Is Suburban America the Product of Regulation?
By Bryan Caplan
Now that my baby situation is under control, I’m ready to respond to Matt Yglesias. Last week, he wrote, “Bryan Caplan specifically cites America’s large houses and ample parking spaces as the benefits of our free market approach when they are, in fact, the product of systematic regulatory mandates.” If you re-read my piece, though, I didn’t say a word about free markets. I was merely comparing and contrasting the experiences of visiting versus living in Europe/America, not explaining why the differences exist.
I’m not being coy. I make an effort to keep my descriptive and normative analysis distinct. When I think about the history for opera, for example, I try not to let the facts about government funding color my judgment about composers’ artistic merit. When I visit Bavaria, similarly, I don’t try to convince myself that its 19th-century castles would be even better if Ludwig II had cut taxes instead of trying to out-do Louis XIV. The music of Wagner is divine, and Neuschwanstein and Linderhof are awesome, no matter how they came into being.
Still, Matt does raise an interesting question: Is American suburbia the product of regulation? He particularly emphasizes zoning – including parking mandates. He may be right. Perhaps suburbia is, like the music of Wagner, governments’ inefficient gift to people with my kind of preferences. But overall, I’m not convinced. The American government does some things that encourage suburbia, but the net effect of government on suburbia is unclear. A few of the leading anti-suburban policies that governments follow:
1. Regulations against developing empty land. In many parts of the country, it is difficult to get permission to actually build anything. Places like the Bay Area are notorious. But even in my own neighborhood in “pro-growth” Fairfax, there is a vacant 1-acre lot. It would be worth half a million dollars, but the authorities won’t give the owner permission to install a septic tank, and won’t attach it to the public sewer at any price.
2. Government land ownership. The federal and state governments own almost 40% of the land in the U.S. Sure, over a third of it is in Alaska. But if the governments’ land were in private hands, its owners would be itching to develop a lot of it.
3. Regulations against mixed use. These actually make suburbia less convenient, encouraging people to move to urban environments where you can walk down the street to a restaurant or a 7-11.
4. Gas taxes. In congested areas, admittedly, taxes might actually make suburbia more desirable by keeping the roads moving. But much of the country is virtually uncongested, and they pay the same federal gas taxes as they do in LA and the northeast corridor.
Note: If someone has hard numbers showing that pro-suburban policies outweigh anti-suburban policies, I’m all ears. My point is that the net effect of all levels of the American government on surburbia are far from obvious.
Finally, I’m frankly puzzled by Matt’s conclusion:
But I don’t really understand why it is that this kind of thing doesn’t seem to bother libertarians very much… [G]iven a set of extremely severe land use regulations that happen to
antagonize environmentalist and left-wing Europhilic bicycle commuters,
suddenly mandatory minimum parking requirements become the essence of
In my experience, 95% of the principled opponents of zoning (as opposed to people who just want a different kind of zoning) are libertarians. There are over 700,000 hits on google for the words “libertarian” and “zoning.” My former students Ben Powell and Ed Stringham criss-crossed California on behalf of laissez-faire in real estate; here’s their article in David Henderson’s encyclopedia. My colleague Dan Klein has a review essay on Donald Shoup’s The High Cost of Free Parking. The title: “Free Parking versus Free Markets.” Bottom line: I’m delighted to hear that Matt’s on board, but he’s hardly flying solo.