Ben Carson and the war on zoning

I’ve broken my promise to post once a week because a lot suddenly fell on my plate over the past couple of weeks, leaving me little time to keep with the news and write commentary. One project I hope to complete soon and publish here is a review of Antero Pietila’s “Not in My Neighborhood” about the history of residential segregation in Baltimore. But for now I will talk a bit about a major factor behind residential segregation: zoning.

Carson has proposed tying federal funds under the 1968 Fair Housing Act to easing of zoning regulations. The original intent was to forbid discrimination in housing on grounds of race. In 2015, the Obama administration changed this policy by a rule called Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH). Under the new rule, federal funds would be conditional on taking active measures to integrate neighborhoods. Carson has been trying to dismantle these rules. Instead, HUD will dispense federal funds in accordance with local measures to ease up restrictions on multi-family housing.

Less welfare, more housing

Many media commenters portray this move as a desire to reinforce segregation, but in fact Carson is rightly pointed to stringent zoning as responsible for restricting supply of new housing and driving up rents. What’s telling is the reaction of critics. They ignore his attack on discriminatory zoning or claim that local authorities still need to work on desegregation. There is a deep-seated bias against accepting that government is to blame for social problems. Wouldn’t it be better if all government had to do was step out of the way?

I am not the only one to notice that zoning can be used to keep neighborhoods segregated. The economics is in fact very straightforward. If you impose stringent rules on what kinds of housing can be built in an area, that reduces the overall amount of land available for that kind of housing. It necessarily follows that the price of housing will be greater than what it otherwise would be. It isn’t hard to see how that can create a problem for poor people trying to buy or rent property.

Who owns the streets?

When I was reading about the drug war for my last post, one of the articles talked about a pastor in a poor neighborhood in Baltimore calling out drug dealers openly dealing drugs down the street from his church. The context was that such open defiance of the law would not have been tolerated before Freddie Gray. Since the mass protests against the police following his death, the fuzz have held back. But to me the interesting question is what tolerating drugs means for the residents of a neighborhood. Must they tolerate any kind of activity in their own streets?

Are the streets owned or unowned?

A doctrinaire libertarian answer is that drug-dealing is a peaceful activity and law enforcement has no business interfering. But a more sophisticated response recognizes that no one has the right to deal drugs on a certain property against the will of the property owner. So, the sophisticated libertarian not only has to point out that drug dealing is itself a voluntary exchange but must also establish that the owners of the space where the drug dealing occurs do not object to the activity (or that the space is unowned and hence no one has any grounds to object to any peaceful activity that takes place there).

The sense I got from the pastor was that he felt in some sense that the street belonged to them. If he was correct, then he would have the right to forbid drug dealing there. Is that feeling justified? This depends on our theory of ownership of public spaces like streets. A lot of people accept the notion that the government owns those spaces and can make the rules. The legitimacy of the government¬† supposedly rests on majority rule. Indeed, there is a longstanding debate in libertarianism over who exactly “owns” public, i.e. government-run, spaces. I want to illustrate the problem with this in a more straightforward fashion.

The problem with majority rule

Let’s say the federal government drops drug prohibition tomorrow and Maryland follows by legalizing all drugs. The state’s decision has the backing of a majority of the state’s voters. However, a majority of the city still want drugs illegal, yet the state preempts any local legislation against drugs. Why should the majority of the smaller unit be cast aside for the majority of the larger unit? Why can’t each city and county decide what to ban and what to allow?

Now let’s move down another level. Let’s say the city wants to ban drugs, but some neighborhoods want to legalize them. It is conceivable that the illegal drug trade and drug usage affects different neighborhoods in different ways. It might make sense to ban drugs in one neighborhood but allow them in another, yet the centralization of city government does not allow this.

I hope this illustrates the problem of “majority rule”. Even if you accept the premise that the majority has the right of rule, you still have to define the unit. The majority of what? If there are different ways to divide up the population to get different majorities, what makes one division more legitimate than another? Why should the same rules govern neighborhoods as different as Sandtown-Winchester and Roland Park just because they happen to be in the same larger political unit?

Let local residents regulate their own streets

Which bring us back to the pastor’s church and their feelings about drug dealers doing their business in his neighborhood. Ultimately, those streets and other public spaces need to be handed over to the people who live and walk them every day and not be run by politicians from elsewhere that have no direct stake in the maintenance of those spaces. And while I don’t think any government has the right to forbid people from engaging in any peaceful exchange, including drugs, I do in fact acknowledge the desires of community members to regulate the use of spaces they use in common. I also happen to think that, when it comes to public property, the effective owners are those who habitually use it, i.e. the neighboring residents. So I say put it up to the vote of the people living on that block and leave everyone else out of it!

More on police brutality in Baltimore

Following from my last post, I’ve been doing some more research into developments in the drug war in Baltimore and in particular how that relates to police brutality. Is police brutality carrying on the same as before Freddie Gray’s death, or is it getting better or worse? And is the war on drugs carrying on as before or getting more or less intense? I had posited a connection between the two the last time but I think this needs more discussion.

Is police brutality such a big issue?

It turns out that there is no clear data about police brutality and whether it is getting worse or better. This does not surprise me since violent crime in general is underreported (except for homicides), so reports of police violence must be similarly prone to error. What about the drug war? A Sun article back in 2016 reported that drug arrests in general had gone down. Since the homicide rate was going up at the same time, some, like former acting commissioner Anthony Barksdale, argued that retreating in the fight against drugs led directly to increased violence.

Similar arguments have been made by others, like Heather MacDonald. At some level it makes sense. Given that the illegal drug trade is so violent, clearing the streets of drug dealers may well clear them of the most violent elements in the neighborhood, and it may be easier police work to stop and search people in the street and lock them up for possession than to painstakingly examine crime scenes and track down witnesses to nail those who committed actual violence.

But there’s a chicken-and-egg problem here. Why is the drug trade so violent? Almost certainly because of prohibition! Prohibition itself raises the costs of the drugs, which makes it more lucrative. And since doing business involves evading and sometimes violently confronting the law, it attracts more violent and unscrupulous types. We saw the same thing during alcohol prohibition in the 1920s.

End violence by ending the war on drugs

So there’s reason to think that a retreat in the war on drugs will help reduce violence. What explains the correlation between more homicides and fewer arrests in the last couple of years in Baltimore? Well, at the same time, there was the whole Freddie Gray affair, with the protests and riots, it seems that police decided to stay out of people’s way. This can explain the fewer drug-related arrests, but can also explain fewer arrests for crimes involving people and property. While arresting people specifically for peaceful behavior like buying and selling has a questionable relationship to violent crime, there is some (though not clinching)¬†evidence that turning a blind eye to small property crimes can encourage more serious violence. The aftermath of the Freddie Gray riots unfortunately led not only to lenience in drug prohibition but also lenience in the defense of basic property rights.

This does not mean the police can simply go back to their brutal ways before Freddie Gray. It was that pervasive brutality (or the perception thereof) that sparked the riots to begin with. How to fix relations between police and community, or whether that’s even possible, must be the subject of a later post.