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Monday, August 23, 2010

Pond Scum

Human nature never changes, though over time human behaviour can. There is always some percentage of the human race that are, and always will be, bastards. In a free society they are a relatively minor problem. The bastard has no coercive power over you. He can threaten to fire you, he can threaten to bankrupt, he can threaten to do many things, but the moment force is threatened, or initiated, it becomes a legal matter for the police and courts. In a mixed economy the bastard has a much wider field of action. He can appeal to the state to wage his battles for him. This seems to have happened to Marta & Lech Jaworski:

Due to an anonymous zoning complaint filed with the local municipality, husband and wife bed-and-breakfast proprietors Marta & Lech Jaworski may be forced to pay as much as $50,000 in fines for permitting their son, Peter, to use his family’s property to host the Liberty Summer Seminar, an annual barbecue in support of liberty.

“Our family escaped Poland for fear of reprisals in 1984 after my mom and dad handed out pro-democracy and pro-freedom literature from under my baby carriage,” said Peter Jaworski. “It’s ironic and upsetting that they may now be facing charges in Canada for allowing me to host an event in support of those very same principles.”

The anonymous snitch is lower, in my humble estimation, than a common mugger. The mugger at least has the courage and honesty, if we can use those terms, to openly reveal his nature and methods. This contemptible creature has decided to run to the government to "even the playing field." I've met creatures like this before. They lack the grandeur to be called evil, but the harm they do is real and big enough. My own parents left a fascist - as it is usually described - tyranny rather than a communist one, but the difference is one of degrees rather than methods and goals. Tyranny is tyranny. In an overall excellent piece in the National Post's Kevin Libin notes:

Today, Marta Jaworski uses language that might seem extravagant to describe what she's going through, talking of being "hunted" by government "bullies." But then, there are fines looming that could put them out of business, or at least steep rezoning costs to face. She breaks into tears explaining how she couldn't bake the special cake she had planned to celebrate the 10th anniversary of her son's barbecue. For those who love liberty, even the most mundane tyrannies are intolerable.

Well yes, but if you've ever seen immigrant parents work, and work, and see it all nearly lost in a moment, the language is not extravagant at all. Sweat is sweat, whatever the worker's ideology. The overwhelming majority of Canadians are not self employed. They work for other people, those other people take the risks. The employees get their paychecks and go home. They live well within the lines of our over regulated society. 

This is why so many respond in puzzlement to the complaints of libertarians, and classical liberals, about the overmighty state. It doesn't really impact them. They work for large, or medium sized companies, which have departments that handle compliance. It's all someone else's problem. Perhaps they run afoul of a smoking by-law, or get caught in a radar trap, but Leviathan isn't a reality to them. It gives them free health care and pensions. That moment, however, when you step off the well trodden path, like starting up a small business, then the enormity of the modern state confronts you. The taxes aren't neatly taken out of your paycheck, the zoning ordinances aren't handled by a lawyer in the another office, it's you doing all those things, with time and energy you don't have.

I treasure two things I learned in Sunday School - though I'm not a Christian now. The first is that God helps those who help themselves. A motto that works even better if you're an atheist.  The second is that the path to hell is paved with good intentions. Some mighty fine intentions have been poured into the welfare state, the nanny state and the regulatory state. Zoning ordinances are a case in point. They were - and still are - sold to the public as a government method of protecting property rights. Not allowing smelting plants to go up near residential areas, that sort of thing. 

But to that end zoning laws are redundant. For centuries property owners had remedy in the common law, through the principle of coming to the nuisance. While sometimes cumbersome to administer, this principle allowed private individuals to settle their grievances either through mutual agreement, or by turning to the courts to adjudicate on conflicting rights claims. By the early twentieth century the nuisance doctrine was largely supplanted in law by the zoning system. 

While a seemingly simple administrative solution, it transformed the role of the state from arbiter to regulator. Where once issues of nuisance were private matters between impacted individuals, they became matters of collective interest. Soon enough the urban planner entered the picture, using the new tool of zoning, and playing God over the very physical environment of daily life. Their track record, from Le Corbusier on down, speaks for itself. Zoning laws are a classical example of bait and switch. Tell the people its about protecting their property, then actually use these new laws to assume a sweeping role in their daily life. The use of these laws in trying to destroy competitors isn't a bug, it's a feature. 

