Why does the Infrastructurist hate libertarians so much?

by Stephen Smith

Among urban planners, libertarianism gets a pretty bad rap. Melissa Lafsky at the Infrastructurist goes so far as to call libertarianism “an enemy of infrastructure,” and dismisses entirely the idea that private industry can build infrastructure with a single hyperlink – to a poorly-written article on New Zealand’s economy written over a decade ago that barely says a word about transportation, land use, or infrastructure. She goes on to criticize the Reason Foundation’s transportation writers (something we too have done), and with it, negates entirely libertarianism’s contributions to urbanism.

Here at Market Urbanism we’re used to these sorts of attacks from the left, and we work tirelessly to disassociate ourselves (well, mostly) from Reason’s brand of (sub)urbanist libertarianism. Normally I wouldn’t expend so much effort, but the Infrastructurist is a blog that I read daily and we’ve linked to them approvingly over the years, so I figured it merited a rebuttal.

To start, I would recommend that Melissa bone up on her history. At least in North America, every great intracity mass transit system was build by private enterprise, almost without exception. From subways to streetcars, private enterprise showed a willingness and eagerness to build and profit from rail-based transit. Sure, the systems weren’t totally private and unregulated (exclusive franchise monopolies were often granted by municipal governments, among other interventions), but the system was far more “private” than the current mostly-suburban road/automobile transportation system that Reason and many other self-identified libertarians champion.

While many progressives today like to blame the demise of rail-based transit on GM, Firestone Tire, and Standard Oil (what I like to call the Who Framed Roger Rabbit theory of urbanist history), the truth is that progressives themselves were the ones who really did mass transit in. Through populist measures like the mandatory five-cent fare and costly pro-union regulations, planners hobbled the “traction magnates” with onerous regulations that were not applied to the nascent bus and jitney industries. This shift away from rail-based transit was accompanied by the rise in sprawl-promoting zoning and parking requirements. The Nation, which is now known to decry sprawl, was an adamant supporter of mandating it through zoning back in 1920, and was not above using coded racism to bolster its position.

Aside from her curious reading of urban history, Melissa Lafsky appears to have a very narrow picture of what constitutes the libertarian position on transportation and land use. Her description of the Reason Foundation’s take on urbanism is admittedly quite apt, but her assumption that Reason’s viewpoint is the only libertarian one couldn’t be farther from the truth. I can understand if she doesn’t read our blog, but surely she should have read her own blog’s favorable take on Tyler Cowen – one of the most prominent intellectual libertarians and owner of the most popular economics blog of all time – and his NYT column on America’s free parking glut. The debate has even spilled out of the libertarian and transit blogospheres and into Newsweek and Matt Yglesias’ blog, but you wouldn’t know it from reading Melissa’s post.

So feel free to call out the Reason Foundation for its whacky positions on urbanism – lord knows we’ve filled many pages doing it. But please don’t assume that libertarianism (or even Reason, whose magazine once called Jane Jacobs “one of the greatest libertarians of the last century”) is a monolithic entity without any redeeming urbanist qualities, and that this fact is so self-evident that you don’t need to seek out more than one organization’s opinion. Might we suggest adding our blog to your feed reader?

  • http://marketurbanism.com MarketUrbanism

    Lafsky’s analysis is pretty ignorant of what libertarianism fundamentally is. Her article is a halfway decent argument against highway-lovers and even reason, but she doesn’t have a single legitimate argument of her case against libertarianism…

    I hope intelligent readers of infrastructurist see through her bigotry…

  • http://www.facebook.com/plattypus42 Justin Nelson

    As a proud progressive, I’ll be the first to agree with you. Market solutions, when they make sense, are a very powerful force for change. The simple fact that there is an extraordinary under-supply of walkable urbanism amid rising demand leads me to beg cities to unleash private enterprise upon their urban landscape, because if we do away with sprawl-generating regulations we will get less sprawl.

