Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Sprawling Misconceptions

Cross-posted from @TAC.

James Howard Kunstler doesn’t think highly of libertarian newsman John Stossel. Assuming this is what Kunstler is talking about (see No. 2), you can’t blame him. Stossel defends suburban sprawl and accuses its opponents — like Kunstler — of forcing lifestyle choices onto others “by limiting where they can build.” The fallacy of this view has been pointed out about 100 times. For the 101st time: sprawl — an umbrella term for the pattern of development seen virtually everywhere in the United States — is not caused by the free market. It is, rather, mandated by a vast and seemingly intractable network of government regulations, from zoning laws and building codes to street design regulations. If Stossel wants to expand Americans’ lifestyle choices, he should attack the very thing he was defending, namely, suburban sprawl.

It’s odd that self-described libertarians such as Stossel are so slow to grasp that government planning makes sprawl ubiquitous. You would think that libertarians would instinctively grasp the deeply statist nature of suburban development. First of all, with a depressingly few exceptions, virtually every town in America looks the same. That is, it has the same landscape of arterial roads, strip malls, and residential subdivisions, accessibly only by car. Surely, given America’s celebrated diversity, you would also see a diversity of places. As it turns out, all but a few people live the same suburban lifestyle. Government, as libertarian assumptions would predict, is the culprit.

Second, the few places in America that have a distinctive character are also exceedingly expensive. John Stossel himself admits to living in an apartment and walking to work most days. Now, I don’t know where exactly Mr. Stossel lives, but it sounds as if he lives in Manhattan, where residential space costs over $1000 a square foot (that means a two-bedroom apartment where a family of four could fit costs at least $1.5 million). If Mr. Stossel’s lifestyle, as he puts it, is less popular than the suburban lifestyle, then why does his cost so much more? He apparently never asks himself the question. Had he done so, he might have discovered that government artificially restricts the supply of Manhattan-like places but artificially increases the supply of sprawl. That’s the reason Americans “prefer” to live in the suburbs. They don’t have a choice.


  1. I find this to be very interesting...can you direct me to further reading, I am curious about the way in which government possibility made sprawl ubiquitious. Is it a function of the interstate highway system? What other policies contributed to it?

  2. nathan:

    Although you asked this question almost two years ago, let me recommend this:

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