Friday, November 16, 2012


When Republicans and libertarians (yes I know they are the same people) spend time bemoaning the "loss of freedom," I really wish they would spend more time complaining about bullshit like this. As Matt Yglesias frequently explains, NIMBYism is the real threat to entrepreneurship and capitalism in this country. And unfortunately, Republicans are just as guilty of NIMBYism as Democrats. Democrats usually express their NIMBYism in environmental terms while Republicans are more interested in protected vested, established industries or minimizing private nuisance through wealth. Trust me, you'll find a lot more Republicans in those ridiculously micro-managed gated communities than you'll find Democrats. Maybe Republicans aren't as freedom-loving as they suppose.

Persistent NIMBYism is why you get counties, towns and zoning boards micromanaging American business development. I see it at work all of the time and it really has to stop. When people express broad complaints about federal "over-regulation", what they are really expressing, without actually knowing it, is opposition to obscure requirements on sign frontage, curb cutouts and heights, stylistic preferences, that have local, not federal, origins. And the regulations can be insanely mundane and arbitrary (commenters are encouraged to link to their own examples in the reply thread). Towns and zoning boards are happy to tell prospective business what they can and cannot open, even going as far as picking preferences within industry groups (Burger King yes, McDonalds, no. Target yes, Walmart no). But the people who complain about burdensome regulations are still the very first people at Town board hearing complaining about traffic, or noise, or the height of hedgerows. It's regulation for me but not for thee.

These are the real barriers of entry in American business. And they are not caused by the "federal government" or Barack Hussein Obama. They are caused by the peccadillos of our loudest and most vocal neighbors and family members. People really need to understand that the role of government is not to protect them from every real and imagined slight. This might sound funny coming from someone who isn't outraged by Michael Bloomberg banning large sodas (I'd prefer "sin taxes" personally), but I do believe our elected officials must begin to show a willingness to stand up to the loud, vocal minority that wishes to shape his town, county, and state in his/her own perfect image. Trust me. Try to open a business one day. I know I would like to. But the people who make you jump through the most hoops are not the big bad "socialists" Obama, Reid, and Pelosi. It's your local friends and neighbors who don't want you to open a lakefront restaurant because it will attract "undesirables", create more traffic, block public views, and force Canadian geese to relocate to an adjacent frontage. It will also reduce their taxes, increase recreational options, improve lakeside access, employ new workers, drive up local wages, and increase destination shopping, but people just don't incorporate those benefits into their personal evaluation.

Believe me, I think there is a role for prudent and wise municipal planning. But I think we get carried away with the notion. Speaking for my local community, we have pushed too far on the "over-planning" end of the spectrum. I, like all good social engineers [lol], believe people need to be nudged in the policy directions we prefer - towards sustainable development, improved mass transit, healthy lifestyles, etc. The tax code, cultural norms and shaming are all ways to nudge individual behaviors in social optimal directions. Heavy-handed regulation, on the other hand, really does impose heavy costs on individual liberty and freedom. They need to be avoided when we have other valuable, less authoritarian tools to shape public behavior.

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