Utah’s sixth-largest city of Orem is currently torn between residents who want to zone for more high-density housing served by heavily-subsidized mass-transit, on one figurative hand, and residents who want to zone for more single-family housing, on the other figurative hand. But, amidst this controversy, one view that’s not being considered yet is abolishing zoning entirely. This is understandable because zoning has become so ubiquitous in these United States that few Americans ever question it anymore—but we should question it for reasons that I’m about to explain as best as I can…

PRINCIPLES

Let’s start by elaborating upon some relevant fundamental underlying principles. Although I respect that others believe differently, I believe that every person was created by a loving Heavenly Father, not as a puppet or an automaton or a serf, but as His beloved child, each with free will (including moral agency)—and that our mutual Creator wants us to remain free, not only from bondage to sin but also from tyranny/slavery, as we should likewise want for each other. Even those who reject religion still generally understand the value of living as free people in a free society.

Over centuries, both clerics and philosophers have tried to clarify what it means for us to live freely, and I think that some like America’s Founders have succeeded rather well. As they and countless others in their libertarian/Constitutionalist tradition have wisely understood, each person has the same equal God-given (or natural) rights, of which the most basic rights (from which all others derive) include rights over our respective bodies, over the fruits of our respective labors, over our respective children as they mature, to contract with others, and to defend against others’ aggression.

Through exercising those latter two rights together, we may justly contract with others to assist us in defending ourselves, whether concerned neighbors or hired bodyguards or even chartered professional political organizations. Our public officers have no authority to act beyond what we can contractually delegate to them—they can justly assist us with defense within the limits of our contract with them, but they can not justly aggress against us, even with majority support. Gang rape, for example, is perfectly democratic—but it’s also criminally-sinful in its nature, regardless of its legality.

Democratically controlling the marketplace is likewise wrong. Markets should remain genuinely free, in accordance with our individual God-given rights to both property and contract. Having a right to our property (including our land) means having authority to determine its use, within the limits of the equal rights of others. Whenever politicians usurp authority to dictate how someone else’s land is to be used, whether in whole or in part, they are essentially stealing that land, which violates not only God-given rights but also Constitutional law, including required due-process-of-law.

Even if it were legalized, plunder is still theft/robbery, and we should never steal. Stealing is criminally-sinful, and politicians should not perpetrate it but prosecute it. Respecting property rights also helps us to maintain the liberty that is rightfully ours. As John Adams asserted, “Property must be secured, or liberty cannot exist.” And, as President David O. McKay similarly stated, “We must recognize that property rights are essential to human liberty.” So, if we are to enjoy our rightful liberty, then we must reject infringements upon our property rights. Which means ending zoning.

PROBLEMS

Zoning ordinances divide land into various zones, each with a set of regulations that dictate the form-and-function of any buildings thereon. This subjugates people’s land to politicians’ edicts, perverting the role of our municipal officers to resemble that of feudal lords who decree how we peasants will use their lands. And, the more time that our politicians spend trying to decide whether-or-not to allow us to exercise our rights, which can take a considerable amount of their valuable time, the less time remains for them to spend focusing on their primary duty of thwarting genuine crimes.

State-run economies (including in land use) are not only wrong in principle but also counterproductive in practice, as decades of Soviet central planners proved so readily. Whenever the state subjugates the economy and compels it to behave differently than it would if it were free, the differences are almost invariably detrimental. So, the plans of the few are interior to the plans of the many. As Ronald Reagan accurately noticed, “Millions of individuals making their own decisions in the marketplace will always allocate resources better than any centralized government planning process.”

So, zoning de-optimizes economies in general—and, to be more specific, zoning imposes false “order” and/or aesthetics over people’s genuine needs, curbs competition, curtails needed development, reduces housing supplies, raises housing costs, wastes developers’ time on needless paperwork, impedes local entrepreneurship to escape poverty, disfavors new/small businesses, stifles innovation, slows progress, increases car traffic and its air-pollution, lowers overall standards-of-living, excludes “undesirables,” contributes to homelessness, and discourages social connectedness, among other ills.

