June 26, 2005

God Bless the Pimples


Steve Greenhut writes commentary for the Orange County Register, a newspaper distinguished by its libertarian outlook.

Lately, Greenhut, as in this piece, has been addressing the view of city planners and architects who espouse the "New Urbanism." Essentially, NU is a tag for the long-standing views of planners who find suburban life and town layouts banal, plebeian and soulless, and would like to return to at least some aspects of denser communities where more traveling is done on foot or in public transportation.

Greenhut faults these folks for ignoring both the preferences of millions for life in Orange County, which is highly suburban, spread out, and decentralized, and the fact that it seems to these folks to be a good place to live and raise families, and not just because of the weather. Greenhut also scores points against planners who, it would seem, simply want to impose their own views of the good life by legislating certain outcomes, regardless of majority views, expressed, among other ways, through the market.

Fair enough. The analysis would be more incisive, though, if it were pointed out that the outcomes involving suburban sprawl and single-family homes are also, at least in part, the product of legislated restrictions on property rights, zoning regualtions that law professors call "Euclidian" because the U.S. Supreme Court upheld their constitutionality in a case called City of Euclid. Thus, for example, a homeowner on a convenient corner in Irvine (known to some as "Stepford Irvine"), a planned city in Orange County, would run afoul of the law if he decided to sell milk and bread from his front window, or to serve barbecue for money in his back yard. To do such business legally, one must go to a local or regional shopping center, owned by the monopolist Irvine Company. Nor could a homeowner, legally, convert his home, no matter how close to the Univeristy of California, Irvine, into a boarding house for students, thus competing with the Big U's monopoly on dorm rooms.

In much of Orange County, these property restrictions are supplemented by a second layer of restrictions imposed by homeowners' associations, whose rules are created by developers, many of whom try to regulate such items as whether people wash cars in front of their houses, choose eccentric paint tones for their shutters, or keep their garage doors open too long.

Although I share Greenhut's admiration for much suburban life here "behind the Orange curtain," it is not a product of unfettered market forces. Houston, Texas, is a much better test case for the effects of no Euclidean zoning. There were some restrictive covenants, but for years no formal zoning in that very lively, albeit moist, Texas town.

If a Supreme Court came along that concluded that Euclidean zoning violated the Due Process or the Takings clauses, and people were free to go into just about any business, or to build just about anything that wouldn't fall down or emit poison on their property, in ten years Orange County, like most suburbs, would be a very different place, and not necessarily worse.

Likewise, just as government allowed the railroads in the Nineteenth Century to use eminent domain and public subsidies, in the last fifty years the state has conferred advantages on the auto industry, paving much of the country at taxpayer expense, while regulating businesses so that in places like the OC, one is effectively marooned without wheels and an internal combustion engine.

Greenhut and I would agree, I'm sure, on the frequent injustices and corruption that emerge from the petty tyranny of land use regulation in countless small cities.

We might also agree (I'm not sure) on the comfort that Big Real Estate and Utopian Leftists like Irvine's "liberal" politico Larry Agran have with one another. It's the small fry, who don't have the money to make big political contributions, and have an idiosyncratic view of what's good for them, who stick in the craw of corporate and poltiical magnates alike, and probably also in the craws of the Urbanists, New and Old. Little people who don't know what's good for them, whose property the Supreme Court nows says the city fathers and mothers can seize and give to Target or Toyota.

God bless these stiff-necked little guys, pimples on the *** of progress, and God Save the Republic!

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