Housing, Transportation, and the Politics of Path Dependency

Tyler Cowen says he doesn’t take the Metro, even though his home and office are near stations, because there are Metro-inconvenient places in between that he likes to go. Matt Yglesias rightly wonders why libertarians don’t complain more about the zoning requirements of suburbs like Tyler’s Fairfax. This is an excellent question. I’ve been long puzzled by the widespread libertarian preference for state-subsidized roads plus building regulations oriented around cars over state-subsidized trains and buses and building regulations oriented around them. Matt writes:

I don’t really understand why it is that this kind of thing doesn’t seem to bother libertarians very much. Bryan Caplan specifically cites America’s large houses and ample parking spaces as the benefits of our free market approach when they are, in fact, the product of systematic regulatory mandates. I think this illustrates the basic tribalism of a lot of our politics. If Fairfax County were considering some kind of hippie-inspired stringent rent control law, we’d be hearing no end of it from blogging George Mason University professors. But given a set of extremely severe land use regulations that happen to antagonize environmentalist and left-wing Europhilic bicycle commuters, suddenly mandatory minimum parking requirements become the essence of capitalism.

What makes this issue so tricky for me is that the status quo pattern of settlement and transportation certainly does reflect systematic regulatory mandates, but it’s not clear how worthwhile it is to try to back out of this pattern once it has been established — even if those mandates were stupid. The way we live is indeed very much a function of choices made by government some time ago and reinforced by its ongoing decisions to maintain the established system. I think the case for the proposition that many of these choices were big mistakes — that we’d have an overall better pattern of settlement and transportation had government made different choices — is pretty compelling. Yet it remains that whole cities have formed around the suboptimal status quo system and many tens of millions of people have invested in goods like houses and cars taking for granted the structure of the status quo system.

I suspect defenders of greater density and more public transport overstrain themselves trying to make the implausible case that a transition to their favored alternative would cost most everyone less than maintenance of the status quo, despite the fact that almost everyone has already arranged their lives around the current system. I don’t think this kind of path-dependency/status-quo bias/lock-in effect would be insuperable if government would simply stop actively subsidizing people to arrange their lives around the status quo system. It could make people pay directly for using roads; price for congestion; shift incidence of taxes from labor income to carbon use, etc.

But this is hard to do in a democracy, since people tend to want what they’ve got and feel entitled to the subsidies that support the status quo. If people live the way they do because they’re being actively subsidized to live that way, and the government takes the subsidy away, people will feel punished. This sort of thing is why democratic politics (ironically) tends to involve frequent attempts by ideologues to jam policies people don’t want down their throats so that they get something new (like it or not!) and eventually come to want it, since people tend to want what they’ve got. This is what I expect many of the dubious cost-benefit analyses of new train lines, etc. really come to. Pretexts for implementing unpopular and short-run inefficient policies in the hope of reshaping the choices, habits, and preferences of a public unfortunately satisfied with their current crappy mode of living.

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37 thoughts on “Housing, Transportation, and the Politics of Path Dependency

  1. I think there's also two other major factors at play here. One is that zoning is done at a municipal level almost everywhere. This means the US doesn't have one universal zoning policy encouraging houses with big yards, lots of roads and big parking lots, we have a whole bunch of different policies encouraging different things in different places. NYC zoning allows for much higher density in most places than most towns in the suburbs of NYC. So even if making the change was economically and politically viable in the aggregate, it might not be viable in a sufficient quorum of municipalities to matter.Second, there is an issue of who actually benefits from the changes. A change to allow higher density housing for example benefits people who would move into the municipality to take advantage of the cheaper housing. It harms those who already live there in the form of lowered property values / aesthetic values. Or at least they often perceive it to lower those values. The problem is that the only people who get to vote in a municipality are the people who already live there. The potential new residents, who would have most reason to favour this example, don't get to vote for it.

  2. It's fair to say “why don't you libertarians argue against THIS regulation as well?” At which point most libertarians (that I know) would say: “uhm, okay, that's bad too.” So Yglesias wins the argument against that specific libertarian, but the conclusion that there are indeed other dumb regulations that we should do away with still doesn't get him any mass transit systems, because even if we do away with those dumb suburban friendly mandates, suburbs will still exist.

  3. I've never thought of libertarians as supporters of our current land-use zoning and planning process. Nor do I understand why Matt would think that libertarians–or anyone else, for that matter–would be eager to move from a misguided zoning code to a new zoning code produced by the intellectual heirs of the people who gave us the misguided zoning code. Reading a bit of Matt one might conclude that he favors a deregulation of zoning, but one can rest assured that when push comes to shove he will favor a zoning code that produces what he likes, and not what people want.

  4. …one can rest assured that when push comes to shove he will favor a zoning code that produces what he likes, and not what people want.It's pretty obvious that Matt would get what he wants (higher density) without a zoning code that mandates it. Suburban sprawl is a historical anomaly abetted by stupid zoning and cheap/subsidized transportation. In the absence of these things there's no reason to think that the high density that has characterized the vast majority of the history of urban living would not reassert itself. It's not like London, Paris, New York, Tokyo, etc. were developed and sustained by dint of liberal hippy interventionist zoning regulations. Reports of your oppression at the hands of Yglesian thugs are greatly exaggerated.

  5. I'm no fan of zoning or subsidies, but I don't think we can assume that most people prefer to drive cars primarily because government policy and resulting path-dependency have shaped our preferences. It is an indisputable fact that no mode of transport can possibly compete with the personal automobile in terms of personal freedom, mobility, flexibility and choice in both time and space. If we could start with a blank slate, build a transportation infrastructure from scratch, and place all current forms of transport before the public for a vote, I have no doubt most people would chose the automobile as the favored mode of transport. Our current bias in favor of the automobile is primarily the result of consumer choice, reflected by government policy, not the other way around. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe I have read that public transport as a percent of total miles traveled is declining everywhere, even in Europe. The simple fact is, people all over the world love their cars. I don't think transportation “policy” is going to change that fact.

