Inevitable by-products of sprawl
- The root problem of libertarianism is precisely the root problem of
Marxism: it's a religion, in this case, the religion of the great and
all-consuming god Market Forces, and like Marxism, it assumes that if we
just follow all the commandments of this god, utopia will be the result.
Unfortunately for both extremes of the economic and political spectrum,
reality has a way of tossing monkey wrenches into right-wing and
Libertarianism underestimates the negative power of selfishness. It
assumes that everyone's "enlightened self-interest" will somehow work
together to produce a desired outcome. But like Marxism, Libertarianism
neglects to take the human capacity for evil into account. In other
words, it has no defense against the economic predator, the
environmental rapist, the largest employer in town who depresses wages
and benefits for everyone, the deliberately deceptive advertiser, the
union buster, the price-fixing cartel, or the seller of dangerous
The libertarian economic ideal looks a lot like the nineteenth century
or the contemporary Third World. It's a fantastic ideology for rich
people or for the tiny percentage of the population that has the
combination of talent and personality traits to become fabulously
successful entrepreneurs. For everyone else, --well, the Progressive
Movement, the labor movement, the trust-busting movement, and the growth
of consumer protection and securities fraud regulations in the late
nineteenth and early twentieth centuries occurred for a reason.
So what does this have to do with suburbia? Well, in most suburbs,
land-use regulations can be boiled down to the following rules: 1) Put
the houses here. 2) Put the commercial businesses there. 3) Provide lots
of off-street parking. 4) (Optional:) Pay some of the costs of extending
utilities and streets to your development. 5) Go for it.
Combined with massive federal subsidies for freeways and the
availability of cheap land, this situation has been an irresistible
temptation for businesses that profit from sprawl. Don't bother to
invest in fixing up the inner city. Just grab some new land along the
interstate and throw up some McMansions and a shopping center full of
nationwide chain businesses. You don't have to put much thought into it.
Just put up what everyone else is building and mass--produce it,
offering three or four "distinctive" plans. Then advertise your new
"community" as offering a pastoral slice of country life, in order to
attract buyers frustrated with the way their former "pastoral slice of
country life" has turned into a hell-hole of smog and gridlock.
In many cities, the only choices left for the would-be urbanite are
slums and $500,000 condos. Most of the slums used to be perfectly nice
neighborhoods (ask an old-timer), but decades of disinvestment have done
Suburbia appears to be a "choice," but it's not a "choice" if the only
reasonable alternatives are too expensive for the average buyer. What if
someone built new $150,000 houses in an urban area?
Now for the greatest and most universally hated by-product of sprawl:
traffic. Everyone hates being stuck in traffic jams, but few people are
stepping back and seeing how suburbia makes traffic jams inevitable.
In a city, most people get by with one car or no cars. In the suburbs,
two cars are the norm, since there is little or no mass transit and the
landscape is not laid out for walking or cycling, it is not uncommon for
families to buy an additional car for each teenager. While this may make
life "easier" for the individual, in that parents no longer have to
chauffeur their kids here and there, it inevitably puts more cars on the
road. The farther out a family lives, the more it needs cars. Two or
three cars per family, instead of zero or one. It doesn't take a degree
in math to figure out why new highways fill up in a couple of years.
Ideologies are fun to talk about, but they pay insufficient attention to reality.