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Libertarians of Convenience

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Libertarians of Convenience

Urban progressives favor deregulation—but only for things they like or want to do. Spring 2015
Patrick Allard/REA/Redux
Legalize pot, but stop the vaping.

The rent is too damn high, charges Matthew Yglesias in his recent book bearing that title, and he knows why: government regulations, including zoning, which amount to “draconian central planning.” “High rent is not a fact of nature,” he contends. “It’s the result of bad public policy.” Government red tape limits new supply, drives up rents on the inadequate number of apartments available, and makes building new housing uneconomical for developers. “It all goes back to the question of return on investment,” Yglesias reminds us.

Yglesias wants to see a major rollback of regulation to create a freer market in land use. He admits that “any change is bound to be somewhat discomfiting to some people,” but neighborhood complaints over new construction should be overridden in the name of the greater good of lowering costs. “If people have strong feelings about not wanting to live on the same block as a tall building, they can move,” he says—or pay up to buy out their neighbors’ right to build.

Yglesias must be a hard-core libertarian, right? Well, no. In fact, he’s a left-wing writer and activist who published his book while writing for the very liberal Think Progress. He states unabashedly, “I’m for higher taxes, income redistribution, universal health care, cap and trade, and so on.” Nevertheless, Yglesias says, “here I am, largely making the case for deregulation.”

He isn’t alone. People identifying as urban progressives increasingly find their own goals stymied by laws and regulations, and they’re demanding that these restrictions be overturned or limited. In other areas of city policy, though—typically, when they don’t hold a personal stake—they often push aggressively for ever more regulations and a more intrusive government. Call it a libertarianism of convenience. What these part-time freedom lovers don’t understand is that, absent a wider culture of liberty, calls for selective liberty will probably go unheeded.

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.”

Left urbanists also decry zoning that requires city developers or businesses to include a minimum number of parking spaces before moving forward on a building or an opening, rather than leaving that decision to the market. Streetsblog decried parking-space mandates as “absurd.” The Walking Bostonian commented on high minimum parking requirements at, of all places, bars: “It’s almost as if there’s a kind of sickness which seems to get into city planners’ heads whenever the topic of parking comes up, and it causes all common sense to fly out the window.” Greater Greater Washington sarcastically observes that Steve Jobs, by founding Apple in a garage, “broke the law by building computers in required parking spaces.” As liberal urbanist Payton Chung sums up, “A parking minimum demands that the rest of us subsidize one economically infeasible land use above all others.”

Other aspects of housing regulation have also come under scrutiny, including minimum unit size: “The fanaticism of neighborhood groups opposed to microhousing is hard to fathom,” says the Stranger, a Seattle alternative weekly. On height limits, “It seems like a no-brainer for D.C. to at least ease the Height Act to promote some growth,” says the Next City website. Even historic districts seem to have gone too far for some liberals, becoming a kind of “neutron bomb zoning—preserving the buildings but driving out the working class communities,” according to MoreNYC.

The urban Left’s sudden love for libertarian ideas goes beyond housing. When hip food establishments run into red tape, progressives and the press jump into gear. For example, the regulatory travails of Chicago’s Logan Square Kitchen attracted a series of articles in the alt-weekly Chicago Reader, which observed: “The minutiae of this licensing confusion are mind numbing.” The food industry is ready for deregulation, too, many on the left argue. Covering an alliance between libertarians and city-dwelling foodies, who tend otherwise to be good liberals, to promote “food freedom” and fight bans on raw (unpasteurized) milk, CityLab observed that “it’s the rare bipartisan issue.” Or take meat curing. Writing in the Chicago Reader, Mike Sula glowingly profiled members of the “charcuterie resistance,” who flout food-safety laws. Describing Erik and Ehran, proprietors of E & P Meats, Sula writes: “Because they sell meats that aren’t prepared in a licensed commercial facility, Erik and Ehran are operating outside the law. But some laws, they fervently believe, were made to be broken.” Food activist and author Michael Pollan has made kindred arguments. “Today the revival of local food economies is being hobbled by a tangle of regulations originally designed to check abuses by the very largest food producers,” he wrote in the New York Times. “Farmers should be able to smoke a ham and sell it to their neighbors without making a huge investment in federally approved facilities.”

