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When ObamaCare reignited public debate about healthcare, libertarian intellectuals didn’t rush to defend status quo. Instead, they provided an alternative analysis of status quo (that distortions and public programs drive up healthcare costs), and alternative policies that addresses affordability and access. This is a striking difference with urban policy, land use and transport policy: when libertarian intellectuals give an interest, they usually defend status quo of suburbia and cars.

Take public transport – for some reason, there is a general disdain for it. Take Ryan Avent:

I respect Mr Cowen very much, but I think it’s long past time we stopped listening to libertarians on the issue of whether or not to build high-speed rail. Who will ask whether road construction remotely passes any of the tests they’re so prepared to push on rail? And if we begin charging an appropriate fee on drivers to maintain existing roads and reduce congestion, what do they all think will happen to land use patterns and transportation mode share?

Avent used Texas DoT data to show if gas taxes were set at user fee levels, it would be some $2/gallon. The offending words by Tyler Cowen were:

To give an example from a slightly different realm, I live right near the Metro in a high-density suburban area. Yet I don’t take the Metro to my Arlington office, which is about two minutes from a Metro stop. I’d rather do the 37-minute drive. Why? Because I stop at the supermarket and the public library on my way home at least half of the time or maybe I stop to eat at Thai Thai

In his defense, he wasn’t saying that automobiles should be a favoured, or even the only choice. Nevertheless, it just goes to show an inherent libertarian intellectual bias against public transport. But it is shameful that it is lefty liberals that point out the heavy subsidisation and the lack of internalisation of congestion cost – not the libertarian.

Beyond just a policy bias for automobiles, local land use regulations inhibit mixed-development, high-density, public transport-friendly towns and neighbourhoods. In most suburbs, it is hard for supermarkets and restaurants to be close to where people live due to zoning. Land use regulation like minimum setbacks and open space requirements artificially make neighbourhoods less walkable – causing folks like Cowen less willing to walk and more willing to drive to work, the supermarket or his favourite Thai restaurant.

In Yglesias words:

A while back I noted that the kind of libertarians who one would expect to go into conniptions if Fairfax County, Virginia were to propose a stringent rent control law seem surprisingly blasé about the vast array of land use restrictions that infringe economic liberty in that county and most other American jurisdictions. Indeed, some libertarian economists at George Mason University go so far as to laud America’s large houses and plentiful parking specifically as evidence of the superiority of America’s free market economic policy, blissfully unaware that in the United States pervasive regulation requires the construction of bigger houses and more parking spaces than the market would provide.

In defense of the George Mason University libertarian economist, Byran Caplan wasn’t defending the regulatory structure that created “bigger houses and more parking spaces” (rather, making a comparison of tourist impressions of European and American cities). But Caplan’s retort is dissappointing – he points to federal policies that, in some small way, inhibit suburban sprawl.

I think it is a lost opportunity here. The problem in status quo is as Avent and Yglesias points: the lack of choice. Suburban development is structured around automobiles because of government policies. Cars are favoured because of government subsidisation and the lack of congestion charging. City centres are avoided because of government failures like public housing ghettos, pathetic inner city schools and high crime.

It is true most Americans will prefer to live in their own McMansion up a cul-de-sac, with their lovely gas-guzzling SUV. And that is nothing inherrently wrong with that choice that we should ban it. What is wrong in status quo is the lack of free choice. Free choice involves those McMansion dwellers and SUV drivers bearing the entire cost of their choices. Free choice also involves allowing the market decide land use – including usage, number of units, height, setback from the street and neighbouring lots, and parking space. The common law principle of nuisance will deal with the post-zoning problem of all-hour strip clubs or heavy industrial facilities next to homes, high-rise developments in low-rise neighbourhoods, and the like.

Libertarians should be defending this free choice, not defending sprawl or cars. The basic principle of libertarianism is that free people making free choices make better decisions – the same principle should apply to land use and transport policy. Application of that principle in the United States, as well as countries that opt for the American model of urbanisation like Malaysia, will lead to denser cities and higher usage of public transport.

Denser cities and public transport usage may not, and should not, be the aim – but it will be the product of libertarian policy, and libertarians will do better to embrace it.


One Comment


    A majority of Americans agreed with President Obama in 2008, that the interests of the community are more important than are the interests of the individual. As a result, a new union organizing movement has begun, creating the Community Voters Union (CVU).
    Using the popular Card Check Program, community organizers forming the CVU will bring voters into a union, simplifying their community life. When 1% of people in a region sign the CVU card checks given them at shopping malls, places of employment as well as door-to-door, the CVU will officially form. They will be responsible for voting the interests of the community. Voters need never go to the polls again. Union leaders voting the community’s interests block big-money right wing attempts to sway voters. Dues from each voter will pay the costs of this welcomed voter service. The Community Union Councils gather periodically to decide who will hold elected offices as well as new legislation and enforcement procedures. The voters in community will never again have to worry about making those choices. The President encourages voters to take advantage of the CVU so the voting process is more orderly and predictable. Because of his enormous popularity, people are rushing to obtain voting cards to sign up. CVU will usher into American Politics a glorious new day of certainty and peace in voting. Right-wing extremist critics claim the first card checks will have only names from the graveyards to establish CVU supremacy. They claim CVU is patterned after the USSR soviets, regional community voting blocs that transmit community interests to one central presidium or parliament. They are partially correct, in that the American Congress will be changed to a parliament and the Constitution set aside as a historical document only. However, only community interests are important, which assigns to the CVU the control over what was once called “private property” and bank accounts in each of the regions they control. This will assure Americans that the wealth will be spread around, as the President was so well credited in his campaign. There will no longer be term limits assigned to the office of President, only that he receives a periodic vote of confidence from the CVU. Succession falls to the choice of the President when the need arises. This, most Americans agree, is how an orderly government works. For thousands of years, orderly government rested with a sovereign, a chief of state, where family members were trained to take the reins when the need arose, so we can look to having one of Obama’s daughters rise to that leadership position. (Is this really an absurdity?

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