Ari Armstrong, Exclusives, Housing, Land Use, Local, Uncategorized

Armstrong: What the housing debate says about local control

I have not been wishy-washy in my stances on imposing rent control or on giving individuals greater ability to use and develop their residential properties. I oppose the former and favor the latter. But what does the debate over these housing policies say about local control and the proper structure of government?

A liberty orientation

I see my position as perfectly consistent. I want the state to continue to stop local governments from imposing rent control, and I also want the state to stop cities from imposing onerous zoning rules that strip individuals of their rights to develop their property as they see fit. In both cases, I advocate economic liberty; I take a broadly libertarian stance. (For a better sense of what I mean by that, please see my recent review of The Individualists, about the history of libertarianism, and my interview with one of the coauthors.)

For me, the fundamental issue is not which level of government sets the rules; it is whether governments at whatever level protect people’s rights, including their contract and property rights. If, counter to fact, state government instead imposed universal rent control and the zoning regulations we now live with, I’d be all for reversing those rules or at least allowing cities to exempt themselves from them. My aim is to maximize liberty.

I am not saying that we should always favor that level of government which, on some narrow issue, seemingly would best advance liberty at the moment. I think there’s good reason for the Tenth Amendment to reserve those powers not expressly delegated to the federal government “to the States respectively, or to the people.” Even if the federal government on some one-off issue could expand liberty by overreaching its delegated powers, generally we need to distribute power among the federal and state governments as a means to protect liberty overall and in the long run. Of course, we can debate which powers are in fact delegated to the federal government, and which should be.

But I don’t think the same dynamics usually apply when we’re talking about state and local governments. I’m perfectly happy for the state to “preempt” local control, whether on rent control, zoning, or gun regulations, to protect the rights of citizens.

Limits of local control

Why is that? Don’t conservatives and libertarians usually say that local governments close to “the people” tend to be less oppressive than far-away governments? I think that’s true sometimes but not generally.

Local governments often are dominated by entrenched political elites who have the time and resources to dominate local politics, often to the advantage of special interests. How many people do you think can name their mayor, much less all their city councilors? At the state level, we mix representatives from diverse regions around the state. At least sometimes, this disrupts special-interest power in favor of our good in common.

In the U.S. context, state-level power often is the sweet spot. Sometimes, at least, states can tamp town tyrannical impulses by demagogues both national and local. That said, I’m glad that states (and localities) are bound by the U.S. Bill of Rights, and I recognize some areas where local governments do relatively well, such as the provision of various “public goods” (if you think government should do that at all).

Letting local governments control all aspects of our lives would be about as horrible as letting the federal government—never mind a one-world government—do so.

All this helps explain why I often do not want federal government to preempt state control but I often do want state government to preempt local control. There’s nothing at all strange or hypocritical about this; my aim is to implement those structures of government most likely to protect the liberties of individuals.

Generally I do not want government at any level to control people’s lives or decisions. In that sense, I want neither state nor local control. But, insofar as the state controls the tendency of local governments to abuse people’s rights, usually I think that’s okay. And when local governments exert control in ways that do not abuse people’s rights, usually I think that’s okay.

Claims of hypocrisy

From my perspective, the good and consistent position is “anti-rent control” plus “anti-zoning control.” In those areas, government controls violate people’s rights to control their property. “My house, my choice,” right?

Thankfully, the legislature killed the bill that would have let localities impose more rent control. Regrettably, the legislature stripped language from a bill that would have limited zoning controls.

You might find this shocking, but a lot of people do not agree with all of my political stances.

A lot of conservatives—way more than I expected—are anti-rent control but pro-zoning control. Silly me; sometimes I imagine that conservatives mean what they say when they claim to support free markets.

I do think that conservatives who took this stance were being hypocritical, as they worked against local control on one issue and for it on the other. The common thread is they were supporting entrenched interests. I guess that’s not surprising, although it is disappointing.

Many progressives are pro-rent control but anti-zoning control. I think this was a pragmatic stance intended to help renters with fewer resources. Such progressives blind themselves to unintended bad consequences of interference—rent control discourages the building of new housing and the maintenance of existing housing.

As far as I am aware, no one articulated the pro-rent control, pro-zoning control position, even though that is the only position consistently for local control. However, some progressives, forever hostile to private business, expressed skepticism that lifting zoning controls would improve the housing market. Such progressives instead focused on trying to get more government subsidies for affordable housing. My position is that the best way to achieve more-affordable housing for everyone is to free people to use and build housing.

9News tried to nail Jared Polis on another point of seeming hypocrisy, something that Senators Rachel Zenzinger and Barbara Kirkmeyer also picked up on. Basically, Polis once favored local control when it comes to oil and gas regulations but now opposes it when it comes to zoning. I think this is just Polis being pragmatic, favoring local control, or not, depending on whether he thinks it will get him to his favored outcomes. This is comparable to conservatives favoring local control on zoning but not on guns or rent control. If Polis is a hypocrite, then so are those conservatives.

On many issues, I tend to favor state preemption of local control. But that’s not because I always favor state control over local control. It’s because I always favor individual rights.

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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