Friday, May 7, 2010

Pro-Zoners Sing the Same Tune

For decades zoning advocates have promised that the evils of hell would be unleashed upon Houston if we did not adopt comprehensive zoning. The prognosticators have claimed that the city won't attract businesses, that our quality of life will suffer, and Houston would never become a "world-class city". Despite three failed attempts to force zoning down our throats, and the fact that such predictions have proven to be utterly false, zoning advocates haven't changed their tune. They are just changing a few of the lyrics.

Now, the claim is that the city won't attract "information workers", that is, young urbanites who want to live in hip cities. And, according to such hipsters as failed mayoral candidate Peter Brown, Houston ain't hip. What we need, according to the Brownster, is for the city to provide "incentives" to developers to create a more "urbane vision". (HT: Gus Van Horn) Froma Harrop writes:
No one is being forced to do anything, he [Brown] told me. "But if the city is going to pay the piper, we play the tune."
And if a developer doesn't march to that tune, then what happens Mr. Brown? He gets tossed in jail, has his property seized, or both. But I suppose you wouldn't call that force. Just like you have insisted that "planning" isn't really just a code word for zoning.

What the article doesn't tell us is the nature of government "incentives". They generally consist of something like: "We would really like you to do this. Or else." The "or else" means, government officials will make your life a living hell at every opportunity.

Given Houston's success in creating jobs and attracting residents--all based on the voluntary consent of those involved--why do some insist that the city resort to coercive measures such as land-use regulations? Pro-zoners have a ready answer:
"The whole dynamic of what it took to succeed has changed," insists Rice University sociologist Stephen Klineberg.

Early last century, Houston boomed as a terminal for the East Texas Oil Field. "You didn't need education to make money," Klineberg says. Energy remains the big employer, but today it's a knowledge industry -- more about servicing producers around the globe than pumping the nearby crude.
In other words, that was then, this is now. If the city is to continue to succeed, it must get "smart", and to the pro-zoning crowd, "smart" means government controls. The uneducated entrepreneurs and visionaries who turned a swamp into the energy capital of the world were simply lucky.

Despite Klineberg's arrogant claims, what it takes for a city (or a nation) to succeed hasn't changed. Houston's relative freedom, particularly in land use, has allowed individuals to act according to their own judgment, even when others refused to see their vision. For Houston to continue to succeed, it must rediscover the principles of freedom. It must reject the siren song of the pro-zoners.

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