Yglesias Has My Head Spinning…

In his last two urbanism-related posts, Matthew Yglesias makes great points only to dissolve them in a vat of unrelated statements posed as conclusions.  His logical inconsistency seems to invalidate his otherwise pretty good blogging on urbanism.

A couple days ago, Matthew blogged about regulation of neighborhood retail, quoting a DC blog:

“In DC, zoning laws make that idea [mixed-use retail] prohibitive, and what the zoning laws don’t cover ANC and neighborhood groups do in their zealousness to protect residents from interspersing residences with commercial activity.”


I really and truly wish libertarians would spend more time working on this kind of issue. And I also wish that ordinary people would think harder about these kind of regulations.

Yes!  More, please?   But then, the next sentence leaves me saying, “huh?”:

I’m a big government liberal. I believe business regulations are often needed. But still, there ought to be a presumption that people can do what they want.

So, I really don’t understand what this post has to do with libertarians anymore – why even mention them. It seems logically inconsistent to presume people can do what they want, while presuming a big government can regulate their economic choices.

Now, on to today’s post:

Randall O’Toole is a relentless advocate for highways and automobile dependency in the United States. Consequently, I don’t agree with him about very much.  But the thing I consistently find most bizarre about him, is that the Cato Institute and the Reason Foundation have both agreed to agree with O’Toole that his support for highways and automobile dependency is a species of libertarianism.


Central planning, of course, is the reverse of libertarianism. So if promoting alternative transportation is central planning, then building highways everywhere must be freedom! But of course in the real world building highways is also central planning. The Long Island Expressway is not a free market phenomenon.

Alright!  This fits in with our recent discussions at Market Urbanism! (and here)  But, of course he concludes:

It’s just a field that, intrinsically, requires a lot of planning. The question is about what kinds of plans to make.

So, libertarians should agree with you, but they’re wrong anyway?

Either Yglesias has some hidden respect for free-markets and has to add caveats to maintain his progressive street-cred, or he has some kind of chip on his shoulder and has to call out the hypocrites in circles he doesn’t respect anyways…  (the latter, I would interpret as a rational fear of the potency of free-market philosophy – at least not the impostor brand)


Also check out c4ss:  Libertarians Against Sprawl:

Fighting sprawl isn’t a matter of imposing new government mandates.  It’s a matter of scaling back existing restrictions on mixed use development, and prying the mouths of the real estate industry and the automobile-highway complex off the taxpayer teat. It’s not clear that can be done without abolishing government completely.

Are You a Wright or Friedman Urbanist?

In a post blogger Eric Orozco called, ‘forerunner candidate for “most incisive blog post” of the year,’ Daniel Nairn of Discovering Urbanism discussed the seemingly conflicted camps of libertarianism when it comes to Urbanism.  His observations are based upon the comments in the Volokh article on planning and walkability linked in the previous post.

Daniel (a non-libertarian) presents the opposing libertarian factions as The Wright Group, after Frank Lloyd Wright and his romanticism about individualistic prairie living and The Friedman Group, which “believes that the spatial distribution of development ought to be determined by a free market.”

The Wright group seems to favor optimizing individual autonomy through spatial living arrangements even if doing so requires centralizing economic and political authority to some extent. The Friedman group seems to favor optimizing individual autonomy through market decisions even if doing so results in more people living in situations where full control over private property is compromised in some way.

Daniel’s insightful choice of figureheads fascinates me from a philosophical point of view.  Frank Lloyd Wright was hardly a libertarian, but had strong individualist tendencies, and is said to be the model for Howard Roark’s character in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead.  Milton Friedman, a Nobel Laurette Economist, is probably one of the most famous figures of modern libertarian thought.  Despite Friedman’s steadfast defense of liberty, he had favored government roads on occasion.

I think most would agree that The Friedman Group, as Daniel describes it, is more closely aligned with the thesis of Market Urbanism and the ideas of emergent order of the land marketplace.  Hayek or even Rothbard may also be considered appropriate, although less famous substitutes as figurehead.

