Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Plato's War on Houston: From Zoning to "SmartCode", Part 2

There are two different kinds of subjectivism, distinguished by their answers to the question: whose consciousness creates reality? Kant rejected the older of these two, which was the view that each man’s feelings create a private universe for him. Instead, Kant ushered in the era of social subjectivism—the view that it is not the consciousness of individuals, but of groups, that creates reality. Leonard Peikoff, The Ominous Parallels

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant breathed new life into Platonism. However, Kant put a twist on Platonism and held that the world we perceive is a creation of the “collective consciousness”. All that is required to achieve some goal is for the collective--such as a race, a city, or a nation--to believe it. In current parlance, all we need is hope--reality will mold itself to our desires.

This was the view held by Houston's zoning advocates in the 1990s. Today it is held by Peter Brown in his calls for a "common vision”, by the advocates of the SmartCode, and by the New Urbanism movement. Each embraces a Platonic ideal, to be determined by a consensus (they only differ in the size and constituents of the participating group) and implemented through government regulations and control.

In the 1990s Jim Greenwood, the leader of the pro-zoning movement, promised that he would develop a consensus on zoning. Then-mayor Kathy Whitmire supported zoning, telling the Chronicle:

That consensus reflects the will of the people in this community. I have certainly heard from a lot of neighborhood groups about the need for protection.

Both Whitmire and Greenwood dismissed the principles that underlie zoning, implying that the "will of the people" would somehow allow Houston to avoid the destructive consequences experienced in cities with zoning. In other words, if enough of us put our mind to it, then reality would somehow conform to our desires. Today, Peter Brown agrees, previously stating on his web site that he would:

Update Houston’s planning and development standards; adopt a comprehensive plan to realize our shared VISION for the future and to shape the quality growth our citizens want.

The problem with other cities, Brown, Whitmire, and Greenwood would like us to believe, is that the citizens there were not united in their vision for the future. That dissension undermined the collective will. In other words, zoning (or “planning”, as Brown calls it) hasn't worked in other cities because the people didn't believe strongly enough.

Some have realized that a city-wide consensus is impossible to achieve. Land-use regulations applied uniformly throughout a city are too rigid and do not account for the various opinions of citizens. To overcome this, the advocates of the SmartCode seek to shrink the size of the group involved:

The SmartCode enables the implementation of a community’s vision by coding the specific outcomes desired in particular places. It allows for distinctly different approaches in different areas within the community, unlike a one-size-fits-all conventional code. To this end, it is meant to be locally customized by professional planners, architects, and attorneys.

In other words, rather than struggle to get all of Houston to agree, what we really need to do is to get the citizens in a neighborhood to agree. Each neighborhood can create its own Platonic ideal and then force it upon recalcitrant neighbors.

Some might argue that this is simply democracy in action, that the “will of the people” should reign supreme. Such claims ignore the fact that America was founded as a constitutional republic, not a democracy. A democracy means unlimited majority rule—the majority may do as it pleases because it is the majority. But rain dances will not coax water from the sky, no matter how many participate in such mystical endeavors. The fact that the majority believes something to be right and proper does not make it so.

The advocates of consensus, “common vision”, and all of its variants believe that the collective can and should establish an ideal for the city. And when the voluntary actions of individuals fail to achieve that result, government must use regulations to achieve the desired state. Ignoring the obvious failures of past attempts to create their fictitious Utopia, they march forward with their banner of civic pride. But they do not know their destination, for they have abandoned the only tool that allows them to project the future—thinking in principles.

Tomorrow, we will meet the man who taught them that principles are useless, that what worked yesterday won’t necessarily work today, that our only concern should be the expediency of the moment.

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