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 Home > Op-Eds > 
Red States, Blue States, and the Regulatory State

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The most recent “red states - blue states” map demonstrates a vast difference in people’s attitudes and thinking.

Generally, people residing in urban-dominated and coastal counties voted blue, while residents of the more rural, interior counties voted red. Even within counties, it was primarily the population centers that colored a county’s majority-vote blue, even though the geographically larger, rural portions of the same county voted red. The persistent gap between “blue” voters and “red” voters, however, runs deeper than their perceptions of whether George Bush is better at keeping us safe from terror or John Kerry is better able to create jobs. This attitudinal difference relates to a basic question that has been debated by man since his early ancestors first began to live and work together in groups — that is, the relationship between people and government.

As a microcosm of this gap between red and blue voters, King County, Washington, provides a remarkable example. Home to the city of Seattle, King County, together with the 11 more populated counties bordering Washington’s coastal waters, push the state into the blue column on most political issues, including the recent presidential election. The state’s 26 other counties, nearly all in Washington’s rural interior, are consistently in the red column. But King County also has a suburban-to-rural area that lies outside Seattle’s city limits, and the clash between red and blue voters has come to a post-election crescendo.

Last month, the county’s elected governing council enacted a “critical areas ordinance” to regulate, for the purpose of growth management, how privately owned property can be used. Under this regulatory regime, owners of more than 5-acre parcels are required to set aside and preserve in their natural state -- indefinitely -- at least 2 ½ acres and as much as 65 percent of their property. Owners of five acres or less must preserve 50 percent of their property in its native vegetation. Token activity on a natural protection area such as walking, gathering firewood, or removing invasive plants is allowed, but any form of building, even of a woodshed, could bring county enforcement officers knocking on the owner’s door. To be sure, the deep blue members of green organizations that pushed for the ordinance will be patrolling these rural areas in search of violators.

Although this severe regulatory scheme applies only in the county’s rural areas, it received “aye” votes from all 7 blue members of the County Council whose districts lie within the city of Seattle. In contrast, each of the 6 red members of the council who represent the affected unincorporated portions of the county vigorously opposed the measure.

Not only are red property owners screaming “land grab” and “theft,” but they are demanding compensation for the “taking” of their property. They also resent the heavy-handedness and unfairness of the pollution-generator of the county,i.e., Seattle, imposing such draconian regulations on the rural areas “ in the name of preserving the environment. The smug blue supporters respond with the collectivist mantra that personal property rights do not trump the right of a larger community to save the eco-system.

Even historically blue voters are revolting against excessive regulation. In the last election, 60 percent of voters in Oregon — the state with the nation’s toughest land-use planning laws — enacted a strong property rights initiative. Measure 37 restores the rights of property owners subjected to King County-like regulations after they acquired their land, and requires the offending government to pay regulated property owners a fair value for the land they lost. As the proponents of Measure 37, Oregonians in Action, like to tell it, “In Oregon, when government steals your retirement nest egg, they call it planning.”

Throughout the centuries, the question of the proper role of government in people’s lives has occupied the great philosophers and caused some of history’s bloodiest wars. Thomas Jefferson, who, as the author of the Declaration of Independence, understood the tyranny of oppressive government, warned of the constant tension between the people and their government when he said, “The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground.”

In the United States, where the founders envisioned “We the people” as the masters of the government, there is longstanding suspicion of government in general, and an increasing concern that government’s intrusiveness into people’s lives, livelihoods, and property is growing beyond reasonableness and fairness. This distrust of government overreach by more red voters is in marked contrast to blue voters embrace — or at best, ignorant tolerance — of regulatory creep.

If blue voters and those they elect continue to promote an increasingly burdensome regulatory state, it should come as no surprise that “red states-blue states” maps in the future continue to resemble the last one. What may surprise the blue voters, however, is how many historically blue counties end up turning red with anger.

Mr. Stirling is vice-president of Pacific Legal Foundation, a public interest legal organization that has defended private property rights since 1973. PLF is challenging in court the King County ordinance described in the article. This commentary appeared in on December 14.