Dumb Growth: How Government Obstructs Well-Planned Communities

The Colorado Freedom Report:  A libertarian journal of politics and culture.

The Colorado Freedom Report--www.FreeColorado.com

Dumb Growth:

How Government Obstructs Well-Planned Communities

by Ari Armstrong, December 14, 1999

So-called "smart growth" is a modern political fad, made popular by Al Gore on the national level and Governor Bill Owens in Colorado, who intends to push growth laws in the 2000 legislative session.

While the content of "smart growth" varies from politician to politician, most plans contain big-government solutions such as revised zoning laws, tax subsidies, tax social-engineering schemes, increased bureaucracy, and more government-run transportation. The presumption is that the free-market system has created the current problems of growth, problems which can only be solved by government.

The presumption is false. Contemporary growth problems may be attributed entirely to government intervention in the free-market economy. Such interventions have consisted of zoning laws, tax subsidies, tax social-engineering schemes, bloated bureaucracies, and government-run transportation. One should be skeptical, then, when the government says it will solve growth problems by the same means through which it created those problems in the first place.

Much of the growth "problem" is not really a problem at all -- unless you're a radical environmentalist who believes undisturbed "nature" is inherently good while human interaction with nature is inherently bad.

A legitimate environmentalism consists of advocating a clean environment in which people can live, wilderness preservations in which people can recreate and study, and strict enforcement of common-law restrictions against pollution. A legitimate environmentalism regards people as part of nature and wants to see the human race continue to develop, improve, and use natural resources in ways which benefit people. A legitimate environmentalism puts "People First!"

The irony is that socialists once wanted a society in which the populace was spread out across the land rather than aggregated in big cities. Cities were seen as demeaning, by the socialists. Today, socialists want a society in which people are crammed into big cities and "urban sprawl" is strictly regulated. The suburbs are demeaning, say the socialists.

But socialists always unite against individual choice. Socialism holds that individual people are too stupid or too corrupt (or both) to make wise decisions for their own lives. Only the bureaucratic socialist planners are wise enough to run the lives of the people.

Contrary to the socialists' "fatal conceit," individuals are capable of making wise and moral decisions with respect to their own lives, and they usually do so. If people can build comfortable houses for themselves and their families out where property is less expensive and the land is more open, that's great!

Of course, when the government subsidizes some activities and penalizes or restricts others, it interferes with the rational planning of individuals and distorts the free-market system. The government is responsible for hampering rational growth in a variety of ways.

  • The government taxes around half of people's income. With so much personal income going straight to the coffers of government planners, people have less money to buy things they want and need. With high taxation, charitable projects, including those aimed at protecting wilderness areas, are directly diminished.
  • Taxes also hamper the progress of technology. New sources of energy, new communications tools, and better homesteading technology all lead to a better quality of life. For instance, technological advances have led to a decrease of Denver's smog, and promise better air quality in the future. High regulatory burdens also slow the advance of technology. For instance, the anti-trust laws stifle competition and retard innovation. This again reduces the quality of life.
  • The government fosters an attitude of irresponsibility. These days, too many people have the attitude, "Let the government do it." Individual responsibility is diminished in direct proportion to the increased size and scope of government. Too few people are willing to take the social responsibility of caring for our wilderness lands, and too many are willing to entrust that task to the government.
  • The government mis-manages wilderness areas. Government policies are open to special interest group warfare. Government-controlled wilderness areas are no exception. Sometimes, the government logs a forest to death, selling timber at below-market rates and subsidizing the loss with tax dollars. Sometimes, the government restricts reasonable recreational uses of lands.
  • The government uses subsidies and taxation to affect behavior. Subsidies to businesses and individuals affect decisions of where to move, where to build, how to build, and how to conduct business. Tax social-engineering schemes intentionally encourage businesses to move some places rather than others. Tax-subsidized advertising and outright subsidies have helped bring some businesses to the state contrary to the preferences of some taxpayers. Tax breaks and subsidies have also encouraged Coloradans to have more children than they would have otherwise. Such incentives include welfare benefits, housing subsidies, and tax credits for children.
  • Interference in water rights has led to more building on the front-range than there would have been otherwise. In a free market, water rights develop in ways similar to land rights. The market, supply and demand, determines the price of water. Government skews these market signals, thus encouraging unwise building in some places and discouraging wise building in others.
  • Federal highway subsidies have encouraged commuting. People should be left free to build in the suburbs if they want, but they should also bear the costs associated with such a lifestyle. Federal highway subsidies again interfere with normal market signals.
  • Zoning laws have discouraged integrated communities, heightening the burdens on the transportation system. Zoning laws have also favored special-interest groups at the expense of the community at large.
  • Anti-building policies such as those in Boulder have encouraged "urban sprawl." First government officials prevent people from building in the city, then they complain about the growth of the suburbs -- go figure.
  • Regulatory burdens favor large corporations. Regulatory burdens reduce the number of small businesses and increase corporate centralization, thus contributing to the commuter culture. Such laws include union enforcement laws, mandatory health requirements, minimum wage laws, and complex tax regulations, all of which serve to discourage small businesses.
  • Government-run roads, subject to political wrangling and special-interest group conflicts, have often failed to keep pace with demand. Many of the "growth" problems communities suffer are not really growth problems at all, but rather the inherent problems of socialized industries.
  • Victim disarmament laws and poverty entrenchment laws in the big cities have led to more crime there. Terrible government-run schools have also pushed more people into the suburbs.

New government mandates, taxes, and social-engineering schemes will not encourage "smart growth." Indeed, such invasive laws have created the growth problems now in existence. The best, most effective mechanism for ensuring wise community development is the unfettered market, in which individuals voluntarily cooperate to achieve prosperous, fulfilling communities. If politicians really want to help, they will get out of the way and let the market serve the needs of individuals and their communities.

The Colorado Freedom Report--www.FreeColorado.com