(note: I’m not sure what Daniel means by,  “even if doing so results in more people living in situations where full control over private property is compromised in some way.”  If he means more people choosing to live in multifamily dwellings and rentals, then I agree, and I’m perfectly fine with that outcome.)

In my opinion, The Wright Group is hardly libertarian.  I would describe The Wright Group as either autonomists (as opposed to libertarians), or Free-Market impostors like Randal O’Toole who wave the free-market flag while turning a blind eye to the coercive distortions of road socialism and ubiquitous suburban zoning that prevent any deviation from segregated, single-family homes.

Above all, I appreciate Daniel’s intellectual exploration of libertarianism in relation to urbanism.  Even if he doesn’t keep free-markets as his ideological worldview, his open-minded search for truth should give him an edge over thinkers who reject free-market concepts without any fair inquiry.  Daniel’s post is a fantastic thought provoking piece, and I encourage all of you to read and coment for yourselves at Discovering Urbanism.

Do We Need “New Urbanism” To Fix “Unwalkable Sprawl”?

At Volokh, Ilya Somin discusses a recent piece in the American Prospect (also linked from here) that favors “New Urbanism” to prevent “unwalkable” sprawl.  Somin favors “voting with your feet” as the preferred method of satisfying location preferences.  Unfortunately, voting options have been whittled down through government interventions:

To the extent that we do need to enable more people to live in densely populated urban areas, it’s far from clear that government planning is the best way to achieve that goal. We can better achieve the same objective by cutting back on planning rather than increasing it. In many large cities, the cost of housing is artificially inflated by restrictive zoning laws, which tends to price out the poor and some middle class people. In the suburbs, as Adler points out, zoning policies sometimes artificially decrease density, for example by forbidding "mixed use" neighborhoods where commercial and residential uses are in close proximity to each other.

The ultimate question is whether we should trust deeper interventions into land use to fix the complete failure of past interventions.  Long before “New Urbanism” was the progressive utopian ideal, sprawling, auto-friendly and trolley-free, single-family suburbs was their “American Dream”.  But, progressives quickly forget their history when it turns out their past visions created something they are now supposed to hate:

Like previous generations of planners, the new urbanists often ignore the diversity of human preferences. Some people do indeed like high-density "walkable" environments. Others prefer to have more space and more peace and quiet. Neither preference is inherently superior to the other. To paraphrase a popular liberal slogan, we should celebrate diversity, not seek to use urban planning to force everyone to live the same lifestyle whether they want to or not.

The post evokes the typical variety of comments ranging from standard defense of suburbs as a rational choice to the favored Market Urbanist arguments.  (Happily, market urbanist ideas seem to be gaining popularity.)  As guest Market Urbanism writer, Stephen Smith correctly pointed out to the commenters:

It’s so sad when supposed libertarians defend the current transportation/land use situation, because in my opinion it’s one of the most profoundly damaging interventions in the American economy today.

Block vs Poole: The Public-Private Partnership Debate

The Orange County Register’s Freedom Politics website (check out my rent control article FreePo published in March) features articles discussing two differing takes on road privatization from notable scholars Walter Block and Robert Poole.

In Robert Poole’s article, he discusses the merits of the increasingly popular use of Public-Private Partnerships (PPP) to fund and operate roadways:

Four potential benefits are particularly important:

  1. Fewer Boondoggles: Elected officials often champion projects that yield political benefits but have costs greater than their benefits. But with PPP toll projects, nobody will invest unless the benefits exceed the costs to the extent that they can project a positive return on their investment. That’s a powerful safeguard against boondoggles.
  2. Avoiding “Big Dig” Disasters: Large-scale “mega-projects” like Boston’s notorious Big Dig are prone to large cost over-runs and schedule delays. In a well-structured PPP project, those risks can be transferred to the private sector, shielding taxpayers from those costs.
  3. Cost Minimization: Traditional highway projects are built by the lowest-bidder, which often means they are built cheaply and need lots of expensive maintenance over their lifetimes. But a PPP toll highway must be maintained for decades at the private company’s expense. Hence, it has every incentive to build it right to begin with, to minimize total life-cycle cost.
  4. Sustainable Congestion Relief: If you add ordinary freeway lanes, they tend to fill up and become congested. But today’s urban toll lanes use variable pricing (as on the 91 Express Lanes) to keep traffic flowing smoothly on a long-term basis.