    That said, if I had a nickel for every time a self-identified libertarian argued against mass transit, identifying it inextricably with government subsidies (and implying that their preferred mode of transport lacked such subsidies), I wouldn’t be worrying about my rent next month. If we had to put all libertarians in two boxes, the “Market Urbanist” box would be a lot less full than the Cato/Reason Suburbanite box, probably by several orders of magnitude. You can forgive us for being unsubtle in our criticisms.

  • http://marketurbanism.com MarketUrbanism

    That’s an encouraging comment – thank you. People ask me why I am quick to criticize fellow libertarians that are in the suburbanite box – I should support the fellow travelers even if I disagree. But, I think their flawed analysis leads to flawed conclusions, and we Market Urbanists end up defending libertarianism against bad ideas that aren’t even ours. We also lose the opportunity to find common ground with urbanists, and possibly sway them towards free enterprise and away from the heavy hand of government planners…

  • CynicalLiberty

    @Justin and MarketUrbanism: Ah, yes, libertarians who criticize public transit while loving the car culture…which was a government invention anyway. Our highway system destroyed towns, essentially subsidized GM, and is a leading culprit behind white-flight. Highways, suburbia, white flight; follow the roots long enough, they all meet at some point. This is one reason I like Europe; over there, people pay to use the road. Some roads are even privately owned; in Sweden, two-thirds of the roads are not municipalized!

    I’ve lived in the suburbs, before moving to the country, but I find myself becoming more of an urbanist all the time. I like cities; as Jane Jacobs has said, they are the primary generators of economic growth. That’s what cities have been, historically. To tell the truth, as radical as I am, I have no issues with a city providing common infrastructure like subways, roads, and even certain utilities. What I have a problem with is a large entity, like the federal government or the state government, trying to do what cities already did on a vast scale. It just can’t be done, in my opinion, as well as cities can.

    It is important to know that, prior to the rise of the internet, libertarians generally clustered around major cities. Since there was no form of instant communication, many came together to meet and live face to face. Some even shared apartments. Cities were generally venerated above suburban and rural areas, due in no small part to Rand’s praising of skyscrapers. Further, especially in California, city folks tend to be open to wild ideas that could shake things up; not being bound to traditional morality also helps. Can’t say the same of surbanites and rural dwellers.

  • Dave

    Just because Reason called Jane Jacobs a libertarian does not make it so. They’re basing that on her fights against Moses’ road-building programs, and her critiques of grand top-down urban planning. However, her belief in free market principles in no way resembles our current market, or the non-market-related beliefs of libertarians. Check out her books “Systems of Survival” and “The Nature of Economies.”

  • MC

    “The Nation, which is now known to decry sprawl, was an adamant supporter of mandating it through zoning back in 1920, and was not above using coded racism to bolster its position.”

    Students of planning know that the federal government and Fannie Mae created sprawl by creating guidelines for eclusively residential single-family neighborhoods with winding streets and eventualyl cul-de-sacs, to be linked post-war to the city by highways that were plowed through existing neighborhoods, again paid for by the federal government. The Roosevelt administration created the sprawl pattern to offer working class people an escape from what was viewed as sub-par living in cities (ignoring that cities had many vibrant neighbohoods of brownstone rowhomes and craftsman bungalows). While there are notable examples of integrated suburbs were integrated, the government by and large decided that minorities should live in public housing in cities, as they were generally denied motgages for these new suburbs.

    The truth is, most “libertarians” and “conservatives” don’t believe in the free market or choice in urban planning. They make arguments like “the government should mandate large lot homes on cul-de-sacs because that’s what people want,” ignoring the fact that if its what people want, the market should provide it – the government doesn’t have to mandate it. Such “libertarians” call not just for mandating suburban building patterns, but building all the free infrastructure suburbia requires, at the expense of cities. This seems non-sensical – with population density in cities, it seems much more efficient to maintain and build infrastructure where people already are.

