Response to Kevin Carson, a Critic of Gentrification

On February 9, 2015 I published an essay entitled “The Gentrifier.” In it I explained that contrary to the economic illiterates who hate and revile this practice, it is entirely a legitimate one. Since there has been confusion about this practice on the part of one writer who really ought to know better, I shall try to explain it even more slowly and carefully than I did at the outset.

What is gentrification? It merely constitutes one aspect of bidding for scarce resources; that which occurs in the real estate market. The more general case occurs continuously all throughout the market. For example, I purchase a loaf of bread. There is only so much bread available at any given time. I raise the price of this product by an infinitesimal amount. And, also, I have precluded someone else from purchasing that particular foodstuff. That is the general case. Defending the Undefend... Walter Block Best Price: $7.91 Buy New $10.80 (as of 09:45 EST - Details) The same principle applies to real estate. I rent an apartment, or purchase a home. In so doing, I made it impossible for anyone else to occupy that specific domicile. Assume, now, that I honestly earned the money with which I made both of these purchases, I have violated no law that a libertarian need respect.

Since I wrote that essay, a new case of gentrification has made the news that may be of interest.

Robert Wenzel reports that “Protesters Plan To Block Google, Apple & Facebook Shuttle Buses In Oakland Friday.” Wenzel continues: “The free market haters will be out in force on Friday in Oakland. Demonstrators plan to block tech shuttle buses leaving Oakland and taking employees to Silicon Valley. The blocking is part of a series of Bay Area protests planned for International Workers’ Day on May 1.”

And what has put the noses of the protesters out of joint? States Wenzel: “According to an announcement on IndyBay.org: The rich have begun colonizing North Oakland, West Oakland, and Downtown. Their tech buses, their pricey cafes, and their luxury apartments have begun to appear with alarming frequency. This May Day, we will deliver a simple message to these colonizers during their morning commute.”

“Colonizing,” it would appear, is a synonym for “gentrifying.” The protesters take umbrage, in other words, that some people are outbidding others for scarce real estate space in California.

But, there is one more element that must be explored before we can see the full ramifications of this phenomenon. What seems to stick in the craw of those who oppose gentrification (or colonizing) is not so much X outbidding Y for scarce resources. That is only a part of the problem. More egregious is that Y was there first; then, X came along and outspent Y for the resources that Y had long been purchasing. In other words, if the computer nerds were the original inhabitants of Oakland, that would not have been quite so bad in the eyes of the anti market critics. What is really horrific in their view is that others had previously occupied the premises in this geographical area and then, later on, the gentrifiers came along and outbid them for the real estate in question. In other words, it is bad enough, very bad indeed, that X purchased the good in question, and Y was left out in the cold. It is so much, much, much worse that in the past Y occupied the very consumer good in question, and can no longer do so because X has now paid more for Toward a Libertarian S... Walter Block Best Price: $15.33 Buy New $15.39 (as of 08:30 EST - Details) it. But this is just tough cheese from the libertarian point of view. Consumers (and producers, and landlord and lenders and borrowers and everyone else) are allowed to compete against each other not only for new provisions, but also for those long in existence. Tenants and homeholders, and condominium owners may compete against each other too!

One last point before we are ready to delve into the critique offered by Mr. Kevin Carson. Who, mainly, are the gentrifiers? Wenzel points to computer programmers in one case, but they are not the typical “violators.” No, that honor belongs to male homosexuals.

According to one author: “While glbtq people in general are participants in gentrification, gay men in particular are often at the vanguard of gentrifying neighborhoods. This is because they tend to have a higher percentage of disposable income and often want to live in urban centers that are tolerant and culturally vibrant.  Many of the neighborhoods that gay men move into and gentrify were previously working-class or poor neighborhoods primarily populated by black residents. These areas often have historic homes that the new residents restore while complaining that the old residents have done little to maintain their own. Examples of locations in the United States that have experienced this sort of gentrification in recent years are Asbury Park, New Jersey; German Village and Clintonville, in Columbus, Ohio; Dupont Circle, in Washington, D. C.; Lakeview (known colloquially as Boys Town), in Chicago; and the Oak Lawns/Cedar Springs area of Dallas.”

According to another: “Economists have long speculated about the effects of gayborhoods on everything from diversity to gentrification to housing prices. One common theme of this analysis is that neighborhoods with a higher than average density of gay residents are by definition more diverse and open-minded, with a wider range of racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups as well. Another common argument is that gays often pioneer the revitalization of disadvantaged, crime-filled urban neighborhoods – and their presence can be seen as an early marker of gentrification and a precursor to a jump in housing prices.”

And in the view of a third: “A lot of times when people speak of gentrification, they mention gay males as one of the leading signs. How in the world did being gay become synonymous with gentrification? Since when does somebody’s The Case for Discrimin... Walter Block Check Amazon for Pricing. sexuality determine whether a neighborhood’s status would rise or not?! When I think about this as logically as I can, the most basic conclusion I can come to is that these are, largely, white middle-class men who also happen to be gay. Yet when people speak of them, it’s just the gay part that is being highlighted, thus a neighborhood is becoming more upscale. Nobody certainly looks at gay/bisexual black people as a sign of gentrifiers.

Thus, people who vociferously oppose gentrifiers may want to rethink their positions if they wish to adhere to any connection at all to political correctness.

I lied. Let me make yet one more point before we delve into the case against gentrification offered by Mr. Kevin Carson. Why am I replying to him at all? In rereading my original essay on this topic I find nothing untoward. At least in my own mind, I wrote clearly, utilized elemental economics and basic libertarian theory. Gentrification is part and parcel of the market system and violates no libertarian precepts whatsoever. I respond to Mr. Carson for one reason: he is associated with libertarianism, and, it is important to show the error of his argument, lest people mistakenly think he speaks, accurately, for this philosophy.

