Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Unintended Consequences of Land Use Controls

There's a good op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal this week that would be funny--if it weren't so maddeningly true. Roger Kimball writes about his struggles with local land use agencies and FEMA in trying to rebuild after Hurricane Sandy:
In "The Road to Serfdom," Friedrich Hayek noted that "the power which a multiple millionaire, who may be my neighbor and perhaps my employer, has over me is very much less than that which the smallest functionnaire possesses who wields the coercive power of the state on whose discretion it depends whether and how I am to be allowed to live or to work." 
And how. But what makes the phenomenon so insidious is that many of the functionaries are as friendly as can be. It's just that they're cogs in a machine whose overriding purpose is not service but self-perpetuation and control. 
It is, as Alexis de Tocqueville saw, a recipe for a form of despotism peculiar to modern democracies. It does this, wrote Tocqueville, by enforcing "a network of small, complicated, painstaking, uniform rules" that reduces citizens "to being nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd." The sobering thought is that we're all complicit in that infantilization. After all, we keep voting for the politicians who put this leviathan in place.
My friends who read Austrian economics are probably thinking Kimball sounds a lot like Frédéric Bastiat:
In the economic sphere an act, a habit, an institution, a law produces not only one effect, but a series of effects. Of these effects, the first alone is immediate; it appears simultaneously with its cause; it is seen. The other effects emerge only subsequently; they are not seen; we are fortunate if we foresee them.
Why should it be so tough to rebuild after a natural disaster? The seen and the unseen, indeed.