Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Growth of Zoning

The Indianapolis zoning ordinance of 1922 was 18 pages long. By 1968 it had grown to 46 pages. Today it is 557 pages. This is typical of zoning. In Property and Freedom, Bernard H. Siegan wrote:

Small, modest zoning ordinances grow into very complex and complicated ones. One reason is, of course, the change in conditions, building techniques, and thinking that occurs over the years and is reflected in our laws. But there are other explanations for the uncontrolled growth of zoning. The first is that zoning has been a story of unrealized expectations. It usually does not work as represented… Another reason for the proliferation of zoning regulations is that the process is a battlefield for warring interest groups. (page 189)

This pattern is not limited to zoning. Indeed, it is true of virtually every government intervention into the economy. For example, the federal income tax originally applied to a very small percentage of individuals and was relatively straight forward. It has grown into a massive, unintelligible tax code that impacts every individual.

Siegan correctly identifies the political reasons for this. Such interventions never work as expected (economists call this unintended consequences). In response to the unrealized expectations, the politicians amend the law to “correct” the problems their intervention created.

Political intervention in the economy is designed to achieve certain values—values chosen and dictated by politicians. But those values are necessarily not universally accepted—if they were, government coercion would not be needed. Consequently, individuals seek other methods for achieving their values, and in the process, create economic demands that did not previously exist. (Government mandates regarding ethanol in gasoline are one example.)

In addition, such interventions always benefit some at the expense of others. Those who are harmed may take several courses of action. They may simply abandon the value by closing their business, retiring, or something similar. Or they may lobby for changes to the law, changes that will invariably harm someone else.

In the latter case, the process becomes a constant battle between various groups, each seeking to curry political favor. Most politicians are all too happy to encourage this process, as they can reward their political supporters. Over time the law morphs into a mish- mash of often contradictory dictates.

The solution is not reform of the existing laws, nor is it the election of more ethical politicians. The solution is to end government intervention in the economy, including land use. The solution is the full recognition and protection of property rights. The solution is to remove the power of politicians to intervene into our lives.

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