Evidence for this contention? For one thing, he writes on a blog entitled: Center for a Stateless Society: A Left Market Anarchist Think Tank & Media Center. Thus, a “market anarchist” opposes the market. This cannot be allowed to stand. For another, his anti free enterprise, anti libertarian book was made the subject of an entire issue of the Journal of Libertarian Studies. I think very few such books, if any, were given such an honor by JLS. (The only one I remember singled out for such intensive treatment was the far more deserving Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia). Here is my own critique of that publication: Block, Walter E. 2006. “Kevin Carson as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: Book review of Carson, Kevin A. 2004. Studies in Mutualist Political Economy. Self-published: Fayetteville, AR”; The Journal of Libertarian Studies; Vol. 20, No.1, Winter, pp. 35-46; http://www.mises.org/journals/jls/20_1/20_1_4.pdf. Mr. Carson simply cannot be allowed to get away with traducing and misrepresenting libertarianism. Hence, this reply to him.

So, at long last, what does this author have to say about gentrification? (See his “‘Libertarians’ for Ethnic Cleansing” The Privatization of R... Walter Block Best Price: $10.10 Buy New $13.79 (as of 09:45 EST - Details) March 29th, 2015, http://c4ss.org/content/36897)

Our author starts out on the wrong foot. He asserts that I “come out explicitly in favor of direct state intervention to evict poor people for the sake of promoting business interests.” That is a very serious charge indeed to make against a libertarian such as me. It would be helpful were Mr. Carson to have quoted me to that effect. He does not. I could with equal evidence claim that Mr. Carson has not yet stopped beating his wife. Namely, with no evidence at all.

In order to not defend gentrifiers who came by their wealth by illicit means, and thus unjustifiably competed for goods and services, I said this: “Assume that the rich came by their wealth in an honest way, not through government grants of special privileges, subsidies, bail-outs, a la crony capitalism, but via laissez faire capitalism. Thus they have contributed more to everyone else than the poor. If anything would be unfair, it would be that the well-to-do would have to take the leavings and those without much honestly earned wherewithal get the lion’s share.”

Mr. Carson acknowledges this. He even quotes me to this effect. But, then, he says: “Having thus assumed away the entire real world of privilege enjoyed by actually existing rich people, and the fact that local governments are nothing but showcase properties of the local real estate interests, Block goes on to argue that anything short of inequality and merciless gentrification would be grossly unfair to the rich, because they ‘have contributed more to everyone else than the poor.’”

But this is an improper criticism.  Yes, I am indeed “assuming away” this phenomenon, in order to focus narrowly on gentrification itself. I did not want to confound it with other issues such as source of income or wealth. Mr. Carson, instead, interprets me as denying that some rich people attained their wealth improperly. This sort of thing prevents us from attaining real disagreement; instead, we pass each other as ships in the night, me saying one thing, and Mr. Carson criticizing me for saying something entirely different. Yes, indeed, the rich who earned their wealth honestly have indeed “contributed more to everyone else than the poor.” Mr. Carson may not like this, he may resent it, but he gives no reasons why this claim of mine is erroneous.

I am also at a complete loss to understand why Mr. Carson would attribute to me support to “go and shoot them poor Ron Paul for President... Walter E. Block Best Price: $21.95 Buy New $25.95 (as of 10:15 EST - Details) people dead.” It seems that he makes this up out of the whole cloth. Again, he has as much warrant, namely none, for making this claim as I would have if I accused him of beating his wife.

Mr. Carson takes particular umbrage at me supporting gentrification in behalf of World’s Fairs and the Olympics.  He states: “Block neglects to mention that all these things ‘happen’ with the very active involvement of local government using eminent domain to demolish entire neighborhoods (mostly inhabited by poor people of color).”

Again, I fear, my critic is reaching a bit. Of course, these things “happen” under the aegis of government. Pretty much everything nowadays, “happens” under the baleful eye of the state apparatus. Are we then to condemn everything that occurs? That would appear to be the logic employed herein. As for “eminent domain” I am on record, over and over again, for opposing this violation of private property rights, and making the claim it is not needed. For example, here, where I devote an entire chapter to maintaining eminent domain would not be needed, or used, with fully privatized roads, streets and highways. In any case, there is no need to use eminent domain against the poor to make way for such events. With some exceptions of course, renters are almost guaranteed to be more impoverished than owners. If someone owned a dwelling coveted by the World’s Fair or Olympics, he would hardly be poverty stricken.

Here is Mr. Carson’s last criticism: “Block writes that anti-gentrifiers, in attempting to suppress our natural ‘tendency to truck and barter,’ display an ignorance of Adam Smith. But Smith also wrote of the Whig landed oligarchs of his day that landlords ‘love to reap where they have not sown.’ In failing to recognize gentrification as an example of this, Block displays his own ignorance.”

Evidently, my critic did not read that I was limiting my defense of gentrifiers to those who earned their wealth honestly. Surely, this does not include those who “reap where they have not sown.”

All in all, not a very pretty exercise on the part of Mr. Carson. If this is the best that can be done on the part of left wing “libertarians” — misconstruing, making up criticisms with no evidence whatsoever put forth in their behalf, engaging in name-calling – there is not much to say, positively, about this self-styled branch of “libertarianism.” For a splendid defense of my views on gentrification against the critique of Mr. Carson, see that offered by Robert Wenzel.