Is Zoning “Liberal?”

Nestled in the latest of a long series of Wall Street Journal editorial-page pieces on the socialist dystopia of California which is driving people to such low-tax (and low everything) paradises as Texas and Mississippi is this interesting planted axiom from Allysia Finley:

[Z]oning laws, which liberals favor to control “suburban sprawl,” have constrained California’s housing supply and ratcheted up prices.

I do not know how old Ms. Finley is, but obviously zoning and other land-use restrictions (public and private) existed long before anyone was talking about “suburban sprawl,” and in fact, “sprawl” is arguably more often the result of land-use restrictions than their rationale. And while it’s true a new anti-planning radicalism on the Right (most notably the John Birch Society-inspired “Agenda 21” hysteria) tends to treat any land-use laws or regulations as communistic, well-off suburbanites who vote Republican are, at least in my experience, as least as enthusiastic as “liberals” about “protecting their property investments” via zoning.

Examining the real-life impact of land-use restrictions is actually one of the few areas where there has been for quite some time a productive cross-pollination between liberal and libertarian thinkers. There’s really no unambiguously “good” and “bad” political party or ideological grouping on this subject. What is clear, of course, is that very, very few people to the right of center are at all interested in fair housing laws, low-income housing assistance, or for that matter, any approach to land use that discomfits commercial property owners. The high cost of residential housing in California (and particularly coastal California) has a lot of causes, of which “liberal” policies are not self-evidently prominent. Exchanging California’s public policies for Texas’ will not self-evidently make life easier for low-to-moderate income people, even if you buy the very dubious premise it would create significantly lower real estate prices, for the obvious reason that there are goods and services of equal or greater value than real estate. But it’s like everything else in the conservative case against California: an exercise in single-entry book-keeping in which everything good about the Golden State is ignored, along with everything bad about the Lone Star State and its Deep South cousins, where po’ folk have the heavenly prospect of taking what’s given to them by their betters and not getting uppity about it.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.