    The reality is the broader libertarian movement in the U.S. is not akin to market-based “liberal” movements in Canada or Europe. For many of its boosters, Libertarianism is really an offshoot of cultural conservatism, tea partyism, suburbaism, and other movements that are culturally suspicious of cities and want the government to mandate and subsidize their way of life. Smart urban libertarians, especially those who believe the government has a role in building efficient infrastructure, are the stepchildren of the movement.

    The so-called “libertarian” movement has some cleaning house to do.

  • MC

    All good comments. I would add, though, the libertarian ideal of providing infrastructure at the local (city) level breaks down when metro regions with multiple “city” entities exist. Without cooperation at the metro level, things fall apart. One city balks at paying for bridge improvements that might allow a rail link to the next city. One city is trying to “lure” Wal-Mart with incentives to build a store on its boundaries, so the residents of the next city will shop and pay taxes there. Housing is expensive in a region, but no one city wants modest-income or rental housing in its boundaries because these houses pay less in property taxes or because of NIMBY concerns. One city tries to build a sensible transit system and the next city zones low-density sprawl around their station area … then there’s the corruption that can occur in small, unsophsiticated cities. I believe the evidence shows metro areas will increasingly require coordination, which I believe requires transparent, democratic metro governments with teeth in areas of transit, land use, etc.

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  • Paul Justus

    I think it is important to distinguish between Libertarians and Geolibertarians when it comes to the use of market forces that shape our cities. You might want to read Libertarian Party at Sea on Land by Harold Kyriazi to learn the Geolibertarian point of view.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Matthew-Vona/1843399610 Matthew Vona

    The concepts of Urban Planning and free market are necessarily juxtaposed.

    Urban “Planning” seems to embody the concept of making everyone happy with their position in society. Regardless of market demands, urban ‘planners’ will decide what activities you can conduct on your own ‘private’ property. Using legal avenues encompassing environmental, health and safety, or eminent domain reasons they dictate your right to conduct business, own chickens, fill in a pond, or erect a HAM radio antenna.

    These concepts are all anti free market (and hence anti-libertarian) since they necessarily impact on the rights of the private citizen owner.

  • CynicalLiberty

    No reason why cities could not cooperate; some level of cooperation would likely emerge overtime without anyone planning it. Trust me, look through history; you’d be surprised how many good things happened by sheer accident. I am generally suspicious of democracy, or really any kind of -ocracy. However, I’m in favor of the idea that, if you are an elected official, you should essential surrender your rights-including privacy. I want so much transparency of my local government, that none of them could take a shit without me knowing about it.

    As for your larger post about mandating far too many “libertarians” mandating large homes and what not; I don’t think the government (local, state, or federal) should mandate anything. If someone buys some land, they can build what they want, but should be fully liable to and physical damage they cause to others around them. They shouldn’t mandate where people live, what they build, or anything at all. The way the future is going is going to be a nightmare for planning; things are going to get so mind-bogglingly complex, planning and regulation may become effectively impossible.

  • CynicalLiberty

    Don’t count on it. The way things are going, libertarians are going to have to do a complete disclosure of everything to satisfy the likes of her.

    Further, the fact MC said that libertarianism is, in MC’s opinion, an extension of cultural conservatism shows how many misconceptions abound. And until we reveal every file, every single memo, that’s what people are going to think.

  • CynicalLiberty

    I guess one way to say things clearly: I don’t promise any particular outcome. Only that subsidies and policies that favor particular outcomes should be removed. Beyond that, I am not really sure what will happen. Kind of a Hayekian argument.

    What I personally wish for is that people will concentrate in particular cities or towns, thus rendering the multiple city problem a non-issue.

  • http://tebici.myopenid.com/ tebici

    I have flirted with libertarianism off and on thinking it would be a good marriage of my fiscal and social outlooks. Thus far my interactions with libertarians have not done much to recommend it, either as a planner or as an average Jane. I’m glad to hear that you and others out there exist who take more measured positions, but as someone wanting to find the good in libertarianism I have to say I can’t blame people for hold a pretty negative view. Most of the libertarians I’ve met or read are pretty radical on infrastructure issues and pretty ignorant on planning issues.

