Author: Kenneth Stahl


Should More Land Use Professors Be Libertarians?: Part III (Final Post)

This is (hopefully) the last in a series of three posts. In the first, I asked why more land use professors are not libertarians, considering the strong leftist critique of local government. In the second, I suggested that one reason for the leftist commitment to local government (and specifically to local government land use control, albeit often in the guise of “regionalism”) is that the relevant libertarian alternatives – namely, the marketplace and the common law of nuisance – are far worse. Nevertheless, I conceded that this answer was unsatisfactory, considering that many leftists – myself included – betray a Tocquevillian optimism about local government that is difficult to square with the position that local governments are merely the least bad of all the alternatives. So I am left here, in this third post, with the hardest question: How can left-leaning local government scholars have any optimism about local government in light of the abusive local government practices we have witnessed (and documented)?

State Structuring of Local Governments

Alright, here goes… While there is no denying the manifold abuses of which local governments are guilty (see my initial post), the blame for these abuses really falls upon state governments, not local governments. The reason local governments act in the parochial fashion they do is because states have empowered and constrained local governments in such a way that effectively forces local governments to be parochial. In a variety of ways, states have facilitated and encouraged the proliferation of small local governments within metropolitan regions, each of which is thus coerced into a zero-sum competition with the others for scarce revenues. States have, at the same time, dumped all kinds of unfunded and underfunded mandates on local governments, which they must meet with whatever revenue they raise locally. Yet, there is one saving grace for local governments: states have given them an awesome power — the land use power. Is it any surprise that local governments use the biggest power states have given them to solve the biggest problem states have saddled them with –an ongoing obligation to provide costly services with limited funds? The local government abuses I mentioned in my initial post, including the “fiscalization” of land use, exclusion of undesirable land uses (and users), strategic annexation and incorporation efforts, and sprawl are thus not things local governments do because they are inherently corrupt; they do so because the state has structured local government law so as to make these abuses inevitable.   Read More


Should More Land Use Professors be Libertarians? Part II

In my previous post, I asked why more land use/local government law professors do not identify as libertarians, considering the role many of us have played in exposing the dysfunctional workings of local government.

If there is an obvious argument in favor of the status quo in land use/local government regulation, it is that all the alternatives seem worse. Let us consider some of the candidates:

The Market

 An unimpeded free market in land use development would apparently be the worst of all worlds, as there would be no way to prevent open space from being gobbled up by new housing, roads and schools becoming impossibly congested, or a refinery locating next to a single-family home (or, perhaps more likely, a landowner threatening to build a refinery in order to extort his neighbor, a common scenario in pre-zoning Chicago).  In a densely populated society, we need some way of ensuring that landowners consider the impact of their land use on neighbors.   The good people of Oregon realized this after an ill-advised ballot initiative a few years ago effectively wiped out zoning, and suddenly a single landowner could, for example, subdivide his parcel into 100 lots for single-family homes with no regard for the impact the development would have on local services or infrastructure. The ballot initiative was repealed by a subsequent initiative a few years later.

In my previous post, I mentioned Houston as a possible alternative to most places’ current system of land use regulation. Houston is often touted for its lack of zoning, and corresponding low home prices. I should point out, however, that Houston is not quite a free-market paradise. Houston has a full complement of land use laws, including subdivision regulations (to prevent downtown-houston-at-night-1430683-sthe aforementioned 100 lot problem) billboard regulations, and the like. The city even enforces restrictions contained in private covenants.   As my friend and Houstonian Matt Festa points out, Houston has a quirky city charter that prohibits zoning without a voter initiative, so the city does lots of land use regulation but simply calls it something other than zoning.  And, while I’m on the subject, does anyone really think the reason Houston has lower land prices than San Jose is because of zoning? Read More


Should More Land Use Professors be Libertarians?

Many professors who study land use and local government law, myself included, consider ourselves leftists rather than libertarians. That is, we have some confidence in the ability of government to solve social problems. Nevertheless, were you to pick up a randomly selected piece of left-leaning land use or local government scholarship (including my own) you would likely witness a searing indictment of the way local governments operate. You would read that the land use decisionmaking process is usually a conflict between deep-pocketed developers who use campaign contributions to elect pro-growth politicians and affluent homeowners who use their ample resources to resist change that might negatively affect their property values. Land use “planning” – never a great success to begin with – has largely been displaced by the “fiscalization” of land use, in which land use decisions are based primarily on a proposed land use’s anticipated contribution to (or drain upon) a municipality’s revenues. Public schools in suburban areas have essentially been privatized due to exclusionary zoning practices, and thus placed off limits to the urban poor, whereas public schools in cities have been plundered by ravenous teachers’ unions.

The organization of local governments, on the surface a merely technical matter, has fallen victim to a similar pattern of what public choice scholars call “rent-seeking.” Cities look to annex neighboring unincorporated areas in order to gobble up their tax base, while affluent small areas incorporate in order to resist the redistribution of wealth to poorer neighborhoods and prevent unwanted land use sitings. Metropolitan regions have been fragmented into dozens of little local fiefdoms, each acting with little regard for its neighbors. Sprawl, inefficiency, interlocal inequality and de facto racial segregation are the consequences, and the norm, in most metropolitan regions. Read More


Local Government and Global Urbanization

The world’s future looks to be an urban one. The United Nations estimates that by 2050, two-thirds of the world’s population will live in cities. The planet’s urban population will increase from about 2.5 billion to over six billion, with ninety percent of that growth estimated to occur in Africa and Asia.  The growth of these cities, particularly in the developing world, will undoubtedly present a host of new challenges for local governments.

ranchos-de-caracas-810983-mEd Glaeser, one of the most important and interesting urban thinkers today, recently authored a great essay in City Journal about the rise of mega-cities in poor and developing countries, cities like Kinshasa, Caracas (pictured) and Lagos. His essay provides much food for thought about how these cities emerged, the issues they will confront, and how they can draw on the American experience with urbanization for some solutions.

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Cognitive Biases, the Legal Academy, and the Judiciary

It’s a pleasure to be here at Concurring Opinions.  I would like to thank Dan, Sarah, and Ron for inviting me.  During my visit, I hope to talk a bit about my core research areas of land use and local government law (including why you, who are statistically unlikely to be interested in either land use or local government law, should be interested), but also about other issues such as the current state of the legal academy and the legal profession, often using land use or local government law to examine these broader issues.

On Cognitive Biases

On that last note, recently ran a great piece by Katy Waldman regarding how the human brain processes information, observing that people have a predilection to believe factual claims that we find easy to process.  Waldman synthesizes the results of several interesting studies, including one eye-opening study that identifies three persistent cognitive biases that humans possess.  As Waldman summarizes these biases: “First, we reflexively attribute people’s behavior to their character rather than their circumstances.” Second, “we learn more easily when knowledge is arranged hierarchically, so in a pinch we may be inclined to accept fixed status and gender roles.” And third, “we tend to assume that persisting and long-standing states are good and desirable, which stirs our faith in the status quo absent any kind of deep reflection.” The studygreen-lizard-1427838-s attributes these biases to the basic human need, rooted in the primitive recesses of our lizard brain (pictured), to manage uncertainty and risk.

While Waldman argues that there is some relationship between these biases and conservative political beliefs, what struck me about these findings is how well the biases describe judicial behavior.

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