Who needs zoning laws?
Joseph Tanen operates a violin repair shop in Manhattan. His neighbors have not complained about noise (not surprising, since fixing violins is a delicate, quiet activity). Nobody has identified a fire hazard. Nobody has been bothered by a large amount of customer traffic in and out of his shop. Nobody has alleged that the shop is a nuisance. Nevertheless, zoning officials have shut it down. Why? Because the business is operated out of a residential apartment, and the New York City zoning law forbids that.
Have you ever actually read a zoning law? It’s essentially a long series of finely detailed permissions and prohibitions. Depending upon where your property is located, property owners are granted government permission to operate this type of business, but not that one. New York’s City’s zoning law comes in at 3,056 pages of picayune classifications and distinctions having no relation to whether a person’s use of his property physically interferes with someone else’s use.
Tanen and his wife sank their life savings into outfitting their violin shop. “Now we are spending money on a lawyer,” his wife told the New York Times. Americans typically shake their heads in disgust at this kind of case, wondering why bureaucracies seem to lose track of common sense. But the task of protecting property rights requires more than common sense. It requires a commitment to principle.
The basic assumption underlying zoning law is that land use is a privilege, not a right. But this is contrary to the American ideal of individual rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. A right is that which can be exercised without permission. On principle, an owner has the moral right to use his property according to his own judgment, provided that use doesn’t violate his neighbors’ rights to do the same.
Although it’s hard for most Americans to imagine life without a zoning law, it’s been proven feasible (Houston gets along fine without one). Laws against nuisance, fire hazards, pollution, and similar wrongs are fully adequate to protect property rights without zoning. When the law recognizes property rights, it unleashes the creativity and productivity of individuals like Joseph Tanen, who seek only to earn a living without infringing on anyone else’s freedom.
Image: Wikimedia Commons