Monday, May 14, 2007

"Private Property Rights" Means I Don't Have To Fulfill My Agreements

I said I loved writing about homeowner associations, people are so wonderfully dispassionate and analytical. Who knew that real property law could push so many buttons? It's like when the plot in Body Heat turned on [a mistaken interpretation of] the rule against perpetuities.

Next time you meet a libertarian, ask him (it's almost always a him) how that whole private-contracts-eliminating-the-need-for-government thing worked out in their friendly neighborhood HOA. My suggested headline was "Living in a Libertarian Paradise" but I got the bigger slot on the op-ed page so I needed a bigger headline.

SB 1330 passed the legislature last week, and goes to the governor. HOA managers (and people who actually do pay their assessments) are lobbying her to veto it, but this looks like a huge political loser, where the people who care really, really care a lot, despite being wrong on the merits, and the general public interest couldn't care less. But at least this debate lays bare what most people mean by "private property rights" is (1) I get to do what I want with my property and (2) you also get to do what I want (and nothing more) with your property.

East Valley Tribune, May 13, 2007

Nothing gets Tribune readers going like homeowner associations. A fairly sterile debate about lien priorities and homestead exemptions gets people all riled up.

It’s not as if Senate Bill 1330 will have much practical effect. Even if the statute changes, HOAs will make future buyers waive the exemption. And nobody seems concerned about the issue raised by the Twin Rivers case, whether HOAs can limit political speech; no, in Arizona, we only care whether HOAs can recover assessments and fines on sale of a property. It’s not the principle of the thing, it’s the money.

It’s also amazing that people who detest HOAs choose to live in communities with associations. My family has lived in three different houses in Arizona; one was a rental and we’ve owned two. None had a HOA. We wanted a short commute and a neighborhood that had actual trees instead of just being named after trees. There’s also the side benefit of not raising our children to think that in America, your neighbors must approve your choice of paint color for your house.

Our choice, however, is apparently merely a market niche, and the planned community lifestyle predominates here. But it’s not mandatory to live the HOA life, and isn’t it more than a touch ironic to watch all these libertarians screaming for government intervention to protect them from their freely-made economic decisions? Suddenly, people who want to leave health care entirely to the tender mercies of the market sing a radically different tune regarding HOA fines and assessments.

But the most amazing thing is how HOAs put the lie to two of the American public’s most cherished myths -- of the pointless inefficiency of government and of the great wisdom, insight, and goodness of the American people.

People complain that politicians are too partisan, that they refuse to put aside their ideology and party labels, and that if you just empowered some ordinary Americans, they’d just do what they thought was right and solve the nation’s problems. People also complain that government is nothing but rules and bureaucracy that get in the way of actually accomplishing things.

HOAs suffer from neither problem; they’re not partisan or ideological, and they don’t suffer from a surfeit of laws, rules, and bureaucracy. That was supposed to be a good thing. It’s the modern version of the old story of the local yeoman farmers electing one of their number to govern them with humility and homespun wisdom, doing what he (always a he) thinks is right. Who needs lots of rules and hearing requirements and bureaucracy, when you can trust your neighbor to do what he or she thinks is right?

But that’s not how it works in practice, is it? The problem with empowering individuals is that many handle that power about as wisely as, well, they drive. That’s the problem, folks -- you have to design a system that understands that power won’t be given to some idealized exemplar of American virtue, but to the dope driving the car in front of you.

I especially love the folks claiming that the solution to gun violence is for everybody to carry a weapon. You don’t trust your neighbors to impose a $100 fine or to interpret pool use rules fairly -- but trust them to make split-second life-and-death decisions? How nuts is that?

Face it, people: At least some of government’s inefficiency and lack of responsiveness comes from requirements like due process, open meetings, public records, judicial review, rulemaking, nondiscrimination, and public bidding, all of which limit individual initiative and creativity in the name of oversight and fairness. Bureaucracy is designed so that everybody gets treated the same, which you hate when you’re not being treated special -- but if you give people unfettered power to decide things as they think best, you shouldn’t be surprised if they decide, for their own idiosyncratic reasons, that you stink and should suffer accordingly.

HOAs are libertarianism in practice -- private contracts, no government meddling, living with the consequences of your choices. If you don’t like the results, then maybe you should rethink your ideology.

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