Bryan Caplan  

Cowen, Yglesias, and Libertarians on Urbanism

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Tyler's complex pluralistic take on local regulation perplexes Matt Yglesias:
[W]hy on earth isn't the libertarian take on this that we should permit high density construction and let the market decide what happens?
The answer to Matt's question is surprisingly simple.  This is the libertarian take.  It is my take.  It is the take of almost all my colleagues at GMU econ.  I will bet that it is also the take of at least 75% of the policy analysts at Cato.   It is not Tyler's take, as far as I can gather, because as usual Tyler rejects the standard libertarian view in favor of a complex, pluralistic story that satisfies no one but himself.  It's not fair to think that libertarians share Tyler's view - or vice versa.

Matt also remarks:
Maybe us urbanists are wrong, and even though it seems to be the case that suburban sprawl in the United States is systematically supported by a series of direct and indirect subsidies and regulatory mandates that it secretly also reflects underlying market preference and it's all just some kind of giant coincidence. But why can't we try to put this proposition to the test?
Per my earlier post on this, I deny that it even seems to be true that direct and indirect subsidies and regulatory mandates systematically support suburban sprawl.  Rather there's a giant mess of unsystematic subsides and regulations, the net effect of which remains unknown.  My favorite way to discover the answer would be to deregulate and see what happens - to put Matt's "proposition to the test."  But alas, it looks like we have a choice between careful empirical work and continued ignorance.


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COMMENTS (13 to date)
Stephen Smith writes:

Per my earlier post on this, I deny that it even seems to be true that direct and indirect subsidies and regulatory mandates systematically support suburban sprawl. Rather there's a giant mess of unsystematic subsides and regulations, the net effect of which remains unknown.

Your list of anti-suburban measures was meager and you didn't even bother to list pro-suburban interventions. You're not really looking that deeply for the empirical stuff - instead you're relying on your oponents (who, let's face it, are skilled bloggers, but not exactly sterling academics) to furnish it. So let me help you out.

1. Zoned Out: Regulation, Markets, and Choices in Transportation and Metropolitan Land Use by Jonathan Levine - the one empirical thing that he does that I remember was compared the stated prefences vs. actual prefernces for density/walkability in Atlanta and Boston. In Boston, people generally lived in the type of neighborhood they wanted to live in, whereas in Atlanta, there was a significant portion of people who wanted to live in a denser neighborhood but didn't feel it was available. In neither city did the amount of people who wanted suburban-style housing exceed the amount of people who had suburban-style housing.

2. High Cost of Free Parking by Donald Shoup - I'm sure you've heard of this one. I've never read it because I hear it's boring and a little too loaded with empirics for a point that I don't really need to be convinced of, but if you're after number crunching, I hear this book's got it.

3. This is just from memory because I'm too lazy to go back and look for it, but I remember some Texas land use blogger (I believe it was Austin Contrarian) did a parking census on the downtown area (and this is Austin we're talking about - a relatively walkable place), and found massive excesses in parking, even on some of the most crowded days.

Beyond this empirical work, I think history is very important, and I think you'd agree. I'd post a bunch of links, but I remember one time when I did that on this blog, the comment got held up for a while as spam.

Ultimately, I don't doubt that you'd do the right thing if given political power, but I do have concerns that you - and libertarians in general - don't use your influence and clout (small as it may be, regrettably) to address the issue with the frequency and depth that it ought to be addressed, given how integral the built environment is to human existence. None of the empirical work cited above was done by libertarian/Austrian/GMU academics. There's Ed Glaeser, but he's mainstream, not free market heterodox.

Anyway, one last thing: What would it take to convince you that the built environment was less dense than the market equilibrium?

Bryan Caplan writes:

Stephen, I cited Shoup in the very piece with the "meager" list of anti-suburban regs. Alex Tabarrok edited a whole book on this subject.

What would it take to convince me? A few decent multiple regression on good data done by someone without a prior ax to grind would go a long way for me. I'm genuinely not stubborn on this issue. I admit that the free market would produce a lot less opera, even though I'm an opera fan. I would be happy to admit that the free market would produce a lot less suburbia even though I'm a suburban fan.