    Are there any institutions that support your brand of libertarianism? Or just a few lone voices crying out in the wilderness?

  • http://tebici.myopenid.com/ tebici

    Planning in the libertarian sense might be anticipating the impacts of one person’s actions on another person. If filling a pond on your property floods your neighbors’ property, do you not bear some responsibility? Would you prefer to just resort to lawsuits rather than anticipating it in advance? What happen when 100 people filling their ponds floods 100 other people’s property? Does a tort still function then and it is any efficient way of handling it? The modern free market is senseless in the absence of some accounting for externalities.

  • http://marketurbanism.com MarketUrbanism

    If filling a pond on your property floods your neighbors’ property, do you not bear some responsibility?

    Absolutely. You bear complete responsibility for destruction to others’ property.

    Would you prefer to just resort to lawsuits rather than anticipating it in advance?

    Of course, prevention is better than resolution after the fact. Just as nutrition is a better approach to health than putting it off until heart surgery is necessary. But, I am skeptical that a state is capable of anticipating and preventing better than the owner of the property himself. Of course, mechanisms that respect property rights and prevent these types of problems would exist in the absence of state-run planning. (particularly insurance)

    What happen when 100 people filling their ponds floods 100 other people’s property? Does a tort still function then and it is any efficient way of handling it?

    I don’t know… How is this handled under the current regime? I can’t answer the hypothetical because it’s too vague and the burden of proof doesn’t really rest on me because I am not proposing a specific solution. But, it does seem like a situation that is more unlikely to occur in a free society than the current one.

    I can give examples of how the government worked as a mechanism on behalf of destructive interests against individuals. Particularly with pollution. The usual narrative is that a corporation pollutes at the the expense of its neighbors – the neighbors complain – the state enacts legislation on behalf of the corporation to protect it from the liability… Thus, tort action or other legal action is rendered impossible… So, I’d argue that the current top-down system often fails at this.

  • http://marketurbanism.com MarketUrbanism

    Tebici, I admire your open-mindedness and curiosity!!

    I think there are some great institutions and resources that are more in line with a more principled philosophical approach to libertarianism. But, I should be frank in that the more principled approach tends to be considered “radical”, not moderate or “measured”. However, the principled approach that I accept is much more compatible with urbanists.

    To explore the works of people other than authors here, I would recommend starting with my series called “Rothbard the Urbanist”. (There are a few more installments to come.) The series discusses urbanist-friendly excerpts from his libertarian treatise “For a New Liberty”, which I think is a pretty principled approach to the philosophy.

    I would also recommend the articles and lectures by Sandy Ikeda, a libertarian economist and fan of Jane Jacobs. He currently writes a column for “The Freeman” called Wabi-Sabi. “The Freeman” and FEE are also great resources for subjects outside of urbanism…

    There are also a ton of other resources linked from this site on the Links to articles, academic papers, and books” page. And the blogroll on the right column of this site links to other sites and blogs that are (to varying degrees) compatible or friendly with Market Urbanism.

    As far as institutions, I would list FEE, The Independent Institute, and various economists at George Mason University and throughout the blogosphere (see the blogroll). Though these institutions tend to focus more on economics than urbanism, which is where this site comes in…

  • http://rationalitate.blogspot.com Stephen

    PS, esti roman?

  • Anonymous

    I appreciate the references; I will follow up. I am concerned that as long as the “anti-planners” have flashy name brands like Reason and Cato, it’s going to be hard to combat the image that libertarians are collectively against urbanism. Unfortunately I suppose level-headedness tends not to go along with flashy. This goes along with general polarization in our Maddow versus Beck media wars.

