They [municipal planners] are all in the same stage of elaborately learned superstition as medical science was early in the last century. … As in the pseudoscience of blood-letting, just so in the pseudoscience of city rebuilding and planning, years of learning and a plethora of subtle dogma have arisen on a foundation of nonsense. – Jane Jacobs
Opposition to the vision of the anointed is due not to a different reading of complex and inconclusive evidence, but exists because opponents are lacking, either intellectually or morally, or both. – Thomas Sowell
The stimulus. Industry nationalizations. Obamacare. What else will progressives do with power? Sure, cap and trade is a threat. But don’t miss the forest for the trees. Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, there may be some really creepy stuff going on in your neighborhood.
It’s easy to get distracted by big, national issues, but progressives have thoroughly infested municipal governments. Local policies are threatening your life, liberty and property just as much as the policies of Pelosi, Reid and Obama.
Recently, I moved to Austin, Texas. It’s a very cool city, don’t get me wrong. But it got me thinking a bit. The city is also on the cusp of becoming a hub for the kind of petty fascism (yes, I used the F-word) that has already infected many cities and threatens surely to spread to your town.
Here’s how they do it:
1. Planners have already drawn up schemes that restrict your property rights, sap your resources, and curb organic growth. These schemes are hatched behind closed doors with nebulous factions referred to as “stakeholders” and “consultants.” You are probably blissfully ignorant at this stage.
2. One day they announce they want to “include” you in the planning process ex post by giving you “options” from among a few schemes all of which will require varying degrees of zoning restrictions. (Each dot on the maps represents a new local tyranny.) In other words, they are sketches for a rent-seeker’s paradise that only progressive elites could dream up. But you’ll pay for the grand designs. So, do you want the red pill, the blue pill, or the black pill? (There is no “no pill” option.)
3. Then they’ll hold a few citizen meetings purportedly designed to gather “input”. It’s local democracy’s dog and pony show, dominated by smart growth activists. But the policies are foregone conclusions. Still, they can always claim it’s what the “community wanted,” because they held these public meetings somebody voted them in. In reality, however, these events are self-congratulatory tent revivals for petty control freaks. They’ll be happy to slice and dice the city according to their plans with no regard for ones property rights or rights to free exchange — then give you all the credit for letting them.
4. As special interest groups “stakeholders” (builders, green architects, civil engineers) collude with city planners for gain. Your resources, freedoms and property slowly start to dissipate as the plan gets implemented. You may decide – like the frog – to jump out of the pot. That is, you may vote with your feet like people from California and New York are doing (Hint: they’re moving to Texas, bringing with them all the curious notions which caused them to leave in the first place. But I digress). Or, you may simmer till your liberties are gone. The third option is to fight back, of course. But know that it’ll be an uphill battle against Bootleggers and Baptists coalitions.
Now, each of the so-called planning options over which you have virtually no control feature the convoluted and often contradictory “visions” of city overlords.
Livable — A melange of things people want subsidized, from local foods to bike trails.
Natural and Sustainable — Green energy mandates, environmental restrictions and artificial scarcity that make life (especially housing) less affordable, especially for the poor.
Mobile and Connected — Newspeak for discouraging cars and building light rail lines that make rail contracters rich and taxpayers poor.
Prosperous – Newspeak for top-down industrial policy.
Values and Respects its People – Wealth redistribution, especially for groups.
Creative – Subsidizing rich people to go to the ballet. Paying artists to create art few people will see. Justify boondoggles and other freebies to draw the “creative class.”
Educated – Nourish the propaganda centers with public resources to allow people more easily to embrace all the social engineering.
All this newspeak is a means of putting an idealistic veneer over highly illiberal policies. On the outside, this stuff may seem like petty fascism. But these policies connect to much bigger plans carried out incrementally at all levels of government. But let me not get ahead of myself.
Here’s the horror movie version of the “Imagine Austin” plan. Let’s see how many shades of Orwell you can find:
Perhaps you found a number of terms Michael Sanera lists in his excellent “Planner’s Glossary.” Consider:
Affordable housing – An extortion scheme to force homebuilders to sell their houses at below market prices.
Community – Depending upon the use, (a) a narrow set of citizens, special-interest groups, and city planners, (b) only city planners, or (c) a vision based in nostalgia.
