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Reason Foundation

Planners, Property Rights, and Society

Leonard Gilroy
March 22, 2006, 5:33am

As a rogue member of the American Planning Association (APA), I often scratch my head at some of the policy positions that they advocate. Today, I received their latest domestic policy missive on current state efforts to address eminent domain abuse and regulatory takings. Of course, planners by-and-large vehemently reject any meaningful eminent domain or regulatory takings reform, as limits on physical or regulatory takings would threaten their ability to fully implement their growth management and urban development schemes. Put simply, the more that private property rights are protected, the less power and influence planners have. Back to the APA policy article...here's the link (free registration required). A couple of choice little nuggets:
The American property system is arguably the best in the history of the world. It has many benefits. But it is also very complex, having evolved for more than a thousand years. There are those, however, who seek to radically change this system.
For context, "those" equals "property rights advocates." Given that urban planning has basically been around for only a century, is it really the property rights advocates who are trying to radically change the system? Isn't it more accurate to say that municipal zoning was the first radical departure, followed by the dismal legacy of urban renewal in the post-WWII years, comprehensive growth management efforts like those arising in Oregon in the 1970's, and the nationwide push for smart growth now? Aren't property rights advocates just trying to rebalance the equation after a century of assault on private property rights by planners and bureaucrats?
APA is launching a campaign to help counter new, aggressive efforts by the self-proclaimed property rights movement to enact troubling legislation and pass bad ballot measures. APA's effort is dubbed the "property fairness campaign." Among the elements of this campaign will be a new property fairness website to provide a clearinghouse of legislative and policy information, useful case studies, tools for activists, and communications resources. [..] APA also is preparing a property fairness toolkit specifically designed to assist chapters in state-level advocacy. In addition, the campaign will include direct technical assistance and other projects and resources.
This "property fairness campaign" has doublespeak quality reminiscent of China's "Great Leap Forward," which was anything but. Given the APA's own stated public positions on takings issues, "fairness" apparently means that property owners should be OK with having their land stolen by government and given to private developers, as well as being OK with having their properties devalued through zoning and land use restrictions.
It is clear we face an organized, very well-financed, and aggressive multistate campaign waged by ideologues who seek to undermine the ability of citizens to make collective decisions. They seek to limit the rights of all except the most powerful to have secure property rights. These groups are trying to push legislators to pass the most sweeping bills possible and often to use the ballot box to advance their agenda. However, we have an opportunity – as more moderate proposals win some support – to offer acceptable, even positive alternatives. Let's protect our property rights system so that it continues to provide benefits to all Americans. That's the genius of the system. We must raise our voices and lend our time and talents to the cause of community building through good planning.
"They seek to limit the rights of all except the most powerful to have secure property rights"???? The hypocrisy here is laughable! If this is their position, then why wasn't the APA front and center defending Suzette Kelo, et al. or Dorothy English in Oregon? It's obvious that the APA is most interested in defending the power of the political elite to adopt policies or approve government actions that will effectively curtail private property rights. And once again we get a glimpse into the collectivist and oligarchic mind of the planner. They believe that communities are built through "good planning," when economics and experience tells us that communities are really built incrementally through the complex interactions among individuals and families. I've always wished that professors of planning theory and history would have their students read some Hayek. He highlighted the most devastating critique of planning to date -- that in centrally-planned economies an individual (or a select group) must determine the correct distribution of resources, but that planners will never have enough information to carry out this allocation reliably. The free market -- via the price mechanism and voluntary, individual action -- offers the most efficient method of exchanging and utilizing society's resources. Wikipedia puts it well...the price mechanism "serves to share and synchronize local and personal knowledge, allowing citizens to achieve diverse, complicated ends through a principle of spontaneous self-organization." Of course, this idea of spontaneous order and societal self-organization, guided by what Adam Smith famously termed the "invisible hand," is anathema to planners because it is premised on the notion that order comes through human action, not conscious design. And this fundamental misunderstanding of societal organization leads to the misguided notion among planners that it is they, not property owners, who are in the best position to make decisions about the use of land. And planners also know that government will never have enough money to offer landowners compensation to cover the real costs of implementing the planning schemes they devise, so they have to rely on regulation and political decisionmaking to achieve their planning goals. Hence, it's no wonder that planners see the property rights movement -- which wants to shift the balance of power back to individual property owners -- as the greatest threat to their social engineering agenda.

Leonard Gilroy is Director of Government Reform


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