In contrast, Walter Block takes a more principled stand for complete privatization:

Public – private partnerships (PPP) are thus part and parcel of both fascism and socialism; they constitute a partial state ownership of the means of production. As well, they are emblematic of fascism, and government is the senior partner, and its regulations still determine the actions of these public – private partnerships.

Block has dedicated a chapter in his new book, The Privatization of Roads and Highways: Human and Economic Factors to a critique of Public-Private Partnerships.  I haven’t read it yet, but hope to share some of the insights when I do.

This is a concept I have been debating in my head for a while.  Are public-private efforts towards privatization really a step in the right direction towards liberalizing the transportation system, or are they just a form of corporatism that enable governments to bail themselves out of their fiscal crises?  Should we hold out for Block’s ideal, yet unlikely, complete private overhaul, or hope for gradual, yet inevitably incomplete liberalization with PPPs as the first necessary step?

What are your thoughts?  Have any readers read Block’s critique of Public-Private Partnerships?  (a pdf version of the book is offered free from the Mises Institute)

Rothbard the Urbanist Part 1: Public Education’s Role in Sprawl and Exclusion

I’ve been meaning to address the public education system’s complex role in land use patterns, and found that Murray Rothbard does a better job in his 1973 manifesto, For a New Libertythan I ever could.  In summary, locally-funded public education is an engine of geographical segregation, which encourages flight from urban areas, and was a driving motivation for the popular acceptance of exclusionary zoning in newer suburbs.  As a result, wealth is consistently concentrated geographically, and housing affordability is at odds with these restrictions of supply intended to exclude poorer people from draining the property tax base.

Here’s a paragraph from the chapter on education:

The geographical nature of the public school system has also led to a coerced pattern of residential segregation, in income and consequently in race, throughout the country and particularly in the suburbs. As everyone knows, the United States since World War II has seen an expansion of population, not in the inner central cities, but in the surrounding suburban areas. As new and younger families have moved to the suburbs, by far the largest and growing burden of local budgets has been to pay for the public schools, which have to accommodate a young population with a relatively high proportion of children per capita. These schools invariably have been financed from growing property taxation, which largely falls on the suburban residences. This means that the wealthier the suburban family, and the more expensive its home, the greater will be its tax contribution for the local school. Hence, as [p. 133] the burden of school taxes increases steadily, the suburbanites try desperately to encourage an inflow of wealthy residents and expensive homes, and to discourage an inflow of poorer citizens. There is, in short, a breakeven point of the price of a house beyond which a new family in a new house will more than pay for its children’s education in its property taxes. Families in homes below that cost level will not pay enough in property taxes to finance their children’s education and hence will throw a greater tax burden on the existing population of the suburb. Realizing this, suburbs have generally adopted rigorous zoning laws which prohibit the erection of housing below a minimum cost level — and thereby freeze out any inflow of poorer citizens. Since the proportion of Negro poor is far greater than white poor, this effectively also bars Negroes from joining the move to the suburbs. And since in recent years there has been an increasing shift of jobs and industry from the central city to the suburbs as well, the result is an increasing pressure of unemployment on the Negroes — a pressure which is bound to intensify as the job shift accelerates. The abolition of the public schools, and therefore of the school burden-property tax linkage, would go a long way toward removing zoning restrictions and ending the suburb as an upper middle-class-white preserve.

Later chapters address other urbanism-related issues, and I’ll share those insights as I come across them.

For a New Libertyis available for free from the Mises Institute in full as an html page, a pdf, or audio book read by Jeffrey Riggenbach. (the audio version is how I am finding time to absorb it among the rigors of caring for the little guy)  Bryan Caplan also summarizes this chapter (and each chapter) as part of the Econlog Book Club.