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?