Why is it that, when it comes to zoning and growth policy, many conservatives and Republicans turn into a bunch of central-planning socialists?
If you believe in property rights, then you believe people have the right to develop their property as they see fit, consistent with the rights of others. You do not think politicians, bureaucrats, or busy-body neighbors have any right to block people’s development of their property.
Let’s talk about the “consistent with the rights of others” qualifier for a moment, as some people pretend to be confused about it. You don’t have the right to block development you don’t aesthetically like. You don’t have the right to keep people out of your neighborhood you don’t like. If you want a strictly controlled neighborhood, then buy a property governed by a Home Owners’ Association. Or go buy a ranch that you can fence off. Otherwise, mind your own business.
People have a right to use their residential properties in reasonable ways consistent with first-in-time use. So we don’t want pig farms or loud and smelly manufacturing plants moving in next to a bunch of houses. Stench, noise, bright lights, and hazardous chemicals all can create rights-violating pollution in a residential context. No one disagrees with those sorts of broad restrictions. That doesn’t mean, morally, that anything goes when it comes to dictating your neighbors’ use of their property.
Unfortunately, far too many people turn into democratic socialists the second they sign their mortgage papers. Now that they have their place to live, they seek to tightly restrict others’ ability find a place to live. They want to artificially drive up the market value of their own property by using the force of government to restrict the development of new housing. The consequence is the housing crisis that drives homelessness and squeezes the household budgets of renters, who tend to be less well-off. Some people are moving out of Colorado simply because they can no longer afford to live here.
The common term for such socialistic property owners intent on screwing over the propertyless poor is NIMBYism—Not In My Back Yard. But that term is misleading in a certain way. You can do (almost!) whatever you want with what is literally your own back yard—that is the cry of the YIMBYs—the point is you have no right to dictate what other people do with their houses and back yards.
The siren cry of local control
No serious advocate of liberty defends tyranny so long as it is implemented by a local government. We recognize that the U.S. Bill of Rights, for example, as extended by the Fourteenth Amendment, properly protects people’s rights against abusive actions by government at all levels. The Thirteenth Amendment properly bans slavery everywhere in the country, local preferences on the matter be damned. Sure, sometimes local governments are better at meeting local needs than are broader governments headquartered far away. But sometimes we need broader government to protect us from localized mob rule.
Although Governor Jared Polis often has claimed to be “libertarian” when he was anything but, recently he has reasonably claimed that bills that he supports would “strengthen rights of property owners.” That is a laudable aim.
Yet an editorial from the Gazette claims the bills in question are “a profoundly bad idea” that would “damn” local preferences. “Say goodbye to such historic local control under the Polis plan,” the Gazette opines.
We can quibble with aspects of the bill, such as its interference with HOA rules, but on the whole the aim of the bill, Senate Bill 213, along with a companion bill on growth restrictions, House Bill 1255, is to prevent local governments from overriding the rights of the individuals who own the property in question.
Obviously the Gazette does not really believe that local control is always the best way to go. Here is the Gazette from January 26 reasonably arguing against local rent control: “Economically clueless lawmakers at the state Capitol introduced a bill paving the way for rent control. House Bill 1115, advanced by the more left-leaning members of the Democrat-controlled General Assembly, would repeal a state law barring local rent-control policies.”
Here is the Gazette last year criticizing local control restricting concealed handgun carry: “The city [Denver] wants to encroach further on its residents’ ability to defend themselves—because now it can. Last year, our gun control-obsessed legislature passed a law letting local governments curb the right to concealed carry in designated areas.” The Gazette also railed against “local control” of gun rules in 2021. Obviously whether the Gazette champions local control depends entirely on its partisan commitments.
If Republicans take issue with particular aspects of the bills that Polis and various Democrats in the legislature are proposing, then they should introduce amendments or new bills to address the problems while protecting people’s property rights. Violating people’s rights to develop their properties as they see fit in the name of “local control” is wrong and a betrayal of the principles of liberty that, in other contexts, conservatives claim to advocate.
Ari Armstrong writes regularly for Complete Colorado and is the author of books about Ayn Rand, Harry Potter, and classical liberalism. He can be reached at ari at ariarmstrong dot com
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