Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Plato's War on Houston: From Zoning to "SmartCode", Part 3

By itself, as a distinctive theory, the pragmatist ethics is contentless. It urges men to pursue “practicality,” but refrains from specifying any “rigid” set of values that could serve to define the concept…

In politics, also, pragmatism presents itself as opposed to “rigidity,” to “dogma,” to “extremes” of any kind (whether capitalist or socialist); it avows that it is relativist, “moderate,” “experimental”… When Dewey wrote, the political principle imported from Germany and proliferating in all directions, was collectivism. Leonard Peikoff, The Ominous Parallels
John Dewey was the most influential Pragmatist in America. He explicitly dispensed with principles, declaring that there are no absolutes. We must act, judge the results, and then modify our actions. Most of all, we must fly by the seat of our pants. This is the approach embraced by all of the advocates of land-use regulations.

During the debate over zoning in the early 1990s, Jim Greenwood insisted that Houston would avoid the corruption, economic turmoil, and other ill effects experienced by other cities with zoning. We would avoid these problems because we would have “Houston-style” zoning, which he never actually bothered to define. But many thought that that sounded nice, and such things as definitions were an unnecessary impediment.

What Greenwood and his ilk ignored were the principles underlying zoning. They ignored the fact that sticking adjectives in front of “zoning” does not change its nature, or its consequences. They implied that all that was required was a vaguely stated ideal and the “will of the people”. Somehow, he implied, we will figure it out and make it work.

The advocates of the SmartCode, New Urbanism, and other variants of "form-based code" make the same mistake. They readily acknowledge that Euclidean zoning has failed. It is too rigid and inflexible, it has created “sprawl”, it has fostered dependency on the automobile. But rather than question their basic premises, they attempt to tweak and modify their means for achieving the unachievable. Rather than identify the principles that underlie zoning—as well as the SmartCode and New Urbanism—they proclaim that their plan is different.

Superficially, they are right—they seek higher density, mixed-use developments in contrast to the segregated land-use policies of zoning. Rather than the rigid city-wide tyranny of zoning, they propose dozens (or hundreds) of “flexible” tyrannies within a city, each being guided by the “will of the people” residing in a particular area.

In principle there is no difference between zoning and the more recent “alternatives”. Each seeks to impose a Platonic ideal through government force. Each allows non-owners of a particular parcel of property a voice in its use. Each violates the moral rights of land owners.

Interestingly, many advocates of the SmartCode claim to also be advocates of the free market. How is it that alleged advocates of the free market can endorse ideas that require government coercion for their implementation?

The answer lies in Pragmatism. They are unable to see any connection between zoning and their proposals. They see some element that resemble the free market—all I can find is de-centralized control of land-use—and regard that as the equivalent of a truly free market. But stripped of incidental details, the SmartCode is nothing more than government regulation of land-use.

Euclidean zoning has failed because it must. A is A. The very nature of zoning is a violation of individual rights. Zoning compels individuals to use their property differently than they would voluntarily choose—it forces them to act contrary to their own rational judgment. The result is market distortions, such as housing bubbles. The result is graft and corruption, as developers and builders attempt to sidestep draconian controls. The result is higher prices for everything, as the arbitrarily lowered supply of land for each use increases the cost of housing and of doing business. The result is the destruction of lives, and with it, the cities that attempt to live a contradiction.

The SmartCode attempts to overcome these problems, not by renouncing force, but by using force in a different manner. Rather than prohibit commercial establishments in residential areas, the SmartCode will require it. However, the height, setback, landscaping, “public realm”, and other details will be dictated by government. Like zoning, the SmartCode will prohibit the land owner from using his property as he chooses. Like zoning, the SmartCode will impose additional costs upon the property owner. Like zoning, the SmartCode violates property rights.

But the “free market” advocates of the SmartCode do not see it that way. They see details that differ and believe that their proposal is different. They have different ends (though only superficially) and believe that their proposal is different. They see differences, and ignore the nature and essence of those differences. My cats are different in size, color, personality, and in many other ways, but they are still cats. Land-use regulations are land-use regulations, whether they are called zoning, or the SmartCode, or New Urbanism.

In the end, the SmartCode and New Urbanism must also fail. They must do so for the same reasons that zoning fails. And that becomes very clear if one thinks in principles.

Tomorrow I will examine the only real alternative to zoning—true freedom in land use.

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