Libertarianism in Suburbia

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.

To this, Bryan Caplan responded with a piece that I think basically proves my point as he grapples with the cognitive dissonance involved by tossing off the (admittedly accurate) fact that some elements of federal policy — for example, large-scale federal ownership of desolate land in the Western United States — place some curbs on sprawl. To this I mostly say what Ryan Avent said, but it’s worth emphasizing the extent to which Caplan is simply missing the point. The point is not about whether policy favors “suburbs” or “cities” but about the fact that the actually existing built environment in the United States — and especially those aspects of it constructed over the past thirty years — overwhelmingly reflect the influence of central planning.

It’s possible for a suburban locale to adopt a planning regime that favors high-density mixed use transit oriented development, and we see that in the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor of Arlington County and to a lesser extent on Arlington’s Blue Line corridor and near the Silver Spring and Bethesda Metro stations in Montgomery County. But those examples stand out because they’re relatively rare among recent construction. Much more typical is a planning regime, like the one that exists in Fairfax County, where in broad swathes of land it is illegal to build anything other than a detached single family home. The size of the yard that surrounds the detached single family home is typically set by central planners, as is the minimum number of parking spaces that the home must have. In lots where it’s legal to build multi-family dwellings the planners will have specified how tall the dwelligs may be, how far they must be set back from the street, and how many parking spaces they must have (in Fairfax, 1.6 spaces per unit). Where you can build retail outlets is decided by the planners, and they, too, are subjected to rules about maximum height, minimum setback, minimum parking, etc.


And Fairfax is not unique in this regard — cities and suburbs across America have regulations of this sort. The regulations vary, of course, and this is why not every place is identical. There are also portions of towns and cities that were built earlier, under different regulatory regimes that were more friendly toward density and mixing of uses. And of course in many suburban locales the regulations are extremely similar, which is part of the reason that a lot of America is a bit generic looking. You can like this or not, but what you can’t do is deny that these policy decisions around land use are substantially shaping the way life in America is lived. Insofar as people want to valorize that mode of life in order to stick it to hipsters, Europhiles, left-wing intellectuals or what have you, what you’re valorizing is a regulatory planning regime aimed at promoting a specific way of living and the interests of specific industries.