Wednesday, August 27, 2008


“Not in my back yard” (NIMBY), is a song that we hear frequently, with a number of variations. The residents of Southampton and Boulevard Oaks sang that tune in regard to the Ashy High Rise. The residents of Eastwood sang a refrain in regard to Magnolia Glen.

It’s a song with lyrics that tug at the heartstrings of many. An “evil” developer or corporation seeks to construct a building or project that local home owners do not like. The project will attract derelicts, or impose on their view, or create some other situation—real or imagined—that they do not like.

And that is what NIMBY really comes down to—they don’t like it. They raise all kinds of objections—too much traffic, pollution, noise, etc. On occasion these objections are legitimate, but they often get lost in the hysterical refrain of “not in my back yard.”

The real issue is how to resolve such issues. More and more often, the home owners run to government and seek some law that will prohibit the proposed project. They reject the concept of property rights and seek to impose their values upon the rightful property owner. They reject voluntary, consensual interactions between individuals and seek to substitute the coercive power of government.

I don’t agree with everything in this article, but it illustrates how NIMBY often works:

Now that I'm retired and have a little time on my hands, I decided to experiment with fighting a particular example of NIMBY-ism. Junipero Serra Blvd. is an arterial road just to the west of Stanford Campus. It has a 35-mile-per hour speed limit next to the campus, just as it does as it winds north, eventually becoming Alameda de las Pulgas through Menlo Park and other towns to the north. There are 18 houses that front on the street, and the residents decided to band together and complain to the county that the road was "unsafe" at 35 MPH.

I should comment that 35 is a very normal and appropriate speed for a road that is there to transport people long distances. We're not talking about a residential street whose sole purpose is to get people from their houses to major arteries like Serra Blvd. However, the traffic makes noise, which would be reduced if cars were, say, forced to go 25 MPH instead of 35, and apparently the residents of the 18 houses find it hard to get out of their driveways and into traffic. So it would benefit them if everyone else in the world had to slow down going past their houses.

I found out about a "public meeting" to discuss the proposed changes, and, being a retired dude with nothing to do, I decide to show up. The first thing I notice is that I am the only one at the meeting who was neither a county official nor a resident of one of the 18 houses whose owners stand to benefit (we had to mark our homes on a map). Coincidence? I don't think so. The 18 NIMBY's stand to gain a property-value windfall of $100K, at least. The county guys have to be there; it's their job (which also depends on there being enough projects in Santa Clara County to justify their existence). But what's the economic advantage to the residents of the other 700 or so houses on the campus? If they drive on the affected road once a week, and they are slowed down by 30 seconds, it would be decades before they recover the time wasted attending one of these meetings. That's why the NIMBY's always win. They steal a little from large numbers of people --- sufficiently little that it is in no one's individual advantage to fight back, although collectively the theft is huge.

I have previously written about how democracy is nothing but gang warfare, and this article illustrates that point. A small number of home owners ganged together to pressure county officials to do their bidding. Those who would suffer because of this were either uninformed of the proposal, and did not regard it worth their time. So a small number of individuals imposed their values upon the entire community.

Often, the gang of home owners goes against a developer. In those cases the developer is vastly outnumbered. The democratic thing to do is side with the majority, so the developer finds himself being forced to abide by the values of the majority.

NIMBY songs may “empower the people” and be democratic. But they are destructive to property rights, and that makes for a very ugly song.

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