Hayek’s View of New Urbanism

New Urbanists choose force, not markets

“If we wish to preserve a free society,” Friedrick Hayek once wrote, “it is essential that we recognize that the desirability of a particular object is not sufficient justification for the use of coercion.” These are words worth remembering this year, on the 60th anniversary of Hayek’s seminal work, The Road to Serfdom.

Hayek’s maxim is a bedrock principle of American liberty. Simply because a majority of Americans may prefer chocolate ice cream to vanilla, we don’t demand that the government ban all sales of vanilla. Although one may not appreciate the personal preferences of others, we typically realize that they’re not any of our concern.

Alas, there is an established movement that argues precisely the opposite. They call themselves the “new urbanists” and advocate “smart growth” to curb the growth of that malignancy known portentously as “urban sprawl.”

Those are, of course, merely buzzwords. New urbanism is, in reality, a set of policies aimed at managing development with an eye for greater population density, thus encouraging more public transit, and fewer cars. To this end, they recommend that local governments pass strict land use controls, including urban growth boundaries, zoning laws restricting the construction of single-family homes, and even the expanded use of eminent domain to foreclose on existing developments.

Of course, no philosophy is complete without a villain, and for the new urbanists the villain is low-density suburban development, a.k.a. “sprawl.” Although Americans have flocked to suburban neighborhoods since time immemorial, there have always been those who, because they dislike the suburbs, wish to see their popularity diminished. That’s how new urbanism first came about – because of resentment.

However, the unfettered real estate market offers no impediments to the development of high-density neighborhoods. Without the benefit of government interference, many individuals already choose urban living over the suburbs. What makes new urbanists resentful, then, is the fact that most people don’t.

Now, the new urbanists could have simply become cheerleaders for urban development. They could have engaged in public campaigns, encouraging others to join the fold and live like San Franciscans. The effort might have been futile, but it would have been unquestionably legitimate. Instead, they have sought to enforce their preferences through coercion. They love their flavor of living so much, they intend to make it dominate under pain of law.

Occasionally, the new urbanists will allow their draconian intentions to slip out. For example, last year during a city council meeting on the subject of transit ridership in Madison, Wisconsin, project manager David Townbridge remarked that “lots of people on the council … would like to use parking rates as a mechanism to force mass transit.” He then gravely predicted that ” people will think about whether they really want to pay at least $100 a month just to park.”

“Force mass transit?” That’s a key tenet of the new urbanist agenda. If people won’t choose the “correct” path on their own, the new urbanists aim to force them to.

Similarly, in both San Diego and Los Angeles efforts are currently underway to ban the construction of the so-called “big box” stores. This would include popular chains such as Wal-Mart and Costco. According to the new urbanists, such bans are desirable because large retail stores foster the development of “sprawl.” Whether or not shoppers like or dislike these stores is irrelevant; it’s enough that they post a threat to new urbanist designs.

Of course, big box stores are better for consumers because they offer a superior selection at lower prices. This reveals an objective problem with new urbanism; it’s simply more expensive. Since it imposes densification, real estate costs invariably increase, and higher real estate costs lead to higher prices at the register. On top of that, lot sizes are often regulated, which limits store selection and likewise increases costs.

This, I’m afraid, is not a matter of preference. It’s one of economics. The new urbanists are costing us money.

Yet in the mind of new urbanists, this is completely justified. Who cares if vanilla costs less if chocolate is better? Under their philosophy, they’re doing society a favor by enforcing a better way of living. In their view, we should be thanking them for saving us from ourselves.

Therein lies the problem with the new urbanists. They don’t trust people making their own choices with their own money. They want to make the decisions for us on how and where we should live our lives, and no matter how pure their motivations may be, their methods are simply atrocious. Only I know what’s best for me. They only know what’s best for themselves.

Ultimately, it comes down to this simple principle: I don’t want to be forced to eat chocolate if I happen to prefer vanilla. And neither should you.

Owen Courrèges is a research fellow in urban and land use policy at the Reason Foundation