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.

Libertarianism in the city, or more about why I’m blogging

Why am I starting this blog? Well, the first reason is that there doesn’t seem to be much of a libertarian voice in Baltimore City. I want people to know that libertarians have answers to the social and economic problems that exist here. I want people to know that the answer to social problems is not always more government action. On the contrary, often it is government that is the cause of problems. Prohibition of drugs and the violent gang warfare it generates is just one notorious example.

The second reason is to get myself to learn more about how libertarianism can inform urban policy. There is a definite sense that urbanism in general is alien to small-government libertarian values (see discussion here). Big cities even in conservative states appear to vote liberal, while limited-government voters seem to be restricted to the suburbs and small towns. I hope to show that this does not have to be the case. Cities in fact thrive under limited government.

Two good books on this are the classic “Death and Life of Great American Cities” by Jane Jacobs and the recent “Case for Market Urbanism” by Michael Lewyn. The former talks about how top-down city planning destroyed many thriving neighborhoods, while the second focuses on how suburban sprawl is the result of government intervention rather than market forces. It turns out that cities do not need to be planned form the top down. In fact, they grow organically from the bottom up. See also this discussion of the relationship between the non-libertarian Jacobs and libertarian thought.

The Baltimore Libertarian

Hello and welcome to the Baltimore Libertarian! I am a libertarian in Baltimore and came to realize there is not much of a libertarian voice in the city. So, in this blog, I will talk about local issues from a libertarian perspective. I talk a bit more about what libertarianism means in the About page.

I’ve decided to dedicate this site to H. L. Mencken, the Sage of Baltimore. The site icon that you see in the bookmarks bar is the picture of him you see below. He is a symbol of the link, however obscure today, between Baltimore and libertarianism. Mencken was in many ways a libertarian before that term came to be commonly used in its current meaning (though apparently in at least one place he called himself “an extreme libertarian”). He was skeptical of authority, loved liberty.

Libertarian economist Murray Rothbard wrote a very interesting piece not long after Mencken’s death about how ahead of his time Mencken was. For example, like many on the anti-FDR Old Right, Mencken opposed the New Deal. Unlike many of them, however, he opposed Prohibition and welcomed its repeal. He did not fit in the crude left-right categories of the 1920s and 1930s, just as libertarians do not fit in the left-right paradigm of today.

h-l-mencken
Photo of H. L. Mencken

Thanks especially to Tom Woods both for his free blogging starter kit that helped me get going and for just being an all-round inspiring voice for liberty. I will try to keep posts brief and focused on politically tractable solutions. I will also try to post at least once a week.

Thanks for reading the Baltimore Libertarian!