Stephen Smith writes:

Stephen, I cited Shoup in the very piece with the "meager" list of anti-suburban regs.

Like I said, I'm sure you've heard of that one.

Alex Tabarrok edited a whole book on this subject.

I've never read that book, and I can't find a table of contents on Amazon or Google Books, but from what I can gather from the summary and reviews, there is very little in the book on whether the balance of regulation is pro-suburban or pro-urban or somewhere in between/something altogether different. It's very wide-ranging in scope, including topics like private policing, mutual aid societies, and private fire companies. I'm talking about empirical work and papers (sort of like the ones you're demanding of me, which I've obligingly offered you, a few times), not a chapter in a book that is more a general overview to a layman than a scholarly book/article.

What would it take to convince me? A few decent multiple regression on good data done by someone without a prior ax to grind would go a long way for me.

The Levine book has a few good regressions - relatively simple ones, but as I recall you're not a fan of "mathematical masturbation" (or am I conflating my econbloggers?), so they should be right up your alley. I highly recommend it, as it seeks to answer a single question and does so with economic rigor - what is the market equilibrium for density and the built environment? Unless you think that Levine has an ax to grind?

Stephen Smith writes:

...also, if you don't want to buy the book, Levine makes similar arguments in the following papers:

http://www.springerlink.com/content/3h06043727qw51l7/
http://jpe.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/24/3/317
http://www.springerlink.com/content/r553622uj46q684u/

Tyler Cowen writes:

Do you think that Rt.123 can be privatized in an unregulated fashion? If so, come out and defend that. If not, you're in the same boat with me.

Joe Cushing writes:

I believe Huston has no zoning laws. I don't know about its suburbs though.

Patrick writes:

"I would be happy to admit that the free market would produce a lot less suburbia even though I'm a suburban fan."

Bryan - why are you a fan of suburbs? Just curious.

Zubon writes:

Come on, don't sell the contrarian short. For all values of x, "It's not fair to think that x share Tyler's view - or vice versa."

Yancey Ward writes:

Now, Bryan, quit denying Yglesias his strawman version of libertarianism.

Stephen Smith writes:

Do you think that Rt.123 can be privatized in an unregulated fashion? If so, come out and defend that. If not, you're in the same boat with me.

That's some remarkably un-marginal thinking coming from you, Tyler. How about we first talk about removing DC's height requirement, and removing the setback requirements, parking minimums, and other anti-density regs within the District. And then maybe deregulating growth in Rosslyn. And then within x distance of all Metro stations. And then maybe auctioning off M Street. And then work from there out into Maryland and NoVa.

(In reality, this would all work better starting with Manhattan, and then fanning out through the other burroughs and North Jersey. It's not totally inconceivable that, if you were to deregulate land use and remove all the anti-density regulations along, say, 5th Ave, and then privatized the street, an entrepreneur might allocate some of the road to tolls and some to a bus rapid transit line, which over time might become some sort of rail line.)

Why in the hell would you start with Rte. 123?

What's "urban sprawl"?

Is urban sprawl when population increases encourage people to live in less crowded environments, the alternative to urban "squeeze"?

Is it a series of villages, similar to what humans have lived in for thousands of years?

Is it when farming just isn't what it used to be, so more farmers and their kids move to a moderately urban environment, near but not too near, jobs, schools, entertainment and people.

Is it when the American dream of owning a home, with a nice yard and a patio and two-car garage becomes unaffordable within a city?

Is it doing what actual people prefer for themselves, rather than what self-appointed experts think is best for them?

Is that what urban sprawl is, and if so, what's the problem?

Rodger Malcolm Mitchell

Peter Gordon writes:

Look at European cities. There is lots and lots of suburbanization, but policies differ significantly from ours. Perhaps policies are irrelevant.

Walter McGuvey writes:

Many travelers get the wrong impression of European cities because they spend all there time in the old central core (within what would have been walled) and rarely visit the grimmer outer rind that most people live and work in.

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