'Libertarians of Convenience'

Enjoy the fruits of progressive government, comrades! (AP photo of the Brewster-Douglass housing project, Detroit)

Enjoy the fruits of progressive government, comrades!
(AP photo of the Brewster-Douglass housing project, Detroit)

That’s what Aaron Renn of City Journal calls Matthew Yglesias and other “urban progressives” who have learned the hard way that zoning laws suck:

Nowhere has the liberal big-government, pro-regulation consensus weakened more noticeably than in housing policy, especially in New York and San Francisco, where housing prices have soared. Zoning—particularly rules limiting density—has become a regular target. Urban analyst Daniel Hertz, a onetime community organizer in Chicago, has struck a strikingly libertarian note on this theme. “In many neighborhoods,” he wrote in the Washington Post, “zoning laws prevent the construction of low-cost housing by, for example, allowing only single-family homes instead of apartments. . . . Researchers have found overwhelming evidence that restrictive zoning raises housing prices.” Writing in The Atlantic’s CityLab, and sounding more like Milton Friedman than a traditional left-liberal, Hertz noted that overuse of zoning had produced a pattern of “micro-regulations of the urban space, in which the size, function, number of windows, orientation, number of inhabitants, number of parking spaces, color, lawn space, and a million other details of every single building in the city came to be a legitimate state interest.”

The Washington State–based Sightline Institute, a liberal think tank, echoes Yglesias and Hertz: “This anti-density attitude remains, sad to say, the political reality in most of Cascadia’s single-family zones, and it yields a sort of collective pathology of scratching in the wrong place.” And the Michigan political blog Democracy Tree, in its “Progressive’s Guide to Talking to Tea Party Zealots,” finds an area of agreement with the “zealots”: “Zoning laws are just plain bad. They’ve got to go! They harm communities, create crime-zones, destroy schools, contribute to poverty, and de-humanize our existence.”

Give the progressives some credit. If they can learn this one lesson, maybe someday they’ll also learn that shoving millions of Americans into health coverage “exchanges” which present them a tiny selection of high-priced products designed to suit someone else’s needs, and allow them to see a narrow selection of bottom-scraping doctors at conglomerate health care centers is equally de-humanizing.

Not that I’m holding my breath, mind you.

And you might even show our newfound anti-zoning allies a little understanding, because being a principled libertarian, as opposed to being one of “convenience,” is hard. It really is. You must first develop a genuine tolerance for every stupid or distasteful or downright immoral thing other people might choose to do with their lives, and then spend the rest of your life nurturing that tolerance. The all-too-human itch to tell other people what to do is nearly irresistible to scratch — as is evidenced by the near-entirety of human history.

For a brief, shining moment, the United States ran counter to that history — but even that moment was tainted by the evils of slavery in the South, and by legally-enforced sexism almost everywhere else. The solution was to expand what I jokingly call “White Man Liberty” to all sexes and all colors, but instead Washington and the states are now in the business of putting new shackles on everybody, everywhere.

It was Progressives like Yglesias, starting over a century ago, who connived us into throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

But if even just a few of them are belatedly learning the lesson in one limited area, maybe we can help them learn it in others.

I’m still not holding my breath, mind you.