History shouldn’t trump private property rights

By Tibor Machan

Never have I resided in or visited a locale in America where there hasn’t been an active historical preservation society.

These are organizations that impose all sorts of restrictions on property owners about what may or may not be built, renovated, restituted within the borders of what the activists 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 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.

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 note of because it points out just how convoluted is the thinking of advocates of such intrusiveness.

All the while the preservationists are hell-bent on leaving things as they used to be, thus retarding development, some of those 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 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 off 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.

Tibor Machan advises Freedom Communications, parent company of this newspaper. E-mail him at
Machan@chapman.edu