UPDATE: Former Western Standard impresario Ezra Levant on the bureaucratic party crashers:

He wasn’t a health officer; he was a bylaw officer. Yet he demanded to know what the guests had for lunch. In the name of the law!

Armed with this devastating information, the officer charged Peter’s parents with running an illegal “commercial conference centre,” which carries a fine of up to $50,000. The officer, a burly, tattooed, six-foot-something man, told Peter’s mom to “be very careful.” She burst into tears.

I phoned that bylaw officer to ask him about the Jaworskis. I found a man on a mission, boasting to me that his next step would be to take down the street sign for the family’s small bed and breakfast.

Petty power luster. 

Posted by Richard Anderson on August 23, 2010 | Permalink


What's amazing is that the supporters of the current system always accuse those who oppose it of believing that externalities do not exist.

Posted by: Charles | 2010-08-23 7:06:59 AM

Could you elaborate, please, Charles?

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2010-08-23 7:25:21 AM


For example, one of my profs at McGill in 1998 (I think) informed our entire class that "laissez-faire" economists did not believe that externalities ever occured. In effect, he created a strawman. According to him, "laissez-faire" economists were a bunch of naive fools who thought that there were never any adverse consequences upon third parties resulting from a transaction. Instead of honestly portraying the situation as it is (that proponents of "laissez-faire" want a court-based solution based on stronger individual property rights), he (knowingly or unknowingly) deceived the entire class. He is far from being the only one (as I have encoutered many profs at the MBA level who were saying the exact same thing).

Of course, at the time (in 1998), I believed him. As did everyone else in class.

Posted by: Charles | 2010-08-23 8:12:43 AM

Your prof was partly right, Charles. While one certainly doesn't want to go to the extreme personified by Ian Malcolm* and his "chaos theory / butterfly effect," the other extreme is just as blinkered. A responsible citizen considers the foreseeable effects of his actions on others and plans accordingly. And an enlightened policymaker, by definition, has to. That is not a strawman; that is simply acknowledging that one is not alone in the Universe and that the rights afforded by citizenship come with responsibilities attached. At issue is where to draw the line, not whether there is a line.

    *The doomsaying mathematician in Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park.

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2010-08-23 9:12:23 AM


Did you read what I wrote? Classic liberals and other assorted advocates of "laissez-faire" do not deny the existence of externalities. We just propose a different system to deal with the problem.

Let me make this simple for you. We naive "laissez-faire" types do believe in externalities. They occur and they must be dealt with. Because, as you said, we do not live in a vaccuum. We simply believe that citizens should have their property rights enforceable in court. In other words, if I make a transaction with someone that hurts you, you should be able to sue me for the damages (or negotiate directly with me). You should not be allowed to anonymously use the state to settle the claim.


Posted by: Charles | 2010-08-23 9:36:12 AM

Yes, Charles, more clear now, thank you. I agree that anonymity should not be allowed in any case; the evidence that the Jaworskis are going to put Agent 47 on the complainant's trail is astonishingly thin. However, using the courts is also using the apparatus of the state, albeit as an arbiter, not a regulator. As I said, virtually everyone agrees there is a line. The differences arise over where to draw it. Any type of rule or law can be used as a tool for oppression in the wrong hands, and zoning laws are no different.

Frankly though, I doubt the case against P.M.'s folks has legs. There is nothing in the amended Clarington bylaws that forbids "commercial conference centres" in agricultural zones, even if it could be proved that this barbeque was a fee-charging event, which is currently far from clear. What is almost definite is that the Clarington council never counted on finding itself in the glare of the national media spotlight. Gotta love the democratization of the media. Hail to the Web!

