Misdirected appeals and misunderstanding the purpose of government

One of our local news stories here in Lansing today is about plans to demolish the “Travelers Club International Restaurant” in Okemos, Michigan. This article is a little unclear to me, but my understanding is that Comerica Bank owns the building the restaurant is located in, and they are considering selling it to a nearby cosmetology school, which would demolish it as part of an expansion. The owner of the restaurant, Will White, is understandably against this idea, but I don’t like his reaction,

“It’s an irresponsible and shortsighted lack of planning,” he said. “The function of government is to do what’s best for the community, and they failed.”

He has started up a petition directed at township officials to get this demolition stopped.

But he’s (somewhat) mistaken. While clearly we want our governments to do what is best for our communities, we don’t want them to act in the way that White seems to desire here – specifically, we don’t want governments that recline in their chairs, determine what they think is best for everyone, and then tell property owners what they can and cannot do. (And the reason we don’t want governments to act this way is because there is no consensus about what is best – I’m sure the cosmetology school thinks an expansion is a great idea.)

What we do want are governments that protect the rights of individuals, including property rights. If Comerica wants to sell a building they own, they should be allowed to do so. If White wants to stop the demolition the best thing to do is to purchase the building from Comerica himself – not appeal to the local government to try to stop them from acting as they wish with their own property. (And I write this even though I would rather have a historic restaurant there! Certainly a cosmetology school does no good for me. But it isn’t my building.)

I can see some readers raising the objection – isn’t zoning, a nearly ubiquitous phenomenon, telling private property owners what they can do with their own property? Certainly it is, and actually zoning makes me kind of queasy too for just that reason. But at least you can say that people usually know going in to a property purchase that their actions will be restricted by zoning regulations – it’s almost like signing a contract, “I will buy this property subject to the following restrictions”. But what’s desired here sounds more like a changing of those restrictions after-the-fact, which is not fair to the owner.

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