    As far as libertarians in general being “radical” that’s probably a discussion for another forum. What I expected was sort of a traditional “fiscal conservatism,” federalism / lower taxes and spending scheme married to social freedom, what I found was “let’s abolish department of transportation and let the army run on donations”. Even if that is the ultimate goal of libertarianism there are probably more moderate intermediate goals that would be a easier for the general public to digest.

  • Anonymous

    This was meant to be a response to previous posters blanket dismissal of planning, but I’m new to reading this blog so perhaps I should have waited to chime in.

    The 100 people is an analogy for wetlands legislation. Essentially a lot of wetlands legislation has to do with flooding (though there are other environmental goals woven in). If people fill wetlands, which naturally soak up rains, then the rain diverts somewhere else; sometimes in a very obvious way, flooding the neighbor; sometimes it’s the incremental decisions of many people that result in flooding the town or neighborhood next door over course of a decade. I do happen to think wetlands legislation can be heavy handed and prevent good urbanism but it does have a legitimate purpose that I have trouble seeing being dismissed entirely.

  • Anonymous

    I’m going to guess the answer is no?

  • http://rationalitate.blogspot.com Stephen

    Ha, sorry about that…I was asking you if you’re Romanian, because Tebici is a Romanian name (or, more accurately, a Romanian rendering of a Slavic name).

  • Anonymous

    Hi Steven,

    Very interesting. Could you suggest further reading on the history of intracity mass transit? Almost anything – short-form Internet sources, or books (though, hopefully not tomes) – would be helpful.


  • Anonymous


    If I remember correctly, in a number of interviews Jane Jacobs has implied, and even explicitly said in one instance, that she is not a “libertarian” — but the impression I got was that she was saying that she was not “card carrying” “classic” type libertarian, as she believed in, for instance, some laws that (e.g., perhaps anti-drug laws?) that “card carrying” libertarians generally oppose.

    Although it was a book on ethics and not on political systems, per se, it seems to me that in “Systems of Survival” (major book #5) Jacobs articulates both a good rationale for adopting “moderate” libertarianism and, also, a good rationale for eschewing “classic” card carrying libertarianism.

    And in her last book, “Dark Age Ahead,” (major book #7) she also explicitly criticizes and distances herself from neo-conservatives (e.g., calling them “cheese parers” and, I believe, “bean counters”).

    NEVERTHELESS, it seems to me that when one examines the great body of her work, especially “Death and Life of Great American Cities (major book #1), “The Economy of Cities” (major book #2), “On the Question of Separatism” (major book #3), “Cities and the Wealth of Nations” (major book #4) AND “The Nature of Economies” (major book #6), and including the other two previously mentioned books too, one sees that the great body of her thought seems to be an excellent articulation of, and rationale for, a “moderate” libertarian stance.

    While it’s hard for me to say, in the absence of pertinent direct quotes, why others (like the editors of “Reason”) regard Jacobs as essentially a libertarian, personally speaking it seems to me that her opposition to the Lower Manhattan Expressway had, as far as I can remember, very little to do with own evaluation of her as being essentially a moderate libertarian. Rather it was just reading her books (roughly speaking mostly in the order in which they were written) and noticing how Jacobs seemed to be articulating a mostly moderate-libertarian type philosophy in them.

    I haven’t re-read “the Nature of Economies” in a while, but if I remember correctly, it seems to me to have a pro-moderate-libertarian slant to it, as much so or even more so, than her other books. Don’t recall anything that she wrote in that book that would make me think of her as being anti-moderate-libertarian.

    Benjamin Hemric
    Sat., August 28, 2010, 6:08 p.m.

  • WorBlux

    The debate over internal improvements was one of the first national debate, several prominent failures turned it into one of the sectarian issues leading to the civil war, the debate sort of fizzled in the (19)30’s and 40’s. Let’s just say that there’s a lot of history between them.

  • Anonymous

    They [libertarians] make arguments like “the government should mandate large lot homes on cul-de-sacs because that’s what people want,” [citation needed]