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2010-08-23 10:16:36 AM

Sad , but another example of leviathan supporting itself. As a libertarian its heartbreaking to watch this happen

Posted by: don b | 2010-08-23 10:19:35 AM

No, it's just another case of a busybody neighbour and petty bureaucrats with an exaggerated idea of their importance. Don't think for a minute if you were offered such a job that you'd turn it down, or that your behaviour would be any different. Every poor man who cusses the rich would just love to trade places.

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2010-08-23 10:41:55 AM


You seem to think I reject all gov't involvement in our lives.

Your entire paragraph supports my argument that the current system is unjust. The busybody and the bureaucrat are given this power by the state. Enforcing property rights through tort laws would force the busybody to go to a real court. He would have to pay real money to have his case heard and provide real evidence that the Jaworskis damaged him or his property somehow. Of course, I take your point that the laws would be subject to abuse. I do believe that the potential for abuse would be greatly diminished.

Posted by: Charles | 2010-08-23 10:53:51 AM

I live in BC and for most of the past two weeks we have lived in a choking cloud of forest fire smoke. This problem will resolve itself after the billions of dead pine trees that litter our landscape burn away. In my city though we have a by-law that criminilizes me for lighting a small fire in my backyard to toast marshmallows and hot dogs for the kids. The ostensible reason for the law is my neighbors may be sensitive to the smoke. Some days lately you can't even see across the river and it's only 100 yards wide. Meanwhile my children are deprived of a joy I had as a kid and further alienated from a happy harmless past-time. For the full skinny on this phenomena i highly recommend freedom21.org.

Posted by: peter | 2010-08-23 12:43:47 PM

My suspicious and recovering municipal politician brain tells me that given 9 previous years of peace in the neighbourhood during this event and now this BS, there is rent-seeking going on from a competing B&B owner. Behind much of what passes for bylaws and ordinances you will find a business interest preferring extra-market means of protecting his interests particularly when a mix of public property is added to the equation

Posted by: John Chittick | 2010-08-23 2:14:56 PM

Have you considered roasting the marshmallows over the fireplace, Peter? Or for that matter, the barbeque? I realize it's not quite the same, but it beats cursing The Man.

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2010-08-23 2:56:35 PM

And if you don't have money or have a great deal less than the guy trying to dump on you, that means you lose. Not because your argument is unworthy, but just because you had less folding green than the other person.

Tort processes favour the establishment and the rich. They can afford to pay to kill time. Companies more so.

Some things like food safety, water cleanness etc should be held to standards that are a little higher than the level of bank balance.

Posted by: harebell | 2010-08-23 11:38:01 PM


Nice try. Who do you think is hurt the most by costly regulations? Large companies or the little guy? The Jaworskis were forced to cater the event. How much do you think that cost? And the present system is exactly what strengthens the "establishment". Corporations get to run afoul of others' property rights simply by bribing the right official. Think mining companies.

The answer to your criticism is to restructure the court system. Instead of hiring a legion of bureaucrats, provide resources to courts in order to improve the process. Tort laws could be reformed to prevent large corporations for stalling.

Posted by: Charles | 2010-08-25 8:09:52 AM

I'm with Harebell on this one, Charles. A friend of my wife's just paid half a million bucks in divorce court to hear the words "fifty-fifty." (Apparently the judge was leaving on sabbatical and didn't wish to tax herself unduly.) If the judge makes a mistake, will she fix it if brought to her attention? NO. It's left to the wronged party to try to persuade another judge to do that, at their own risk and expense.

No less an authority than Chief Justice Beverly McLaughlin has candidly and publicly stated that the legal system is no longer a viable option for most Canadians. Proceedings are nightmarishly complicated, hobbled by centuries of ossified precedent, the floors of every lawyer's and judge's office sagging under the weight of hundreds of tonnes of paper. It has reached the point where judges themselves are often unsure of the law; the irony is that their own rulings are solely to blame for all the mess.

There was a time when the courts could be counted on to dispense justice in a reasonably timely manner at a reasonable cost. Ideally, this would still be the dispute resolution method of choice. But that simply isn't possible with the courts in their current state. For my wife's friend, it would have been cheaper to hire Agent 47, and have done. The result would have been more just, too.

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2010-08-25 12:14:01 PM

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