Everyday I read the letters to editor I become more concerned that Oregonians and Americans are too quick to ignore basic principles in order to achieve a desired outcome more conveniently. Basic principles like “Equal protection under the law” or protecting unpopular minorities from the “Tyranny of the majority.”
Take Measure 49, it recognizes that if a property owner has the value of their property taken from them by regulation after they purchased it, the owner should be compensated. But it makes the right only apply to small property owners that only want to develop less than 4 homes. Why does the person that owned a large tract of land since the 60’s that could have been developed into 100 homes not have the same basic right in principle as the small property owner?
It is convenient for those that want to limit development without paying for the reduced value to ignore equal protection and to set-up two classes of citizens through a ballot measure. The inconvenient route would be to treat all property owners the same and pay the compensation where preservation is warranted and to allow the development where it is not.
America corrected a huge mistake when the 14th Amendment was adopted providing equal protection under the law for “All persons.” This documented a long held principle that no person is above the law. It also means that no person is below protection of the law. If persons with small measure 37 claims deserve compensation under the law, then persons with large claims should also. The right should be independent of the person and equal to all.
Measure 49 would set up a class of persons that does not receive the same rights as others, purely based on how much property they own. Why should Oregon forget such a basic principle for convenience?
Measure 50 is another example of principles being inconvenient. Smokers have become a highly unpopular minority, and as such, they are the frequent targets for politicians looking for funding. What will be the next unpopular minority to be taxed? SUV drivers? Families with more than 3 children? Bicycle riders?
The US Constitution and Oregon’s Constitution both contain checks and balances intended to protect unpopular minorities from, as John Stuart Mills so elegantly phrased it, “The Tyranny of the Majority”. Mills 1859 essay “On Liberty” warned of using democracy to impose the will and practices of the majority on those that impose them.
Pure democracy has been likened to two wolves and a lamb voting on what’s for dinner. Our laws are intended to protect the lambs in our society, no matter how much their smell or their bleeting annoys the rest of the wolves.
It is inconvenient to try to make tobacco completely illegal and it is also inconvenient to convince voters to raise taxes broadly on the entire population of the state. So, the legislature chose the convenient, but unprincipled, route of picking out an unpopular minority and counting on the tyranny of the majority.
Just because we can out vote a minority and impose our will upon them does not make it right. Who or what behavior will be next?
This also brings me to another convenient lapse of principles, the urban renewal district. These districts intentionally set one class of persons above others in rights under the law, purely because of the geographic location of the property they own. The cause is a noble one but giving tax waivers and matching funding to one person who wants to build a mixed-use building and not another only based on the location is wrong.
We need to do the hard work to revitalize urban centers, like improving all forms of transportation and cutting bureaucratic barriers to economic viability. Short cuts like renewal districts may be convenient but are not based on principles.
As you receive your ballots I would ask you to ask yourself the following two questions:
Does this Measure improve equal protection under the law or undermine it?
Does this Measure impose the will or practices of the majority on an unpopular minority setting the stage for increasing the tyranny of the majority.
Now, go out and do the principled, although inconvenient thing.
Jay Bozievich is a freelance writer, public employee, and former elected official.