Thus Vice nurs’d Ingenuity,
Which join’d with Time and Industry,
Had carry’d Life’s Conveniencies,
It’s real Pleasures, Comforts, Ease,
To such a Height, the very Poor
Liv’d better than the Rich before,
And nothing could be added more.
–From Mandeville’s ‘Fable of the Bees’
A frequently cited rationale for proposed zoning changes in Seattle’s South Lake Union is economic; the rezones will allow for an economic boom that will create much needed jobs for the city and region. We can argue about the numbers, but what about the idea that new land use policy will spark improvements in our economy?
A recent article in City Journal, a quarterly online journal of a libertarian bent, published an interesting and compelling article on the Road to Recovery by John Taylor, which was adapted from his Friedrich Hayek Lecture given as part of Manhattan Institute’s Hayek Prize. It got me thinking about whether Seattle overregulates the use of land and how that could be limiting the economic upsides of growth that could lead to recovery, especially job creation.
Hayek is not so popular around here because he is the economist who is the opposite of John Maynard Keynes, a favorite of liberals and progressives. Simply put, Hayek is remembered for limited, if any, government intervention to affect the economy, and Keynes was the classic interventionist, arguing for government’s role in increasing demand for goods and services, especially during downturns (for more and Hayek and Keynes you’d better watch this then this.)
I have been criticized for what one commenter called “Hayekian reveries” about deregulating land use around transit stations. However, I think Hayekian lenses are what we should wear when we consider how and when government regulates what gets built in Seattle, especially around transit.
Hayek draws a distinction in Constitution of Liberty, between the law and legislation. Hayek argued that spontaneous order—a state of order that is the product of the free market, not planning—in an economy is possible only when there are predictable laws, general in nature, that establish the few things people cannot do, rather than commands about what they must do.
When Hayek talks about the law he is referring in large part to English Common Law that undergirds our entire legal system in the United States, and provides the basis for adjudicating disputes and carrying out justice. The Common Law paves the road to the future with precedents from the past; it is essentially a system of rules based on trial and error.
However, Seattle’s rulebook, the land use code, isn’t about building the future but protecting the past; the code isn’t about experimentation but about preventing “bad things” from happening. Our land use code is a monument to 20th century land use principles that pushed different uses apart, a strategy that resulted in sprawl in the years following World War II.
As I’ve argued before, the only limits at South Lake Union or anywhere in Seattle, especially around transit, should be the limits set by supply and demand, engineering, and health and safety. Oddly this is not a libertarian idea at all, but rather an interventionist one. Taylor notes that sometimes a government can intervene by doing nothing. Seattle government should actually do less so private developers can do more to accommodate growth and crate the jobs that will come with it.
The profit motive and the desire to improve the lot of our fellow people drive innovation and creativity. Deregulating the use of land can be profitable and beneficial for everyone. We need lots of innovation and creativity right now, so why not get out of the way and allow architects, planners, engineers, and yes, even neighborhoods create spontaneous order in South Lake Union and elsewhere. Let’s get rid of height limits—and all limits there—and see what happens.
Zero Based Zoning, for example, would allow increases in housing supply, support innovation, and help boost the economy. What our city needs now is jobs and housing, and that won’t happen because of more rules and more conditions to avoid bad things, but through encouraging more investment and risk taking for the future. Local government can set the table for the feast, and then let people eat it without fretting over every bite.
I do depart with classical liberals when they suggest that we don’t make laws we only discover them. We can make and unmake laws because we decide we need to in order to support smart growth. Good law is not out there somewhere; we make it up based on what others have learned before us and it’s a communal, not individual, exercise.
Yes, there will be trials and errors—an ugly building here and there—but that’s how we learn to improve the law. And when we grow we also build better communities, something government can’t mandate or plan. When it comes to land use I have to agree with the classical liberals, less planning and government regulation leads to more freedom and recovery. Allowing more spontaneity can also be the road to sustainability.