…sort of. He never quite cops to it, but he says he “appreciates” libertarianism’s arguments (unlike some people), and gives this great summary of what we here call the market urbanist narrative:
In the past, private companies ran the trains, interurbans, trolleys and buses. They were usually able to make a profit providing freedom and personal mobility to people of all ages and income levels. Then the government interfered in the market, forcing operators to charge fares that were too low, and subsidizing roads, garages and oil so that private cars had an unfair advantage. The private operators went out of business, and since then a skeleton transit system has been operated by the government at great public expense.
Government subsidy of driving has also destroyed our traditional small towns and cities, leaving hard-working families with a difficult choice between long drives and a gentrified urban lifestyle surrounded by intellectuals and criminals.
A conservative solution would gradually phase out driving subsidies and allow entrepreneurs to start new bus and train services. As publicly-owned transit routes become more profitable, they could be sold off to the highest bidder.
He put our beliefs more succinctly that I could – when you’re as passionate about the history of transit and land use in America as we are, it’s hard to distill it to a few short sentences. I should also note before continuing that I don’t really agree with lumping libertarian and conservative ideas on transit/land use together – “conservative” these days is nothing more than shorthand for Republican-leaning, and Republican constituents are almost all suburban/exurban/rural and are highly dependent on cars and will always vote for cars and against transit and density.
But anyway, something I also found interesting was his typology of conservative/libertarian tendencies other than market urbanism. He finds three (emphasis his):
1. The Wendell Cox Closed System. Roads are all paid for by drivers, in the form of “user fees” like gas taxes and tolls. Not many people will actually discover the number of local and state roads that are paid for with general property, sales or income taxes.
2. The Joel Kotkin Real Americans. It’s okay for government to spend money on things Real Americans want, and they want roads, cars and sprawl. This conveniently ignores the fact that “Real Americans” often change what they want depending on what they think will bring them the most happiness. It also ignores the frequent adjustment of the category of “Real Americans” to exclude those who decide they don’t want roads, cars or sprawl. This is a special case of the more general Real Americans argument beloved by conservatives, notably Sarah Palin.
3. The Randal O’Toole Transit Socialism. Transit involves people getting close to each other, which is against American rugged individualism, and therefore it is an appropriate use of government funds to defend us against the commies. Somehow this is not a problem when people get close to each other on airplanes, in spectator sports arenas, or in shopping malls. Getting around on foot or by bicycle also somehow doesn’t make you a rugged individualist, just a weirdo.
I think the Joel Kotkin (who blogs here) description is dead-on, and is an accurate characterization of the conservative/Republican stance on land use and transportation. The Wendell Cox one is also pretty accurate, but I think he’s selling Randal O’Toole (blogging here) short – I think Randal’s approach to the issue is the same as Cox’s, and I’ve never heard him justify roads on any grounds other than libertarian grounds. I don’t agree with his conclusions – that sprawl-limiting regulations are more common and relevant than density-limiting ones – but I don’t think it’s accurate to say that he believes in sprawl despite the market.
So in sum, I’d say there are two non-market urbanist conservative/libertarian positions – Kotkin speaking for most conservatives, and O’Toole/Cox speaking for most libertarians – and that these two positions are held by the vast, vast majority of self-identified conservatives and libertarians. Do you think that that about sums up the positions, or would you organize them differently? Are these distinctions even relevant, or is there a generalized local opposition to density among car-owners that transcends party identification and ideology? (My money might actually be on this last one…)
Alon Levy saysOctober 10, 2010 at 5:46 am
Some cultural conservatives support urbanism and density for non-market reasons, believing that they engender more wholesome communities. Paul Weyrich and Ray LaHood both epitomize this tendency, and to a large extent so does William Lind.
And to be honest, I don’t even see a distinction between Cox/O’Toole and Kotkin: they all come from a tradition of suburbanism, believing that government subsidies to cities are evil and government subsidies to suburbs (to the extent they acknowledge they exist) are wholesome. Maybe there’s a difference in how Kotkin thinks more in terms of suburbs and Cox and O’Toole in terms of cars, but I don’t think it’s too important. As a side corollary, all three seem to misunderstand and hate New York: Kotkin proclaimed that there’s no black and Puerto Rican middle-class in the region, and both Cox and O’Toole wish the subway just disappeared. Kotkin talks more like a general business-class conservative, not just about suburbs but also immigration and his bullish views on the future of the US vis-à-visa China and Europe, but his ideas on urbanism are part of the same suburbanist mentality.
As I said a few weeks ago on the Infrastructurist, I think by and large people on the American right have one of three views on cities: suburbanism, which dominates the thinktanks; communitarian urbanism; and market urbanism.
Rhywun saysOctober 11, 2010 at 1:32 am
Really? Good grief, that’s ignorant.
I think Kotkin and friends are correct that the majority of humans DO reject cities when they can – but that’s no good excuse for redirecting the energy of an entire nation and distorting the market in favor of said majority, as the US did starting after WWII. Recent trends in the population of US cities tell me that there IS a great demand for an “urban lifestyle”, if the crime rate is tolerably low and the job prospects are good enough. In other words, the population losses that have plagued urban America for decades aren’t so much evidence that “people hate cities” (as we were told all along) as that “people want a better place to live”.
Stephen Smith saysOctober 11, 2010 at 1:54 am
Yeah, I think people like Kotkin (i.e., most of America and nearly all of its politicians) are confusing what they want and what the government should subsidize. Sprawling is a natural desire that is fulfilled in the market all the time – the streetcar suburbs, which were much less dense than the tenements many moved out of, are an obvious example – but like all things, you can only afford so much of it.
Alon Levy saysOctober 11, 2010 at 2:00 am
Yes, really. I can try to dig up the link from the Urbanophile to the article where he mocks Jane Jacobs’ prediction that blacks and Puerto Ricans would “make a fine middle class,” on the grounds that blacks and Puerto Ricans are still dirt poor in New York. (The almost as bad level of inequality in Houston hasn’t prevented him from waxing poetic about the Hispanic middle class there.)
I think what happened postwar was a lot more subsidy-induced. In the 1950s, the urban crime rate was lower than it is today. But the people who wanted to buy in dense cities were denied mortgages, on the grounds that it was wrong to invest in slums, which were defined to include all racially diverse urban blocks. In some cases, people weren’t even allowed mortgages in areas dominated by another ethnic group. The government started it in the New Deal to help clear the slums, and then banks kept doing it privately until the CRA forced them to stop.
Stephen Smith saysOctober 11, 2010 at 2:28 am
If you could find the article I’d be interested to read it.
But about redlining – my libertarian instincts make me skeptical of the “racist banks” theory of urban decline. I have no doubt that banks took a hard look at the race of the neighborhood they were lending in, but I’m more inclined to view their racism as a practical survival strategy in an environment where the government was rapidly moving to subsidize places blacks didn’t and often could not afford to live.
I also think the war on drugs did a lot to bring down black neighborhoods and urbanism in general. Once you take away the drug prohibition you rid yourself of open air drug markets, along with most of the guns and crime, along with a lot of antipathy towards cities. I have no doubt that cultural conservatives will find other fears to project onto cities (theirs always good old racism and homophobia to fall back on), but I do believe their overall hostility would be lessened at least a little bit without the drug war.
Cap'n Transit saysOctober 14, 2010 at 9:17 pm
Stephen, thanks for your post; I’m not sold on market solutions for everything, but if the state fails I’m more than willing to let the market have a try.