Saturday, April 8, 2017

How to not be a jerk: local politics and allowing people to build what they want


If you try to learn about ethical decision-making, likely one of the first thought experiments you'll hear is the trolley problem. This gets at one of the most basic difficulties of working out morality: should you do whatever produces the greatest good, or should you instead focus on not infringing on others' rights/well-being? Or something in between, and if so, where is the line?

Likewise, in politics, perhaps the most basic dividing issue between "right versus left" is similar to the trolley problem. Should the government mainly protect liberty/property and otherwise leave people alone? Or regulate/redistribute wherever it thinks it can improve the outcome? IMO you should always have a good deal of uncertainty on how to balance those conflicting principles.

But what if the government was intervening in the free market to redistribute resources from the poor to the rich and making people as a whole worse off? We should feel extremely confident in opposing that no matter where we are on the political spectrum, right? These should be the issues we are the most confident in, and therefore opposing policies like that should be among our highest priorities. There's no difficult conflict between opposing moral intuitions to resolve. You just have to not be a jerk.


Wealthier people tend to prefer not to live around a bunch of poorer people. And city governments also prefer to have wealthier over poorer people. When your city is wealthier, there will likely be less crime, more tax revenue for schools, etc. You can't really fault people/cities for that preference. But you can fault people for trying to pass laws to enforce their personal preferences at the cost of the greater good and basic freedoms, right?

What if a city prohibited people under a certain income from moving there? I assume everyone can agree that'd be a very bad law.

What if a city passed a law redistributing money from the poor to the rich in that city, so that less poor people would choose to live there? Wrong for the same reason. Obvious, right?

What if a city just had a very high tax rate purely for the purpose of pricing out non-wealthy people? Also clearly wrong.

What if a city heavily intervened in the free market with regulations to artificially raise the cost of living as a way to price out poorer people, and even admitted that was the goal of the regulations? If they did this by, say, putting a bunch of regulations on grocery stores and restaurants to drastically raise the cost of food, surely everyone would agree that'd be an indefensible law.

What if a city did the above, but with the housing market instead of with food?


Plano will hold a mayoral election soon. Our current mayor, Harry LaRosiliere, is running for re-election. He has two opponents that were at least serious enough to make a campaign website, and both of them seem to primarily be running on the issue of opposing apartments. Douglas Reeves has signs throughout the city that literally say "NO MORE APARTMENTS". Lily Bao, in her website's first part on what she would do as mayor, says "Maintain Our Suburban Way of Life! People move to Plano because they appreciate a suburban lifestyle. That is, single-family houses...".

It's not like people are currently being forced to build or rent apartments against their will. People are freely choosing to build apartments on their own land, and renting them out at a price agreed upon by the owner and renter. That is just the free market supplying what people demand. Those who "oppose apartments" are wanting Big Government to stop people from doing what they want with their own money/property because they want to artificially create sprawl and increase housing costs. Ask them why, and you are bound to hear a version of what I said in the previous section. And just between you and me, I bet a secret motive is sometimes a desire for more racial segregation.

And this basic issue is a big part of local politics all over the country. A co-worker told me that his city used to require an acre lot for every house. Later there was a proposal to simply allow people to build houses with "only" a half-acre lot, and this was controversial. Variations of this happen everywhere, which in effect means there's not much of a free market in housing, but rather a whole bunch of laws everywhere with the government artificially increasing the cost of housing and effectively redistributing from the poor to the rich. Supposedly our country is split between two political ideologies of "free markets" versus "help the poor", but if very many people really cared about either of those, this wouldn't be happening.


This is obviously a negative sum game and a good example of an iterated Prisoner's dilemma.

Suppose city X forcibly raises its cost of living more than nearby city Y, and as a side-effect, causes some criminals who would have lived in city X to instead live and commit crimes in city Y. Yay! Of course, overall crime has not been reduced, just moved. And if society sees this as an acceptable thing for a city government to do, then city Y will also want to raise their cost of living to move those people back to city X. Cost of living continually increases everywhere, meaning more people fall into desperate financial situations, and more people will end up becoming criminals overall. So the end result for America is everyone is poorer and crime is higher.

Clearly, we'd be much better off if this was not viewed as an acceptable way to use government power. So... please stop viewing it that way?

Mind your own business.

PS. If you're interested in this topic, I suggest the book "The Rent Is Too Damn High: What To Do About It, And Why It Matters More Than You Think".