Letter to the Commission

Mr. Hellam is a long-time resident of Seaside, California. and a free-lance writer.

Editors’ Note: The following letter was sent to the Chairman of the Economic Development Commission of Seaside, California. The Commission was formed as an advisory body, composed of unpaid volunteer citizens appointed by the City Council, to represent the views of the public and the Council to the Economic Development Department of the City of Seaside.

June 20, 1988

Dear Tom:

This is not a letter of resignation. There is no need for me to resign: my term on the Commission expires June 30, and, although I am pleased that you have asked me to stay on, I have chosen not to seek reappointment. I suppose you could call this a letter of expiration, then; but I prefer to say a letter of explanation, and I hope you will share this with the other commissioners and staff.

I welcome what I see as a more active (I do not say “pro-active”) Commission, ready to assert its rightful role, but I believe I have served long enough. I have been on the Commission for two and a half years, and have expressed my views as forcefully as I could whenever the moment was right and I could get a word in. (The minutes often have not reflected my comments, for reasons we have discussed.) Sometimes my words have met with a hostile reaction, sometimes with mild impatience, sometimes with amused tolerance. Often, they have been dismissed as “mere” philosophy.

There is no such thing as “mere” philosophy, in my opinion. The axioms that we carry with us to any enterprise will color everything that we do. Just as a married couple who do not view divorce as one of their options is more likely to stay together, so a city government that does not see confiscation of private property as a proper activity is less likely to violate the rights of its citizens.

Rights are possessed by the people, and only by the people as individual flesh-and-blood human beings. Collective rights are a myth. Rights inhere in the people from birth, granted by God, not by government. Government has no rights at all, only specific, limited, enumerated powers granted to it by the people. Our ancestors thought that these were self-evident truths.

Since the only proper role of government is to protect the sovereign people’s rights to life, liberty, and property, it follows that any government that takes away those rights without due process of law is destructive of the very ends it was established to achieve. The phrase “due process of law” has become twisted in many cases into an excuse to justify whatever a governmental body wants to do, and today “due process” is often regarded as meaning no more than providing advance notice of whatever adverse action the legally constituted authorities want to take. This makes the phrase meaningless, and makes the Constitution a dead letter. What was once self- evident is now hardly evident at all.

The supremacy of the people must be respected, not only in words but in actions. The City Council, composed of the people’s elected representatives, is subject to the people. Boards and commissions, appointed by the people’s representatives, are subject to the Council. City staff is supposed to be on the bottom of the power structure; unfortunately, in real life things seem to be turned around. Actions that affect the lives and livelihood of people are taken lightly, almost on whim. We must take government seriously, remembering that every government action is an act of force, funded by confiscated money and backed up by the threat of deprivation of life, liberty, or property.

City employees are people like the rest of us, with the same mixture of good and bad; however, anyone in a position of power must be watched carefully. We should not take it for granted that a city employee has the interests of the people at heart. Especially, an employee who does not even live in the city is likely to regard it only as the source of a paycheck, and moreover is not subject to the consequences of his own official acts. A high-ranking city official is probably more loyal to his career than to the particular city for which he is working at the moment. If you are an ambitious city planner, hoping to make a name for yourself and move on up to Fresno or San Jose or Stockton, your focus may well be on what makes you look good in the short term, not what is good for the city in the long term.

Conservatives and liberals alike often preach piously about the virtues of local government and local control, waxing poetic about how local governments are closest to the people and most responsive to those whom they were created to serve. However, that very closeness can be a danger. Government at best is a dangerous tool. At worst, you might see your home or business destroyed or taken away by the very government that was designed to protect it. Even in this day and age, the level of government most likely to do that is based not in Washington but in City Hall. As a Christian and a libertarian, I am concerned that real people, real live men and women, girls and boys, not be sacrificed on the altar of “The People” as a disembodied ideal.

“Economic development” is merely the lat-est alias of the old “Progress,” which had acquired a bad name and a suspicious odor. In a free society, property is owned individually, and each property owner has the right to decide what is the proper use for his land, limited only by concern for the similar rights of his near neighbors. When government, meant to be the people’s servant, seeks to be their master, we begin to hear phrases like “economic blight,” “underutilization,” and “highest and best use of the land.” Obviously, these all involve subjective judgments; and to say that someone at City Hall has better judgment than thousands of property owners is to set a dangerous precedent. If you concede that government has authority to take property from any single person to benefit another person or business, or simply to fulfill some almighty plan, then you have given away your own rights.

We need to be a little less vulnerable to the appeal of catch-phrases, not only those listed above, but others as well. “Increasing the tax base” is often repeated as a sort of mantra, but when we listen critically, we ask questions: will “increasing the tax base” lower the tax burden on the people, or will it really facilitate higher spending, higher salaries, and more power for the city establishment? Some say that this area has a shortage of housing; but when we say that we do not want to be “just a bedroom community,” do we mean that we want to start eliminating bedrooms in favor of board rooms? The people who sleep in those bedrooms are the city.

The city is not City Hall, not buildings and streets and lines on a map, but people. A city is not like a machine, but like an organism. It will grow, if left alone; it may grow better, with proper care. Radical interventions will probably be counterproductive. I grew up here. I loved Seaside as it was, and I love Seaside as it is. We must be sure that we are serving the real people of the real Seaside, not the ideal population of some professional planner’s dream city. Otherwise, we may finish by destroying Seaside in our attempts to help it.

With my best wishes,

Robert Hellam

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