On Anti-Suburbanism and Government Land Ownership

by: Ryan Avent

I don’t know what’s more perplexing to me: that Bryan Caplan seemed to think that labeling the four bullet points in this post, “A few of the leading anti-suburban policies,” would strengthen his argument that government may be anti-suburban on net, or that Tyler Cowen linked to the piece, suggesting he felt it was worth reading. Caplan’s leading anti-suburban policies are:

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.

This is truly a remarkable list. One thing to note is that Caplan doesn’t seem to grasp that criticisms of pro-suburban policies are largely about the forms that are encouraged rather than the locations. To the extent that regulations against developing empty land and government land ownership are actually major issues constraining metropolitan growth, they’re barriers to development of any kind — “urban” or “suburban” in form. Were we to scrap those barriers, we’d still face the many rules that make it difficult or impossible to build in a denser, mixed-use, walkable fashion.

I must admit that my mind is a little blown by Caplan’s citation of “regulations against mixed use” as an anti-suburban policy. It’s like saying that government is anti-suburb, because it forces people in suburbs to build using suburban development forms which are inconvenient and unpleasant.

And then Caplan says that gas taxes in congested areas, which means most of metropolitan America, should actually maybe be increased. He seems unwilling to wrestle with the fact that increasing gas taxes to reduce congestion would make suburbia more desirable and more efficient, and also (and necessarily) more expensive and smaller. That is, if you used higher gas taxes to get rid of the negative externalities produced by suburban growth, you’d probably wind up with less of it (so long as demand curves slope downward).

This is an example of what Yglesias had in mind originally when he complained that libertarians have a weird blind spot when it comes to planning issues. Caplan tries to put together a list of “leading anti-suburban policies” and comes up with, essentially, nothing (if not less than nothing — evidence that he’s wrong and government policies are clearly anti-suburban on net). Tyler Cowen links to this. At no point does either of them seem to notice that these are very bad arguments, and that perhaps Yglesias has a good point after all.

I don’t ever expect to get libertarians on board with a plan to have government heavily fund transit and rail system construction, but I would expect them to understand that intellectual consistency demands they do a bit less fawning over the wonders of suburban development. Or, you know, change belief systems.

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