"Free to Build": The Best Hope for Libertarian Populism
By Bryan Caplan
The last big populist movement that libertarians could and did embrace was the tax revolt of the late 70’s and early 80’s. Since then, there’s been a long dry spell, at least in the U.S. And if you know much about public opinion, that’s no surprise: The man in the street has little sympathy for libertarian policies. All of which gets me thinking: What is the best hope these days for libertarian populism?
To be more precise, is there any policy change out there that is Big, Libertarian, Potentially Popular, and will Actually Deliver?
How about this: A populist movement to drastically reduce the price of housing by slashing the regulatory barriers to new construction? Uh oh, it still sounds like an egghead is talking. Real populism means sound bytes. My best shot so far: Free to Build.
Everyone from Paul Krugman to Ed Glaeser now highlights the fact that an array of regulations make housing needlessly expensive. A simple populist response: Gut the regulations so we can build more houses that are affordable for the average family. If a private party owns some land, let him develop it. If the government owns some land, let them sell it to the highest bidder, then use the proceeds to cut property taxes.
Simplistic? Sure. If it weren’t simplistic, it wouldn’t be populism, and wouldn’t have a chance of becoming popular. But of course that’s only a necessary condition, not a sufficient one. The big question is: Could a majority embrace the cause of Free to Build?
Economists are likely to say No. Why? Because the median voter already owns a home, so he doesn’t want housing to get any more affordable. But this objection rests on the discredited Self-Interested Voter Hypothesis. Empirically, objective self-interest is an almost useless predictor of political preferences. The value of my home has doubled since I bought it five years ago, and I’m the founding member of the Free to Build movement!
In reality, people generally favor policies because they think they are right, not because they help their bottom line. And there are lots of ways to convince people that Free to Build has right on its side. Here are some preliminary slogans:
“You shouldn’t have to be rich to buy a nice home.”
“Think of our children! They deserve homes of their own too.” (And if you remain convinced that voters are selfish, try “Do you want your kids to live with your until they’re 40?!”)
(For privately-owned land) “They own it, why can’t they do something useful with it?”
(For publicly-owned land) “We own it, why can’t we do something useful with it?”
Do I think Free to Build is going to happen? Probably not. But I still think it’s the best hope for libertarian populism. And you shouldn’t dismiss it just because my slogans aren’t inspiring enough. That’s not my forte. I bet my readers could do a lot better. Can you help me out?