Mon, Apr 16, 2012 - Page 8 News List

Outlining points of the social contract

By Jui-Chung Allen Li 李瑞中

The fundamental problem with the forced demolition of houses in the Wenlin Yuan (文林苑) area of Taipei City’s Shilin District (士林) has been the questionable legitimacy claimed by the government to intervene in the decision of landowners on whether to participate in an urban renewal project.

After the Wenlin Yuan incident last month, netizens compiled a map of urban renewal projects in Taipei City. This showed that most projects are concentrated in the Zhongzheng (中正) and Da-an (大安) districts, where land prices are high. Fewer projects were in older districts, such as Datong (大同) and Wanhua (萬華), that are perhaps more in need of urban renewal, and where land prices are much lower.

As such, one apparent consequence of the Urban Renewal Act (都市更新條例) is that the authorities seem to be reinforcing, rather than challenging, existing economic inequality. In other words, the state’s legislative controls on urban renewal run counter to the justice principle proposed by liberal egalitarians such as John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin.

Not only is the increased floor area ratio of urban renewal projects not a public good, but house owners often make excuses to occupy green space, parking areas and other public spaces provided by developers. In addition, it has been pointed out that the blueprint for the Wenlin Yuan project violates fire safety regulations and could thus result in negative externalities for neighbors.

That means that it also contradicts the efficiency principle proposed by some economists. Furthermore, even if the public believes urban renewal requires a certain degree of regulation, individual actions could still be constrained by collective will through private means, without government intervention.

The government intervenes in people’s lives in many ways, whether through the requirement to wear a crash helmet when riding a scooter or motorcycle, the mandatory use of a seatbelt in the backseat of their cars, or the fines imposed on those caught idling their cars for longer than three minutes.

More onerous regulations include the Ministry of Education’s demand that National Taiwan University manage the opinions posted on its PTT, Taiwan’s largest bulletin board system, while other laws restrict people’s freedom of assembly and deny homosexuals the right to get married.

Perhaps it is the mindset of the authoritarian era that causes the government to instinctively want so much control over people’s lives.

Confucius said: “The people can be made to follow a path of action, but they cannot be made to understand it.”

It is this herd mentality that causes those being led to sometimes accept the legitimacy of those doing the leading without ever asking why. That is why so many fail to question or protest the fact that their freedoms and human rights are being eroded.

Hopefully, the example of the Wenlin Yuan urban renewal project will trigger greater discussion on housing justice and a critical review of rights and obligations in the relationship between the state and the public.

The outcome of such a discussion should be proper limitations and restrictions on government authority.

Jui-Chung Allen Li is an assistant research fellow at Academia Sinica’s Institute of European and American Studies.

Translated by Eddy Chang

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