Zoning, by rendering housing needlessly expensive, has incentivized Americans to forgo owning land in order to reside in apartments. KGB defector Yuri Bezmenov called such “delandization” the greatest threat to American liberty because Soviet subverters learned long ago that renters were psychologically much likelier than landowners to embrace socialism. And this is why American socialists have sought to needlessly urbanize small-town America through high-density housing alongside public mass-transit, for which they have found zoning ordinances a valuable socialistic tool.

EXCUSES

So, zoning violates individual rights, defies Constitutional law, de-optimizes economies, and fosters socialism—and, with so many reasons to oppose it, why would anyone (other than socialists) support it? Zoning’s supporters claim that it replaces chaos with order such that it improves the economy’s efficiency, residents’ health, buildings’ aesthetics, etc—but these claims are easily dis-proven; in fact, every one of these alleged benefits is provided better through genuinely-free markets, which facilitate innovation that increases efficiency, effectiveness, and customization.

Another appeal of zoning is that it can allegedly preserve the character of neighborhoods indefinitely. But non-zoned cities like Houston have proven that zoning isn’t necessary to achieve this goal—in fact, people generally preserve neighborhoods better through both persuasion and cooperation, which may include restrictive covenants, than they would by abjectly surrendering authority over their lands to local politicians, whose land-use visions might align less with either landowners’ priorities or even the general welfare than contrary special interests, including harmful ideologies.

A more persuasive argument for zoning is that it keeps property values high; however, this is simply another way of saying that zoning keeps housing needlessly expensive. Zoning could potentially help a shack to cost a million dollars, which could be great if you’re selling it—except that few people in their right minds would want to buy a home so overpriced. Zoning is partly why heavily-zoned Los Angeles now endures insane housing costs (which is partly why its middle class is fleeing it in droves), while non-zoned Houston enjoys some of America’s most affordable housing.

Perhaps the strongest rationale for zoning is that it prevents misplaced land-use, like a hog farm within a residential neighborhood. But such fears are imagined far more frequently than they are ever realized. Entrepreneurs naturally seek to operate in optimal locations—like how storekeepers favor main streets over back alleys. Non-zoning allows rare quirks, like a sea of single-family homes surrounding a lone high-rise or a convenient “mom-and-pop” mini-mart—but such exceptions exist even in heavily-zoned cities, and (as previously noted) zoning is counterproductive at optimizing economies.

CONCLUSION

So, in conclusion, zoning yields results that are either mixed or ineffective if not counterproductive. And, in my experience, this is true anytime one tries to use the wrong means to achieve the right ends, including by exercising state power for purposes beyond rights-defense. Municipal governments are publicly-accountable deliberative coercive organizations, with a proper role to fulfill in society—but this role is to help people to defend their rights, not to usurp those rights and to dictate their exercise. Similarly, hammers are great tools, but they’re not the best tool for every task.

Questions about land usage are best answered not in the voting-booth but in the marketplace, just like questions about car production. The private sector will almost invariably outperform the public sector at making matching supply with demand, so there’s no purpose in empowering politicians to centrally-plan car production quotas except to override consumer interests with political interests—like perhaps to ban all cars except minivans, whether to encourage children, or to eliminate cheap “eyesores” from the road. But why force people to buy things that aren’t necessarily right for them?

And these are some of the many reasons why we should abolish zoning. De-zoning is especially needed during the 2020s as Americans endure a housing “crisis” of skyrocketing housing costs that are driving home-buyers toward high-density housing. Un-zoned housing markets will allow cheaper, better housing options, which will render single-family homes more affordable. And they’ll also allow people to more-easily obtain homes that will best serve their needs/wants, whether huge mansions, mid-sized cottages, tiny homes, townhouses, condos, apartments, Dymaxion homes, or something else.

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Further reading suggested by the author

 

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2 Responses

  1. “Zoning’s supporters claim that it replaces chaos with order” – I’m always amused by the fear of liberty and the demand for “order” – which so much resembles the evil Empire in Star Wars. Where enslavement and dictatorship and no choice in anything is “order.”

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