In the end zone

Matt channels Ed Glaeser, pointing out that over the last 50 years, the ability of local groups to block upward development through zoning and other legal restrictions has massively raised the price of housing in urban cores, pushing families who might like to live more densely further and further away in search of affordable housing. This, of course, makes them pollute more as they drive to and from their distant jobs. He sensibly suggests that one way to rectify this problem is to loosen zoning restrictions. Horrified commenters declare that the solution to zoning is not to end it; we just need to do it right.

Allow me to channel another very smart economist, Milton Friedman, from his brilliant book, Free to Choose:

When one of us suggested in a Newsweek column . . . that for these reasons the FDA should be abolished, the column evoked letters from persons in pharmaceutical work offering tales of woe to confirm the allegation that the FDA was frustrating drug development. But most also said something like "In contrast to your opinion, I do not believe that the FDA should be abolished, but I do believe that its power should be changed in such and such a way."

A subsequent column . . . replied:

What would you think of someone who said, "I would like to have a cat provided it barked"? Yet your statement that you favour an FDA provided it behaves as you believe desirable is precisely equivalent. The biological laws that specify the characteristics of cats are no more rigid than the political laws that specify the behavior of governmental agencies once they are established. The way the FDA now behaves, and the adverse consequences, are not a result of some easily corrected human mistake, but a consequence of its constitution in precisely the same way that a meow is related to the constitution of a cat. As a natural scientist, you recognize that you cannot assign characteristics at will to chemical and biological entities, cannot demand that cats bark or water burn. Why do you suppose the situation is different in the social sciences?

The error of believing that the behavior of the social organism can be shaped at will is widespread. It is the fundamental error of most so-called reformers. It explains why they so often feel that the fault lies in the man, not the "system"; that the way to solve problems is to "turn the rascals out" and put well-meaning people in charge. It explains why their reforms, when ostensibly achieved, so often go astray.

The declarations that zoning is fine in concept, just not in practice, are daffy, but sort of charming, like finding out that your greengrocer believes in fairies. After all, it's not as if the density restrictions are some odd fluke that has arisen only in Washington DC for mysterious reasons now lost in the mists of time. Every single place you go on the East Coast, from the far flung exurbs to the heart of Manhattan, the zoning regulations all do the same damn thing, which is keep developers from building upwards in order to match the supply of convenient housing in desireable neighborhoods to the demand for same. Everyone has different explanations for the reasons that no dense housing or commercial developments should be anywhere near their house, but regardless of the stated reason, the behavior never varies. This has led me to discard all of the explanations offered by my friends and neighbors in favor of two simple, yet surprisingly powerful rules.

1) When there are fewer houses in a neighborhood, each house is worth more, particularly if those houses are located on side streets without commercial development.

2) People who own houses will act 99% to maximize the value of the house, and 1% to maximize whatever ideological values they may hold about things like property rights, commercial development, environmental sustainability, and housing for the poor.

If you do not want restrictive zoning keeping developers from putting up denser housing, then you need to downgrade the power of the zoning boards. The solution is not to call for changes in the zoning code, because from the perspective of the people who write it, the zoning code is working perfectly. That is, it is pushing up property values by keeping other people from doing anything near your house that might lower its value--like, for example, live there.