April 29, 2019
In the 80’s my neighbourhood was poor and crime ridden. Since then, things have drastically changed. The recent economic boom has brought massive development in the area. New, million dollar houses are popping up in every street. One intersection in particular has a new condo building on every corner. There’s even a Whole Foods scheduled as a tenant for one of the buildings.
With this kind of quick and massive change, some people are occasionally left behind. Their houses go up in value but so do their property taxes. Once their fixed incomes cannot cover those semi-annual payments to the city, they are foreclosed and forced out. We call this process gentrification.
To fight gentrification, some of my community is protesting the arrival of Whole Foods. The community argues that people cannot afford to shop at Whole Foods (also known as Whole Paycheque). Second, they are demanding good, unionized jobs for the community.
To achieve their goals, they are exercising their democratic rights and protesting.
Allow me to go off on a tangent for a moment about democracy.
Democracy is the best tool we have to elect a government. It is a strictly better system than a monarchy that passes the crown down to their inbred children. It is also better than a mad dictator seizing power and waging war on his own constituents.
Democracy isn’t perfect. In the past, you had to be a literate male, of European descent, with significant property to have a vote. Over the years we’ve abolished the property, literacy, gender and race restriction to end up in the system most of us are familiar and enjoy today.
The natural human tendency is to assume that if something is good, more must be better. If democracy is good for election of governments, democracy must be also good for election of building tenants. Here, as a happiness pursuing, liberty loving individual, I have to disagree.
In fact, I disagree with the entire premise of community involvement in this decision. There is no room for democracy here.
How could this be? How could the fairest, most just system humanity has ever invented be wrong?
The most fundamental problem is the issue of property rights. Since it’s easy to vilify corporations, let’s pretend for a moment it wasn’t Whole Foods that was coming but a small, family owned co-op looking to open up shop in their detached accessory dwelling unit (or DADU).
Let’s also pretend there’s no negative externalities on the neighbours (no additional traffic, parking or noise issues). Why should the neighbours have any say in what this entrepreneur does? What business do they have in the entrepreneurs business?
The idea behind private property is that you own it. No one else does. What is ownership if not the right to make decisions about utilization of your own property. The entrepreneur bought the land and rights to run a business. She now has every right to run this business as she sees fit — even if it goes against all her neighbours wishes (although this might not be a good business model).
Second, it isn’t clear at all who this community is and where it ends. For example, how far away should one live from the contentious site before we prevent them from having a voice on the issue. I don’t think anyone would propose that I should have any say about a dispute in a neighbouring city (or Mexico for that matter).
There must be a line where the house to the left is included but the house to the right is not. This is unfair and arbitrary.
One could argue that the community can decide that too. The community could come together and vote on each house’s membership into that community. That feels pretty good right?
What if you’re openly dissenting from the majority view? The community can equally decide to vote you out; or better yet, not vote you in in the first place. It is also suspiciously reminiscent of past policies designed to suppress minorities’ voices.
Another solution is to introduce a “marginal vote” The further you are away from the site, the lesser your vote counts — very similar to our current tax system. It is an improvement over the above but we have effectively introduced classes for people. That might be acceptable for some but it isn’t democracy any more. The people that live just a few blocks away from the major development would have little to no say.
Third, there’s the majority rule problem. If we have a vote on an issue and the majority votes in a certain direction, we consider the direction as the winning direction. Majority is defined as more than 50% of the votes.
Let’s take a hypothetical town of 99 people. There’s a controversial Whole Foods coming to town so the town decided to vote. The outcome of the vote is a 49/50 split in favour of banning Whole Foods. In other words, 50 people decided over the 49 where they can and cannot shop. That doesn’t strike me as fair.
Also, prior to the elections, the vote may have been split right down the middle — 49 on each side plus 1 person undecided. In that case, this one person gets to decide for 98 other people the fate of Whole Foods. That’s a lot of power to give to a single individual. It is also very tempting to influence that individual’s vote (with money).
This may seem like a contrived example but it is simplified on purpose. Multiply all those numbers by 100 and it becomes very realistic. 100 people dictate the fate for 9800. Buying off 51 of those 100 people with backdoor deals and promises can be very profitable.
Then there’s the dissenter problem. It’s a mirror image of the majority rule problem. Let’s reuse our hypothetical town. The state government noticed an uptick in overdose deaths and decided to introduce a safe injection site in your town. And best of all, the town gets to vote on the placement. Presumably, few people want a safe injection site next to their house. We may want them in general because we believe they improve society as a whole but we’d prefer if they were a couple of tens of blocks down from our houses.
In this town, you are a particularly unpopular individual. You have blue hair and you like to shop at organic stores like some kind of a hippie. 50 people dislike you because of that. If it came down to a vote, they would elect your property as the site for the safe injection site. If you object, force will be used against you.
Finally, there’s the voter disinterest problem. Most people cannot be bothered to follow every trivial detail about their neighbourhood. For instance, most people are unlikely to follow every proposed development project in their vicinity. And they are definitely not going to take the time to call their elected representatives to voice their support or opposition. Unless, of course, there’s a direct impact on them or their property values.
It’s tempting to blame this lack of engagement on people. “If only they showed up to the hearing”, community supports say, “they would get what they wanted”. Yes, that’s true. In fact, that’s exactly how the vocal, unemployed and bored minority gets what they wanted.
The people my “community” is allegedly trying to protect are too busy working during the week and relaxing during the weekend to be bothered protesting and bickering about the paint job of the condominium coming up — that was last week’s agenda.
Regarding Whole Foods, the disinterest to the issue is completely rational. Most people are neutral-positive towards Whole Foods’ arrival. It’s just not that big of a deal for them. It is nice to have another place to shop and they look forward to occasionally indulging in an organic avocado toast.
On the other hand, take the Safeway owner from down the street. His bottom line rests on his ability to persuade the rest of us Whole Foods is a bad idea. Of course he’s going to show up to every hearing. Of course he’s going to bring up the underprivileged who need union jobs.
What is the end result? We get a handful of loud mouths with vested interests deciding what is best for the rest of us. It isn’t uncommon to have a few tens of people decide on a project that would impact 25,000 people.
If you think I sound like a massive complainypants then let me offer some solutions as well.
First of all, the argument over the affordability of Whole Foods is just plain silly. If my neighbours cannot afford Whole Foods, they will not shop there. Whole Foods will be out of business faster than the “community” can organize their next protest. If, on the other hand, Whole Foods is deemed affordable and valuable, my fellow neighbours would have another option to purchase organic food.
Sure, the owner of the Safeway down the street will have to live with thinner profit margins. But his misfortune is an acceptable downside to my community’s upside. When he opened his Safeway 20 years earlier, his fortune was someone else’s misfortune.
There’s also a risk that his Safeway could go completely out of business. In that case, the poor residents of my neighbourhood will have to travel a bit further to get groceries. This is a risk most people should be fine with. A Safeway that goes out of business due to competition from Whole Foods signals that there aren’t nearly that many poor people in the first place.
Some people may even suggest we should still care about the few poor people that are left over. They have the right to shop too. It follows then that we should shut down all Whole Foods all across the country. After all, every neighbourhood contains at least one or two families that can’t afford to shop there. What about them?
Bottom line is that we can all vote all the time and directly influence the direction of our neighbourhoods. We don’t have to worry about the mob forcing us to do things against our will; we don’t have to stay on top of every issue; we don’t have to worry if we think differently; and most importantly we don’t have to have our property rights abused. We just need to embrace a different system. We need to vote with our dollars.
Written by Leon Tager who lives and works in Seattle writing about a better life. You should follow him on Twitter