Saturday, September 1, 2012

Urban Libertarians

This comment thread go me thinking about something that's been bouncing around my head for a while now. Living in a city or a suburb puts severe limitations on what it means to own a house. (the case is even more extreme with condos but I don't really consider that ownership. Those are just apartments with mortgages.) Between HOAs and city ordinances, you have remarkably little freedom to do what you want with your own property.

That's just the start. Life in the city is constrained by a dense array of rules, because

1. Even as a homeowner, you spend a great deal of time in property you don't own;

2.  Cities encourage specialization and a correspondingly high degree of interdependence;

3. It takes a lot of rules to allow this many people to live in this close a quarters;

4. If my freedom to move my arm stops at the closest person's nose, crowds have to severely limit my freedom.

I'm a city dweller, but if I gave into my libertarian tendencies, the only place I could stand living is back in the country. I'd get a place in the lower Ozarks off highway 7 at the end of a dirt road where a man can do what he damned well pleases. I'm not planning on moving any time soon but there are times the notion hits me (besides, it bothers me that I've forgotten that distinct smell of a dirt road).

Which is why libertarian urbanists like Edward Glaeser confuse me so. If the really value liberty so highly, why do they embrace the most rule dependent of lifestyles?


  1. Last I heard, Glaeser lives in a leafy suburb, not in the city.

    1. Not sure what to make of that. Suburbs (leafy or not) are primarily a product of cars, mortgage deductions and the American fondness for detached, single family dwellings. All things that Glaeser has passionately objected to. Joseph has kept up with this debate more closely than I have so he may be able to point out a subtlety I missed.

      Still, there seems to me to a fundamental tension between urban living and libertarianism. I can understand the arguments for both but I can't reconcile them.

    2. Agreed. Home owners associations, in my experience, are more prevalent in the suburbs. They begin with the idea that they are a way to ensure that a single bad actor does not lower property values for the entire neighborhood. But they can end up doing the reverse -- I would be highly reluctant to purchase a property with a HOA.

      I think urban living is a compromise for efficiency but all of us live in ways that make interdependence necessary. Noah Smith had some great thoughts on why transaction costs make the Ayn Rand model of libertarianism (you pay for everything) difficult to implement.

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