The Freedom To Build

A few years ago, Virginia Republicans passed a developer friendly bill mandating that each locality designate an “urban development area” in which medium-density construction would be permitted. It doesn’t require that higher density structures actually be built, but it does require that they be permitted. Similarly, it doesn’t require that mixed-use development be built, but it does require that it be permitted. Naturally, a conservative Virginia state legislator has teamed up with a local Tea Party group is looking to overturn this and has founded an outfit called the Campaign for Liberty in defense of stringent development restrictions.

Stephen Smith, who has a good post on this, seems surprised. But there’s really nothing surprising about it. Freedom-talk is an important influence in American rhetoric, but it—and especially its self-consciously antiquarian cousin liberty-talk—has nothing to do with any analytically respectable conception of freedom. It has to do with safeguarding the perceived self-interest, lifestyle, and social status of the right sort of people. This is a country where the free market position is that for-profit colleges should have a right to unrestricted government subsidies. So why shouldn’t “liberty” mean the liberty of rich suburbanites to ban medium-density construction? Here’s a group of people being forced to do something they don’t like and they don’t like being forced to accept urbanization any more than conservatives like being forced to let gay couples get married or the conservatives of yore liked being forced to integrate the Montgomery bus system. Change feels coercive to people.