal funds. [As it always is when “progress” is reliant on and measured in money doled out by government. – Ed] …. “It takes months -- years -- to receive and first be able to invest [that funding],” Maddox says, adding that Tuscaloosa didn’t collect its first monies from HUD (a $16.6 million Community Development Block Grant) until last fall and just this spring the agency announced a second allotment of nearly $44 million for the city…

How did this “progress” begin?

    [It began when city officials developed] the Tuscaloosa Forward Generational Master Plan…. The higher-density plan had its fair share of detractors… But Tuscaloosa used the lag time -- it was waiting on U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) rebuilding funds -- to build support for its new vision.
    The message city leaders wanted to convey was that the plan  [written before the “consultation”] would be community-driven. More than 3,000 people attended meetings, and the plan’s website logged 70,000 hits. “It was a ground-up process where the people of Tuscaloosa said, ‘This is what we want,’” said Mayor Walt Maddox…

Writing top-down “master plans,” building “support” through phoney consultation, and then waiting around for money and “leadership” from government. Sound familiar?

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