Thursday, December 4, 2008

A Debate on Zoning

The comments to a post at Houston Strategies evolved into a lengthy debate over zoning. The debate was civil and interesting. The advocate for zoning presented reasonable arguments which are shared by many people. Below are some excerpts from his comments, followed by my response (I did not participate in the debate):
I also like the efforts of the Houston It's Worth It crowd, but I suspect for different reasons. I like Houston's incredible diversity and opportunity - however to me the very slogan "Houston It's Worth It" means that it is worth beautifying Houston and making it more livable, not "keeping it ugly".

This is a common theme in arguments for land use controls in Houston. And it is an understandable argument in some respects-- nobody wants to live in an "ugly" city. But what is an ugly city and what does beautifying mean? One person might find skyscrapers beautiful (I do) and another might find parks beautiful (I do). What one finds beautiful or ugly is a matter of personal values. The same is true of "livability".

The lack of land use controls in Houston allows for a wide diversity of land uses, and hence, a wide variety of values to be offered. Land use controls reduce the variety, and impose the values of some upon the entire community. Those who argue for making Houston "beautiful" or "livable" are really arguing that their values should have the power of law.

Further, the city's population has continued to grow almost unabated for decades. This indicates that many people find Houston very livable. The fact that people voluntarily move to Houston is a very strong argument that they find Houston livable. Why is that fact so frequently ignored?
Still, it would be nice to have some recourse if someone decided to build a 30 story skycraper next to me (since I am not protected AFAIK), and it would be great to see that the city has a plan of how it would like to develop rather than having the next business center pop up in Tomball.

In this context, "some recourse" means some way of prohibiting others from using their property in a manner that he finds offensive. While it is only natural to want to protect one's investment from something one finds offensive and potentially harmful, a civilized person does so through persuasion and voluntary consent. A brute resorts to force-- or government as his proxy.
I agree that the private sector could figure out shared parking arrangements.
I'm less confident they would do things like preserve green space or figure out
how to provide effective mass transit to these areas.

A lack of confidence is not a compelling argument. Twenty years ago I wasn't confident that I would be able to reach a potential audience of millions, but here I am. The fact is, when individuals are free they will find innovative ways to provide the values sought by others. If there is sufficient demand for green space and mass transit--i.e., a profit to be made--you can be sure that enterprising entrepreneurs will find a way to provide those values.

If there is insufficient demand, that is, a small number of people desire the value, then why is it proper for their values to be imposed on the entire community? Why should something that doesn't have widespread economic value be imposed by law? That's the economic/ practical argument. Morally, what right does anyone have to impose his values on others? Each individual has a moral right to pursue his values without interference from others, so long as he respects their mutual rights. If someone desires green space so highly, then he should move to Brenham, but he should not use the government to impose his desires upon everyone else.

"Anything goes" simply does not work when you have 5,000+ people per square mile- you are going to have controversies over building heights, access to sunlight, noise, traffic, mass transit, sidewalks, signage, building uses, parking, etc. I really don't see any way around this new reality, and the libertarian arguments do not effectively answer these challenges - instead they "wish them away". I would be happy to hear alternatives to zoning or form-based code that are more open or libertarian-friendly, but simply saying that "there are no problems with the lack of zoning" or "we do not need any additional government tools to deal with these sort of issues" is an argument that I find increasingly untenable.

So the more people living together the more we need government dictating our actions? The truth is, government's purpose is to protect our rights, whether there are 5 people per square mile or 5,000. The principle does not change with the number of people.

Certainly, density creates challenges. But that does not mean that we should abandon property rights and let the government dictate how we use our land. The solution is to fully respect property rights. Government has a legitimate role in this--to identify what those rights constitute and what violates those rights.

Further, the use of the term "anything goes" implies anarchy. Houston has laws. Many communities have deed restrictions. To imply that Houston is an anarchy is at best naive.

Dictating land use is a violation of property rights. The very nature of zoning and land use regulations is a violation of property rights. We don't need more "government tools". We need a properly defined and limited government, doing its legitimate job and nothing more.

It is common for advocates of more government control to pose some issue, and when they do not receive a ready answer that they find satisfactory, they rush to conclude that government is the only solution. Government is an agency of force. When government is the "solution" it really means that force is the solution--that some may use force to impose their values on others. That is never an appropriate solution.

Despite the fact that Houston has continued to grow in terms of population and its economy, there are those who argue that our city will become "unlivable" and collapse into depravity. This argument has been made for 80+ years, and yet it hasn't come true. It is easy to make dire predictions, but when those predictions do not come true, we must seriously question the motives behind such prognostications.

The fact is, city's with strict land use controls have become unlivable for most of the middle-class. Home prices are beyond the reach of the average family, and while those cities might be "beautiful", most people get to experience that "beauty" only as they drive through. To me, beauty lies in freedom, and in that regard, Houston is the most beautiful city in the world.

No comments: