Monday, September 7, 2009

Plato's War on Houston: From Zoning to "SmartCode", Part 1

That is what I mean when I say that “right” is the same thing in all states, namely the interest of the established government; and government is the strongest element in each state, and so if we argue correctly we see that “right” is always the same, the interest of the stronger party…

To be really precise one must say that the ruler, in so far as he is a ruler, makes no mistake, and so infallibly enacts that which is best for himself, which his subjects must perform. Plato, The Republic

The Greek philosopher Plato died more than 2,300 years ago, yet he is waging war on Houston today. His ideas live on, made manifest in the myriad proposals to shape the city through government regulation and controls.

Plato held that this world is an imperfect reflection of true reality, that knowledge of that reality is available only to a select group of elitist intellectuals, and those intellectuals must rule over society for the good of all. We see Platonism reflected in past calls for zoning, Peter Brown's proposals for planning, suggestions that Houston implement the "SmartCode", and the entire "New Urbanism" movement. Each embraces the fundamental ideas of Plato.

Plato began by postulating an ideal that exists in another realm and decrying the imperfection of this world. In the language of the advocates of land-use regulations, the ideal consists of segregating land-use (traditional zoning), or pedestrian friendly, multi-use developments (New Urbanism), or a mixture of the natural and the man-made via "transects" (SmartCode). And like Plato, they advocate government coercion when their ideal does not materialize in the world we inhabit.

During the Progressive Era, segregating land-uses to prevent "incompatible" land-use was regarded as the ideal. The result was Euclidean zoning, which has subsequently been demonstrated to be devastatingly destructive. Fortunately, Houstonians have rejected zoning on three separate occasions. Not to be deterred, the Platonists went back to the drawing board.

Today, the ideal takes a different shape and form. Decrying urban "sprawl", the decay of the inner city, and dependency on the automobile, their ideal now consists of denser, multi-use developments that are pedestrian friendly and tied to mass transit. In other words, the ideal of 100 years ago is no longer an ideal. But while their ends may have changed, their means remain the same--government coercion, regulations, and controls.

There is nothing necessarily wrong with seeking to improve the world in which we live. Indeed, that is a part of my motivation for writing this blog. But the ends to not justify the means. A better world will not, and cannot, be achieved through tyrannical means.

In this context, the error of the Platonists is that they divorce their ideal from reality. They posit a world that fails to account for or recognize that individuals desire different things in life, that the things they--the Platonists--value may not be shared by all Houstonians. Yet they seek to impose those values upon the entire city through government mandates.

This Platonic ideal rests largely on a homogeneous view of mankind. It assumes that the values of some are in the best interest of the entire society. The “enlightened” few believe it their duty to spread their wisdom through the coercive power of government. And those malcontents who hold different values and refuse to go along should properly be compelled to put aside their "selfish" desires. In short, the individual is to be subservient to the demands and decrees of "society". In this view, society—the “will of the people”—is the supreme ruler, and the individual is obligated to obey.

To a significant measure, Houston has rejected this view. City government has refrained from enacting many of the draconian restrictions and regulations found in other cities. City government has more consistently recognized the property rights of individuals. But in recent decades this has changed—in the past thirty years city council has enacted ordinance after ordinance that restricts individual freedom. And all of it has been done in the name of some ideal—such as “quality of life”.

But this ideal remains elusive, for it is divorced from our world. This however, has not stopped the Platonists from seeking government power to impose their views and values upon all of Houston. And their efforts put them at war with every Houstonian who values his freedom.

Plato is the Commander-in-Chief in the war on Houston. But he has numerous generals. Over the next two days, I will introduce two of them. Their ideas too, live on.


Harold said...

Neat, can't wait for the next installments. Just goes to show you can't escape philosophy.

Brian Phillips said...

You are correct. You can't escape it even if you try--such as by not studying it.