City rent control laws are about to expire, and supporters are avidly
campaigning for a 5-year extension. This in the face of the fact that rent
controls have never worked: they create shortages and decrease the quality of
But the activists for rent control don’t
care that it doesn’t work. They—and much of the public—think that rent controls
are “humanitarian.” After all, isn’t the government trying to help poor people
and keep them out of the clutches of greedy, gouging landlords?
What drives these activists are not issues
of practicality but issues of morality. Yet there is nothing moral about
controls are a violation—not an extension—of human rights. They are a gun at
the heads of apartment owners who have the moral right to decide the price at
which they will offer a unit for rent.
a free society, no government (local, state, or federal) has the moral right to
interfere with the choices of people to do business with each other. It should
no more tell a landlord what price to offer than it should tell a prospective
tenant how much he can spend on rent. Both the landlord and the tenant have the
moral right to “just say no” to the other’s offer.
From their supposedly high moral plane, the
advocates of rent control rest their case on a variety of false charges:
landlord has a choice, because he controls the apartment that the tenant needs
and thus he has the tenant over a barrel”: The tenant controls
the rent that the landlord needs; that’s always what’s involved in a contract:
each party has a value the other wants, and they trade their values to mutual
party has a right to the other’s values, no matter how much he wants it:
landlords have no divine right to a customer or to certain levels of rent
(they’re free to lower their offers or invest their money elsewhere), and
tenants have no right to a landlord's apartment (they’re free to seek
rights are more important than property rights.” Property
rights are human rights, and very basic ones. They are the rights of human
beings to use their own property. To claim the right to control another
person's property is to claim the right to that person's life.
controls are perfectly legitimate because this is a democracy, and rent
controls have been voted in.” It
makes no difference how popular a law is; it can still be a violation of
rights. Just because the majority votes away someone's property doesn’t give it
a moral right to do so.
If a neighbor sneaks into your house and takes some money out of your
wallet to help pay his rent, that’s theft; there’s no moral difference if a group
of your neighbors gets together and votes away your money to help pay their
rents; that’s merely “legalized theft.” If majority rule were the only basis
for deciding what the government can do, then 51 percent of the people could
legitimately vote to enslave or even kill the other 49 percent. The Nazis were
voted into office and had great popular support. All tyrannies are wrong,
including tyranny by the majority.
The voters don’t own your life or your property.
are just being selfish by wanting higher rents.” Why is it
OK for tenants to be selfish by wanting lower rents? In fact, there’s
nothing wrong with being selfish—rationally selfish. Selfishness means
that you live for your own happiness, not that of others. Landlords want the
highest rent they can get, and tenants want the best apartment for the least
possible rent. Neither party should be altruistic: the landlord shouldn’t say
“you can have this apartment for less than you’re willing to spend,” nor should
the tenant say “I’ll pay you more than you’re willing to take, just to make you
happy.” Being selfish means you don’t sacrifice yourself to others or sacrifice
others to yourself. It means that you—and everyone—live independently, trading
value for value.
the threat of extended rent control looming, New Yorkers should reject the
claim—inherited from Marxism—that landlords are “evil exploiters.” Most of the
former Communist world has discovered that an economy run by dictatorial
decrees (a “command” economy) destroys freedom. Isn’t it about time that our
own politicians and tenants learn the same lesson?
# # #
Michael S. Berliner, Ph.D., is Co-Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Ayn Rand Institute