Land Use And The Free Market

The local paper on Maui published an op. ed. piece by a local developer a few days ago.  His basic argument was that local planning and zoning laws interfered with the organic development of communities that they enjoyed in the old days, which was the very thing that gave older towns so much character.  The natural operation of a “free market” is what makes that character building organic development possible.  Free markets make good decisions.  At least that’s the way I read it.

It probably comes as no surprise that the residents of one of those older towns opposed his plans for developing a huge mixed use project on top of them.  What amused me by his letter was his supremely self-confident abundance of ignorance about urban development and planning, and his faith in the “free market.” 

It doesn’t take much study to discover that most old communities, both here and on the mainland, did not develop spontaneously with some unstated collective sense of place.  They were settled by people, or chartered companies, that had definite plans for what would go where.  The Europeans who flooded across North America were seldom without a well thought out plan for what their communities should look like. Where do you think all those town squares came from?

Europeans brought that same thinking to Hawaii, but found themselves confronted by even more well thought out urban and rural plans already in place.  The kings and ruling elite of Hawaii had at least one thing down pat, and that was land use planning. 

Modern urban planning simply codified what preceded it in ways that could more effectively accommodate changing conditions, including problems of developer greed that didn’t really care very much what was good for the greater community, and often caused almost irreparable harm to people and property.  My guess is that the driving force behind the need to codify land use planning was the downside of the industrial revolution combined with the unrestrained growth of private enterprise based industrial/commercial development.  I think we can see some of the same thing happening right now in places like China.  In any case, our own treasured, and truly worthy, system of private enterprise has become enshrined as a “free market” that must somehow be embedded in the Constitution somewhere.  But it’s become a bit idolatrous, and any criticism of it is too often rebutted by shouts of “communist,” “socialist,” or at least “radical left-winger nut.”  It tends to shut off reasonable debate.

The problem is that it is a very misleading myth.  The myth that a free market can somehow make sound land use decisions makes two egregious errors.  The first is that there is a free market.  There isn’t. All markets are defined and regulated, at least in some sense, by government policy.  That definition and regulation may give extraordinary privileges to developers, but those privileges come from government policy just the same. The second is the personification of that non-existent free market as a decision maker.  The market is not a person and does not make decisions. 

There is a second myth that is very strong in America, and that is the idea that “a man’s house is his castle” and that he, or she, can do whatever they want with it.  Our ownership of property, and the rights that go with it, have limitations.  We live in community and whatever we do with our property affects our neighbors.  Likewise, whatever they do with theirs affects us.  So communities need to come to some sort of agreement about the way they are going to live with one another.  Moreover, we are never really the absolute owners of any property. We are merely the temporary stewards of it.  Someone else owned it before we did, and someone else will own it after us.  Regardless of whatever deed or paid off mortgage we may have, we have a greater responsibility to recognize our short time of possession as one of stewardship, and that means being responsible to the community and to those who will come after for how we exercise our stewardship. 

I’m sure that the developer who wrote the op. ed. piece already knows all of this and was simply a bit careless in what he wrote.

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