Land Use and Local Government: The Facts On the Ground Are Libertarian

Prof. Kenneth Stahl, who directs the Environmental Land Use and Real Estate Law Program at Chapman University School of Law, has a post at Concurring Opinions asking why libertarians aren’t more numerous among academic specialists in local government and land use law. Stahl describes his own views as siding with “leftists rather than libertarians,” that is to say, those who “have some confidence in the ability of government to solve social problems”: 

Nevertheless, were you to pick up a randomly selected piece of left-leaning land use or local government scholarship (including my own) you would likely witness a searing indictment of the way local governments operate. You would read that the land use decisionmaking process is usually a conflict between deep-pocketed developers who use campaign contributions to elect pro-growth politicians and affluent homeowners who use their ample resources to resist change that might negatively affect their property values. Land use “planning”—never a great success to begin with—has largely been displaced by the “fiscalization” of land use, in which land use decisions are based primarily on a proposed land use’s anticipated contribution to (or drain upon) a municipality’s revenues. Public schools in suburban areas have essentially been privatized due to exclusionary zoning practices, and thus placed off limits to the urban poor, whereas public schools in cities have been plundered by ravenous teachers’ unions.

… It hardly paints a pretty picture of local government. Yet, most leftists’ prescription is more government. 

To put it differently, libertarian analysis better explains what actually goes on in local government than does the standard progressive faith in the competence of government to correct supposed market failure. The post (read it in full!) goes on to discuss specifics such as annexation, incorporation, and economic stratification-by-jurisdiction; the relative success of lightly governed Houston in achieving low housing costs and attracting newcomers and economic growth; and the transference of progressives’ unmet hopes to regionalization, so memorably summed up by Jane Jacobs years ago: “A region is an area safely larger than the last one to whose problem we found no solution.”


So why would left-leaning scholars, who have seen so clearly the failures of local government, place so much faith in a largely untested restructuring of governmental institutions, rather than looking to less government as the solution?

Great question.