RENT CONTROL IS IMMORAL
By Michael S. Berliner, Ph.D.
This editorial is copyrighted by the Ayn Rand
Institute and reproduced here with permission. This material is solely for use
on proprietary online services (e.g., AOL, Compuserve, and Prodigy) and may not
be reproduced anywhere on the World Wide Web or Internet. The Web site address
for the Ayn Rand Institute is
Further inquiries can be directed to
You may print one copy for personal use.
violates the rights of tenants and landlords alike. By means of such
controls, the government infringes upon an individual's right to make
voluntary contracts between himself and others and the right to control
his own property. In this essay, four basic charges made by rent control
advocates also are answered.
Rent controls don't work, and everybody knows it. Rent
controls create shortages and decrease the quality of housing. Yet 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 helping out poor people and keeping them out of the
clutches of greedy, gouging landlords? What drives these activists are not
issues of practicality but issues of morality. They are possessed by the same
moral fervor that still leads leftists to claim that socialism is the best
system, despite the collapse of the USSR and all the model socialist economies.
In fact, there is nothing
moral about rent controls.
Rent controls violate your
rights. They are a gun at your head. As an apartment owner, you have the moral
right to decide the price at which you'll offer a unit for rent. The government
has no right to dictate to you what rate you can offer. Of course, it is legally
empowered to do this; it is legally empowered to do whatever it can enact into
law and get upheld by the courts. But that doesn't make it moral. Slavery was
legal at one time, but it was never moral. And rent controls are nothing less
than enslavement of the property owner.
In a free society, no
government (local, state, or federal) has the 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. That's freedom.
Government is an
institution of physical force: police, courts, army. Government has a monopoly
on the use of such force: it's the only institution legally empowered to enforce
its decisions by the threat of taking your money or putting you behind bars.
Rent control is the government putting a gun at the head of people trying to
make voluntary contracts with each other. That's why rent controls violate the
rights of everyone, not just landlords. It's never "humane" to prevent
people from acting on their own judgment. It's never "humane" to turn
people into slaves to someone else's desires.
But from their supposedly
high moral plane, the advocates of rent control make a lot of serious charges
which do require answers:
1. "Only the landlord has a choice,
because he controls the apartment that the tenant needs and thus he has the
tenant over a barrel."
ANSWER: 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 advantage. Neither party has a right to the other's values: 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 demand housing (they're free to seek alternative housing). Of course, the
advocates of rent control recognize the importance of housing (and medicine and
food) and thus feel morally justified in forcing people to provide those things
to the "needy." But their position is the exact opposite of the moral
position. The more valuable and important the product, the more you should be
rewarded — not punished — for supplying it! Need is not a claim.
2. "Human rights are more important
than property rights."
rights are human rights, and very basic ones. They are the rights of human
beings to use their own property. As Ayn Rand wrote in Capitalism: The Unknown
Ideal: "Without property rights, no other rights are possible. Since man
has to sustain his life by his own effort, the man who has no right to the
product of his effort has no means to sustain his life. The man who produces
while others dispose of his product, is a slave."
3. "Rent controls are perfectly
legitimate because this is a democracy, and rent controls have been voted
ANSWER: It makes no
difference how popular a law is; it can still be a violation of your rights.
Just because the majority votes away your property, that 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; well, there's no moral
difference if a group of your neighbors get together and vote 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. Hitler was 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.
4. "Landlords are just being selfish
by wanting higher rents."
ANSWER: Why is it okay
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. You want the highest rent you 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 — lives
independently, trading value for value.
owners should not be apologetic for what they do; they should be proud. They
should stand up for their right to control their own property. They should
reject the claim — inherited from Marxism — that they are "evil
exploiters." They should not try to appease their opponents by
compromising. It doesn't work; in fact, appeasement of one's enemies just
encourages them. "In any collaboration between two men (or two groups) who
hold different basic principles," wrote Ayn Rand, "it is the more evil
or irrational one who wins." It isn't possible to compromise with people
who want to dictate your life. By agreeing to any of their demands, you concede
their right to your property and give them a complete victory.
Even the Russians seem to be discovering 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
Michael S. Berliner, Ph.D., is the former
executive director of the Ayn Rand Institute in Marina del Rey, California.
Be sure to visit the Ayn Rand Institute at
FREE Rental Control Laws Chart - By State
Limits to Control
Kill the Death Tax