Dangers of Anti-Sprawlism

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One of the creepiest ploys to come out of the Clinton years was the administration’s denunciation of suburban "sprawl," and its threat to stop it. Such intervention would have been both politically and economically dangerous.

[Christie Todd Whitman, Bush's choice to head the EPA, vowed in her acceptance remarks to continue the campaign against suburban sprawl, comments that should alarm anyone who supported Bush in hopes of ending such Clintontonian nonsense.]

Think of it: sprawl, if it is a problem for government at all, is an issue to be dealt with, not by the feds, not by the states, but by local bodies. For the president of the United States to inject himself represents an outrageous violation of the principles of federalism.

The assumption was that the president is not only powerful in his constitutionally enumerated powers, and not only when extreme social and economic conflict strikes the states, but even in matters like local zoning, suburban aesthetics, and commute times. This is totalitarianism.

Besides, what kind of anti-sprawl plan can be hatched in DC? Socialist planners, holed up in federal buildings, can’t possibly know the precise details of the multifarious land-use troubles afflicting large urban areas.

Of course, the fact of obvious ignorance hasn’t stopped the federal government from attempting to plan the demographics of local schools or decide when local housing markets need to be supplemented by socialist apartments for the unproductive.

And what has been the result in both cases? Collapsing schools of ever- lower quality, and the creation of crime-infested crack houses dotting the city landscape, often in what used to be nice areas of town. And these are hardly isolated cases: the indisputable result of Washington’s attempts to plan local life has been a disaster. Sometimes this is even intended, for the more unstable local communities are, the more people can be tempted to turn over management of their lives to the State.

And so, during the Clinton years, the government announced that it would be intervening in local disputes over elbow room. Did anyone really believe this would produce anything but disaster? And what would Washington do once this fact became evident? The same thing it has done with public schools and public housing: pour in ever more tax money to fund more of the same.

But even aside from the issue of Washington’s intervention, the urban sprawl issue is a non-issue. For the most part, the problem has been trumped up by environmentalists who oppose all forms of economic development, and are looking for another way to impose their anti-human agenda on us.

Hence, in the name of improving our lives, the environmentalists propose ways to restrict our lives even more. Some have been tempted because the traffic problems are real, and sometimes people don’t like the look of commercial development when it occurs on major thoroughfares.

In their political efforts, the environmentalists have often been able to count on existing homeowners and existing businesses to help shut down development. This isn’t entirely surprising, because current owners can expect to enjoy an increase in the value of their property (less supply, more demand), while existing businesses appreciate having potential competition curbed, thus gaining a monopoly privilege.

In other words, the anti-sprawl contingent is working with property owners and the business class to lock up the economy so they can enjoy unjust profits at the expense of future competitors and homeowners. Ironic, isn’t it?

But what is to be done about traffic congestion in places where the population is increasing too quickly for the existing infrastructure to support it? And what can be done about clustered and unsightly commercial development?

In the former case, the problem is one of public ownership. If the streets and utilities were owned and developed privately, the laws of supply and demand would match infrastructure with development. If city planners knew something about economics, they would start insisting that businesses and developers pay for the infrastructure they use, not through taxes but through ownership on a for-profit basis.

In the latter case, clustered development is often the result of excessively strict zoning that pushes development into areas close to the city but just outside the controlled part. If zoning were loosened, businesses would scatter based on economic rather than political considerations.

But in other cases, zoning isn’t the issue at all. Businesses like to be near other businesses and they want to be in plain view of the consuming public. More often than not, that is the explanation of "strip malls." What can be done about them? We need a change in values. We should look at commercial society as something that is a benefit to human beings and therefore good in itself.

Down with the assumption that pristine swamps, jungles, and thickets are somehow morally superior to economic development for man! And down with the idea that we are better off serving political masters than having private enterprise serve us!

Sometimes the Left invents problems to fool us into falling for socialist schemery. The sprawl issue is one such case. Thank goodness voters are starting to catch on: the most recent election produced several huge defeats for the environmentalists who seek greater control over our lives by greater government control over the economy.

Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr., is president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama. He also edits a daily news site, LewRockwell.com.

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