Sunday, July 06, 2008

Building Paradoxes

Tibor R. Machan

Never have I resided in or visited a locale in America where there hasn’t been an active historical preservation society. These are the organizations that impose all sorts of restrictions on property owners about what may or may not be build, renovated, restituted within the borders of what the activist consider to be “their community.” Now and then I even attend planning commission meetings where I live, just to witness the utter, unabashed arrogance of these preservers of architectural history. Members of such committees are invariably convinced that they own everyone’s property and may dictate to all concerned what may be done with what is, after all, supposed to be private property. (Not that these are the only such organizations surrounding communities across the land and, indeed, the globe. The sense of entitlement to butt in where folks ought to have no authority to decide is sadly almost universal.)

Now this is something one can lament forever and it is quite clear, at least to many decent folks, that the tyranny of such groups is intolerable, however much various quirks in the legal system manage to make them legitimate. That’s not what I want to consider here. An aspect of this situation, however, is worth taking not of because it points up just how convoluted is the thinking of advocates of such intrusiveness.

All the while that the preservationists are hell bent on leaving things as they used to be, thus retarding development, some of those very same people insist that all buildings conform to up to date technical standards when it comes to safety, health, and security. Thus the standards laid down by such governmental bodies as the federal agency OSHA--Occupational Safety and Health Administration--and various local bodies that determine the building codes--are also vigorously promoted and imposed on property owners everywhere.

Just exactly how these two equally widely embraced objectives of people who love to meddle in others’ lives can be reconciled has always puzzled me. If you want to preserve what’s old because of its historical significance, how can you insist that it be updated to conform to the latest technological standards? And if that’s not possible, which is going to take precedence? Is it more important for us all--because, after all, these goals are all supposed to serve the public interest, the common good, as opposed to serving private profit, which is what builder of new structures are supposedly committed to--to be as safe as possible or is it more important to enjoy authentic historical structures in our neighborhoods?

Of course, there is no answer to this question because for different people and groups, different objectives could easily be more vital. Some folks ought to live and work in places fully equipped with the most affordable up to date gadgetry, while others may be much better of--pursue their happiness for more effectively--if they embrace the architectural and construction treasures of history. Some like their abode to be a historical exhibition, some a model of the latest and highest options of building technology. And there are, I am sure, all kinds of valid combination of objectives that no group of meddling bureaucrats can even imagine yet have no hesitation about imposing on everyone.

Of course, this is not the only paradox that is inherent in the policy of meddlers. Another one of my favorites is that these folks actually manage to convince themselves of the utterly conceited notion that they alone know what is right and good for all when it comes to planning buildings, neighborhoods, and communities. Does it not occur to them, to quote Abraham Lincoln, that “No man is good enough to govern another man, without that other's consent”?

I guess not. Instead they probably live in the reactionary past when kings and dukes and barons thought they had it all over the rest of humanity when it came to giving direction to human lives. I say bunk to that and hope you will in time agree with me!

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