Still No Consensus

A headline in the Washington Post (the actual newspaper, not the online version) reads:

Montgomery Still Lacking Consensus on Growth Policy

The article explains that officials in Montgomery County, Maryland, are having trouble agreeing on rules for limiting economic growth while leaving room for development. “I don’t think there is consensus on much of anything at this point,” said County Council member Nancy Floreen.

One reason that there’s no consensus, of course, is that there’s no consensus. The county’s 900,000 residents don’t all agree on who should be allowed to build new homes and businesses, who should have their property rights limited, who should pay the bills, and so on. This is why Hayek said that planning was not compatible with liberal values. The only values we can agree on in a big diverse society, he wrote, are “common abstract rules of conduct that secured the constant maintenance of an equally abstract order which merely assured to the individual better prospects of achieving his individual ends but gave him no claims to particular things.” That is, you set up property rights and the rule of law, and you let people run their own lives without being allowed to run other people’s lives. Try to go beyond that, and you’re going to infringe on freedom.

As I wrote a few months ago, another newspaper story reported

“As a consensus builds that the Washington region needs to concentrate job growth, there are signs that the exact opposite is happening.

Over the past five years, the number of new jobs in the region’s outer suburbs exceeded those created in the District and inner suburbs such as Fairfax and Montgomery counties … contradicting planners’ ‘smart growth’ visions of communities where people live, work and play without having to drive long distances.”

Maybe if tens - hundreds - of thousands of people aren’t abiding by the “consensus,” there is no consensus: there is just a bunch of government-funded planners attending conferences and deciding where people ought to live. It’s like, “Our community doesn’t want Wal-Mart.” Hey, if the community really doesn’t Wal-Mart, then a Wal-Mart store will fail. What that sentence means is: “Some organised interests in our community don’t want Wal-Mart here because we know our neighbours will shop there (and so will we).”

In her book It Takes a Village, Hillary Clinton calls for “a consensus of values and a common vision of what we can do today, individually and collectively, to build strong families and communities.” But there can be no such collective consensus. In any free society, millions of people will have different ideas about how to form families, how to rear children, and how to associate voluntarily with others. Those differences are not just a result of a lack of understanding each other; no matter how many Harvard seminars and National Conversations funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities we have, we will never come to a national consensus on such intimate moral matters. Clinton implicitly recognizes that when she insists that there will be times when “the village itself [read: the federal government] must act in place of parents” and accept “those responsibilities in all our names through the authority we vest in government.”

Governments would do better to set a few rules of the game and let market enterprises respond to what people really rather than try to push people into conforming to planners’ visions and phony consensuses.