Others want the freedom to practice agriculture in the city itself. Covering the battles to open an urban farming-supply store called Cluck, David Dadekian wrote on the Providence website Eat Drink Rhode Island, “I certainly hope this is the last Cluck story I have to write until I can publish a ‘Cluck is now open’ story.” Urban-agriculture enthusiasts are furious that some cities ban backyard chickens. They feel “needlessly henpecked by intolerant neighbors,” as USA Today quipped. Urbanist website BeyondDC enthuses: “Urban chickens are really, really great.” So are bees, according to green-advocacy site Treehugger, in a 2009 post. But in New York City, “Urban beekeeping has one significant bump in the road to clear before it joins the ranks of community gardening and CSAs [community supported agriculture organizations]. . . . [I]t just so happens to be illegal.” The city subsequently lifted its ban on bees.

Rules that make food trucks illegal or hard to run—prohibiting them from parking near brick-and-mortar restaurants, say—are yet another irritant. “Many restaurateurs would prefer a downtown free from competitors,” Greater Greater Washington editorialized, “but it makes as much sense to give restaurants input on where food trucks can operate as it does to give food trucks control over prices restaurants can charge.” The Chicago Reader complained of that city’s food-truck law: “It doesn’t help start-up food trucks at all, but rather protects the interests of established brick and mortar restaurants.” According to Next City, “More and more cities have come to recognize the mobile kitchen as a small-business model that’s here to stay.”

Examples of this kind of left-libertarianism don’t end there. Much of the new “sharing economy”—made up of firms like AirBnB and Lyft, which facilitate the peer-to-peer rentals of things like apartments or cars that the owners aren’t using—has made regulators uneasy, but progressives have proved more friendly than not to this burgeoning market. (Though they often don’t say kind things about Uber, a sharing-economy firm whose CEO once featured the cover of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead as his Twitter avatar.) Biking advocates, who tend to be on the left, want laws requiring bicyclists to follow all traffic laws repealed in favor of a looser regulatory regime, modeled on the so-called Idaho stop, which says that they can merely yield at stop signs. Transportation advocates would like to see environmental-review requirements reduced for transit projects, to incentivize building.

Urban progressives’ enthusiasm for deregulation proves to be highly selective, however; indeed, in many policy areas, they’re pushing for greatly expanded regulation. This is often true on the economic front. Advocates have pushed hard for local minimum-wage hikes in cities from Chicago to Seattle, for instance, and they try to block chain retailers from expanding in many neighborhoods. But the regulatory spirit is particularly relentless when it comes to the environment. San Francisco has restricted plastic water bottles and banned single-use plastic bags from stores, prompting the alt-weekly San Francisco Bay Guardian to cheer the city for continuing to “lead the way in the nation’s environmental policy.” New York mayor Bill de Blasio has announced a ban on polystyrene packaging, which will start in July. EVERY CITY NEEDS VANCOUVER’S BAN ON FOOD SCRAPS, a CityLab headline recently declared, lauding that city’s ban on tossing food into the garbage, meant to encourage people to compost.

Their inconsistency can lead liberals to seek more regulations in sectors of city life that they’ve elsewhere said should be deregulated. While they’ve assailed density limits, height restrictions, minimum-unit sizes, and other housing regulations, for example, they have celebrated New York’s access-to-buildings law, which mandates that commercial buildings allow bicycles on freight elevators. Similarly, while car parking minimums have drawn fire, sites like Greater Greater Washington have simultaneously embraced bicycle parking minimums in the District of Columbia. When Los Angeles mandated reflective roofing materials, CityLab described the regulation approvingly as banning “heat-sucking” roofs. And progressives’ call for food freedom abruptly reverses itself when trans fats, genetically modified foods, or large sugary drinks are in question—they think all should be banned or strictly regulated. They also support the micromanagement of school lunches and requiring restaurant menus to list calorie counts.

