Sunday, June 24, 2012

Good Fences

Zoning is intended—say its proponents—to prevent nuisances from arising. But when zoning itself becomes the nuisance, and when it gets in the way of people using their own property how they’d like--and exactly no one is made better off, save for the bureaucrats who make and enforce the ordinances--then that piece of zoning must fall.
I Say Tomato, You Say No - Reason Magazine
This ignores one not-so-minor point. The whole idea of zoning laws is to prevent negative externalities. And they do this precisely by getting in the way of people using their own property how they'd like. It's all fine and good for Reason Magazine to raise the issue of people being unable to grow tomato plants or raise animals on their land, but this conveniently ignores the people who have plants over 12 inches tall on their land because they refuse to mow their lawns or who construct sheds in their front yards, and then let them fall into disrepair.

Rather than accuse local officials of being pompous blowhards who have an intellectual, effete and snobbish problem with rugged self-sufficiency, let's examine the whole idea of baking social conventions against nuisances and other threats to property values into law. If I own a property, and you live next to me, should I be required by law to look out for your property values? Is that really the only means by which neighbors can come to accommodation? And if such laws are going to be put in place, is it reasonable to write them so broadly that the onus is always on me to prove that what I'm doing won't chase away buyers for your property?

It's easy, too easy in fact, to get caught up in the rhetoric of "overreaching government" and "liberty." But this is really about how ironclad the social contract should be, given that we've never adopted a formalized means to accepting or rejecting it. We also need to address a culture that has turned housing and land from a consumer good into an investment asset. This one change gives people an incentive to meddle in the way their neighbors use their land, as something as simple as failure to adhere to an arbitrary understanding of home aesthetics can mean tens of thousands of dollars in paper losses to nearby landowners.

Like it or not, we don't live in splendid isolation, far from anyone who might suffer some of the downsides of our personal brands of homekeeping. Because of that, we need to have an understanding of how to balance individual freedoms with life in communities. Cherry-picking cases sympathetic to one side of that equation doesn't foster that understanding.

(HT to Chris Adams)

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