Some people accept the idea that restrictive land use policy is just as bad as all the research suggests, but persist in supporting the status quo. They argue that if a community chooses to regulate its built environment, that choice should be respected as having moral weight because it’s the outcome of a democratic process. This argument, though, is as logically confused as it is normatively problematic. And in the following few lines, I intend to demonstrate exactly why.
No decision making process is value neutral. Whatever way we choose to go about collective decision making, we will always privilege certain voices over others. Institutions beget outcomes and the internal logic of our institutions will always favor some outcomes (and therefore voices) over others.
The same individuals with the same preferences asked to make the same decisions through different procedures will produce wildly different outcomes. Imagine a U.S. Presidential election based on the popular vote or representation in the U.S. Senate proportional to state population and you should begin to see how the public will is as much a product of procedure as it is aggregated individual preference.
Taking the Bay Area as a land use specific example, our system heavily favors the voices of incumbent homeowners to the detriment of everyone else. Land use decisions take place at the municipal level which–given the fact that we have 101 different municipalities–is a hyper local affair. When a new development is proposed, it only takes a handful of angry neighbors to impact decision making. Were land use set at a higher level of government, the typical number of people that get angry over an individual project would be far less effective at killing new housing. Fifty angry homeowners might matter to the Palo Alto City Council, but they’d be quite a bit less significant to policy makers responsible for an entire county, region, or state.
Our system of project-by-project decision making is biased against new housing as well. Because NIMBY homeowners are motivated by the specific projects they don’t want within eyesight of their homes, they pay relatively low cognitive costs when it comes to monitoring policy and politically organizing. Their goal is clear and concrete–if the building they don’t want to see gets built, they experience an immediate negative outcome. A renter, on the other hand, doesn’t get the same payoff for supporting an individual project. In the aggregate and in the long run, renters would benefit from more flexible housing markets, but the benefit of the marginal housing project is minimal–asymmetric payoffs abound.
I could go on about how Bay Area land use institutions stack the deck against anything ever getting built ever…but, ultimately, these examples are meant to underscore how biased any collective decision making process can be. Once we recognize that built in bias, we should stop blindly accepting outcomes based on the supposed legitimacy of some process and instead begin judging our institutions based on the outcomes they produce–and begin rewriting the rules of the game when those outcomes are morally indefensible.