These contortions reach absurdity with smoking policy. On the one hand, the Left champions the legalization of marijuana in states like Colorado, Washington, and Oregon. When the District of Columbia decriminalized pot, Next City wrote that “it’s another example of how smart city policy can one day influence Washington [the federal government].” Legalized pot is variously said to be a great source of tax revenue, jobs, and even a key part of an emerging start-up culture. Yet while smoking weed is encouraged, smoking tobacco remains Public Enemy Number One, with progressive cities piling on further restrictions to this already highly taxed and regulated activity. San Francisco has banned smoking at outdoor events, with such detailed requirements as making promoters include the “no smoking” designation in advertisements, and announcing every two hours during events that smoking isn’t allowed, lest attendees forget. Pot smoking—for “medical” purposes, of course—is exempt from the ban. Portland recently joined a list of cities banning smoking in public parks. As in many cities, the ban covers not just bona fide tobacco cigarettes but also smokeless e-cigarettes. San Francisco was the first city to regulate e-cigarettes like other tobacco products, with New York and others soon following suit.

What explains these contradictions? A charitable explanation is that urban progressives—typically on the younger side—are just beginning to experience how excessive regulations can suffocate life in the city. After getting entangled in bureaucracy in the District of Columbia when he wanted to rent his condo (legally), Yglesias grumbled in Slate that “I’ve been to three offices, filed five forms, spent $200, lost a day of work—and I’m not even close to getting the simple license I need.” Such red tape, he added, is “a large and needless deterrent to the formation of the humble workaday firms that for many people are a path to autonomy and prosperity.” It appears that he’d never before understood what small businesses go through to operate in the District, or in many other American cities.

But it’s hard to avoid thinking, too, that some of the inconsistency reflects elite biases. The things that liberal-minded city residents like and want to do—eat from hip food trucks, smoke dope, and other “bourgeois bohemian” pursuits—should be left as free as possible, consequences be damned (raw-milk advocates downplay the nearly 1,000 cases of illnesses caused by it from 2007 through 2012). Those that they consider déclassé—Big Gulps, Marlboro Lights, McDonalds—should be restricted or even shut down. It’s regulation for thee but not for me.

What the urban Left doesn’t recognize is that the regulatory mind-set is nearly impossible to turn on or off, depending on what you like or don’t like. Many of the bans and rules that progressives impose on cities not only make life difficult for muffler shops, hardware stores, plumbing firms, bodegas, and other unglamorous operations; they also harm the enterprises that they love. San Francisco independent bookstore Borderlands, for instance, announced that it would shutter because of that city’s recent minimum-wage increase. One reason that much-maligned chains now proliferate in American cities is that they’re just about the only ones who can afford to do business there these days. The same impulse that bans food waste in the trash, vaping, and other things disfavored by liberals also makes it hard to start or make profitable a small artisanal food business—or, for that matter, build reasonably priced apartments. It’s no accident that the highest housing prices are found in San Francisco, Boston, and New York, where regulations have metastasized.

In Texas’s cities, by contrast, progressives often share, to some degree, the state’s pro-freedom, pro-market ethos. That’s why Houston, though hardly without restrictions on building, has no zoning per se and a pro-market Democrat, Annise Parker, for mayor. Unsurprisingly, it remains an affordable place to live, as do other low-regulation cities, such as Indianapolis.

At least some on the left appreciate the principle of liberty when it comes to things like free speech: they understand that odious opinions have to be tolerated, or everyone’s liberty is at risk; and that selective free expression isn’t really free. But they fail to see that selective economic freedom brings its own injustices and inequities. Progressives should embrace a broader principle of economic liberty for American cities—not only for the sake of their own pet causes but also because it’s the right thing to do.

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