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