Compact development – Congested, crowed housing conditions.
Density bonus system (also incentive system) – Legal extortion schemes operated by the city to secure funds from homebuyers to pay for politically determined (rather than market determined) “amenities.”
Fine-grained control – Detailed, area-specific control of private property by planners.
Form-based code – A way to give planners control over not only the use, but also the visual aesthetics of a building as well.
Growth – City development the satifies to the whims of planners and special interests.
Mixed use – A combination of commercial, residential and other uses [planned] in the same area.
Open space – A requirement that home-builders provide more land than home-buyers desire.
Public realm – Anything that can be seen from a street.
Stakeholders – Special-interest groups consulted in the development of land-use plans and regulations.
Subdivisions – The revealed consumer preferences in neighborhoods, which planners dislike intensely.
Sustainability – Absurd idea that without government planning, builders would create developments that fail to meet people’s needs.
Walkability (also bikeability) – Designed to discourage driving.
Consider also that Sanera’s list is derived from terminology found in a similar plan for Raleigh, NC. In other words, Austin is in no sense an outlier.
Let’s linger on the term “sustainability” for a minute. Sanera says a real definition might be:
Meeting the needs of the present and future generations by using privatized resources based on incentives produced by a fully functioning price system.
But for progressives, sustainability is a cluster-concept that, while mostly vacuous, imbues much of their thinking. It has nothing to do with prices, innovation and resource substitution. It is premised on crude Malthusianism. I agree with Sanera that sustainability is an “absurd idea that without government planning, builders would create developments that fail to meet people’s needs.” But I’d add that it’s also a willingness, where necessary, to ignore people’s needs–not to mention their rights and liberties.
Consider that “affordable housing” ordinances exist as an epicycle of planning. Planners’ policies make housing less affordable, so they have to patch up the perverse effect with another planning bandaid. From zoning restrictions to urban growth boundaries, when the government restricts its supply, the price goes up of course. So the subsequent “extortion scheme” is necessary after the fact.
Wealth redistribution and environmental concerns usually work hand-in-hand towards an incremental takeover by greens, socialists and watermelons. These factions may not always get along with one another. But right now, the relationship is very close because it’s one of convenience. The private sector gets used as a kind of tool. For once these policies are in place, the special interests become parasitic on them. Eventually, the private sector will become indistinguishable from the public sector, as companies increasingly have to play the rent-seeking game to stay solvent. Public and private have already hybridized in many respects out of political expedience. (We call this “corporate welfare” and “crony capitalism.” They call it “public-private partnerships” and “stakeholder inclusion.”) Ironically it’s all being carried out in the name of sustainability by people who purport to hate corporations.
And thus the corporate state evolves.
Someone recently invited me to notice the eerie similarities between Austin’s master plans and the U.N.’s Agenda 21. Consider some of the goals of this agenda:
- “Changing consumption patterns” (Controlling what you can and can’t buy through various means.)
- “Demographic Dynamics and Sustainability” (Controlling where and how people live.)
- “Strengthening the Role of Workers and Their Trade Unions” (Capturing the teamsters.)
- “Promoting Education, Public Awareness & Training” (Taxpayer funded propaganda.)
- “Financial Resources and Mechanisms” (Taxation and redistribute.)
This is just a smattering of titles. See for yourself. These unelected UN functionaries even go into how local governments should “implement” such illiberal policies. Indeed, compare Agenda 21 with this and you too may also find significant parallels.
I used to think worrying about such things was a bit like donning the tinfoil hat. But the more I open my eyes to what’s going on in my town, the more I begin to see that these people don’t need a conspiracy to gain control. They need a perverted worldview, a complicit education system and the blind acquiescence of people like you and me. The rest works like the jaws of a vice grip — from above (global and federal), and from below (state and local). Chomp. Now they’ve got you.
Wherever you live, petty fascism is probably winding its way through your town council as we speak. But at least at the local level, you have more power than you do at the state or federal level. So let’s not always be so distracted by national issues. And let’s start looking at what’s going on in our own neck of the woods–lest we lose freedom to planners with Utopian bees in their bonnets.
Tea party on! And don’t forget to party hard, locally.
Max Borders is a writer living in Austin, TX. He blogs at Ideas Matter and maxborders.com.