  6. Oddly enough, Matthew Yglesias has been accused by a libertarian of overlooking the effect of regulation on density/sprawl.I both recognize that suburbs are shaped by zoning regulations and enjoy them. I think after repealing them there would still be suburbs, since people have created them whenever they have had the wealth to do so.

  7. I think you meant to say “Matt Yglesisas WRONGLY wonders why libertarians don't complain more about…zoning…”. Libertarians HATE zoning. But zoning isn't news, whereas the Texas rail plan is. That is the long and the short of this non-story.

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  9. Why would anyone still take Bryan Caplan seriously is beyond me. By now it's become abundantly clear that he's a dim-witted ideologue. (I say this as a libertarian, who's fond of Cowen and Hanson.)

  10. Caplan strikes me as very sharp. Saying he's not quite as smart as Cowen or Hanson isn't much of an insult.

  11. I agree wholeheartedly with the comments made by Hayekrules. Cars may be thought of as the technological child of the horse, not merely its replacement. The horse was not just a mode of transportation, it was integral to life, livelihood, and a person's independence. There was a reason they hanged horse thieves. Also, the phrase “don't mess with another man's horse” is still used today. I long ago stopped reading anything written by Matthew Yglesias. I found his work intellectually dishonest, transparently statist, and poorly written. All he offers is noise pollution. Ignore him and maybe he will just go away. If he takes Meghan McCain with him, so much the better

  12. Cowen has said Caplan is one of the most brilliant people he knows, so perhaps you should lower your opinion of Cowen. My own ranking is Hanson > Caplan > Cowen

  13. Perhaps those libertarians just don't see how spending money on the rail boondoggle is going to make the dumb zoning laws go away.Isn't it possible to simply like cars better than trains without it being a “libertarian preference”?

  14. Pingback: Tyler Cowen Does Not Have A Ticket To Ride, But He Don’t Care « Around The Sphere

  15. “I suspect defenders of greater density and more public transport overstrain themselves trying to make the implausible case that a transition to their favored alternative would cost most everyone less than maintenance of the status quo, despite the fact that almost everyone has already arranged their lives around the current system.”Hang on. This is the “you want everyone to move to Manhattan” straw man. Nobody is proposing confiscating your car and tearing up your road. (Unless it's the Sheridan Expressway.)At every juncture a government has little choices to make. Give street parking away for free, or charge market rates, or force developers to build more car parking. Let people drive across a bridge for free or charge a toll. Widen the highway or leave it the size it is.These are all issues where the theoretically-libertarian position lines up with the urbanist position. But there are a lot of Randall O'Tooles out there who instinctively side with the cars-uber-alles position.

  16. Seriously, Will, WTF? How long have you really been puzzled by the widespread libertarian preference for state-subsidized roads plus building regulations oriented around cars? May I introduce you to Will Wilkinson circa November 10, 2008? This Bizarro Will Wilkinson expressed his guilty love of Wal-Mart – contra Roderick Long and Kevin Carson – despite Wal-Mart's comparatively advantageous business model resting entirely upon its supply-chain management, which in turn depends entirely upon… state-subsidized roads.Yes, as you pointed out then, roads are “tax-funded infrastructure everyone uses”, but Wal-Mart uses them better than everyone else; the secret to Wal-Mart lies in its “warehouses on wheels” distribution model. is I don't fault Wal-Mart for taking advantage of the infrastructure already in place to create an ingenious distribution system, but it is highly unlikely this distribution model would be cost-effective were it not for state-subsidized roads.And I'm sure I don't need to remind you that Bob Poole and other Reason Foundation types have been arguing for congestion and toll based pricing models since before I was born, nor that Cato looks favorably upon gas taxes as an alternative to CAFE standards. So why in the world would you grant Yglesias' point instead of correcting him on this? When libertarians call for privatizing the roads, we are labeled a bunch of anarchist loons (a label many of us wear proudly!); when we don't constantly harp on the roads issue, we are accused of being corporatist hacks. Damned if ya do…Incidentally, the summer I worked in D.C., I chose to drive my car to work each day instead of taking the Metro. I parked illegally most days in metered spots without putting coins in the meter (inspired by Gary Becker), amassed a slew of parking tickets (though the total penalty was still less than if I had paid in full each day or used the pay parking lot a few blocks away), received a ticket for driving on the highway during morning rush-hour without a passenger, endured D.C. morning rush-hour, and curtailed my alcohol consumption after work – all to avoid the cattle-car that is public transportation, not to mention the multi-block hike from the Metro station to work while wearing a suit and tie. Cigarettes : Man's mastery over fire :: Cars : Braveheart-ian FREEDOM!

  17. Sometimes fellow libertarians get their best possible plans, against their better judgment. Until peoples' utopian vision of universal private roads is realized, having people pay for the roads they use, via gas taxes and tolls is more fair than using another revenue source. Here in California, we have very high gas taxes, so we get something approaching a “pay for use” policy, a libertarian sensibility dressed up in liberal costume.

  18. I agree that zoning has probably led to sub-optimal land use in the suburbs, but it is hard to believe eliminating zoning would eliminate sprawl, see, e.g. Houston where there are private alternatives to zoning.The subsidies to cars are greatly exagerated and are far lower than any other form of transportation, see, e.g. Randal O'Toole's work on this subject at http://www.cato-at-liberty.org/2007/03/19/ten-b

  19. This whole discussion seems flawed to me because it neglects to consider that zoning regulations are not imposed by bureaucrats of either the crazed left-wing or the corrupt right-wing variety, but are, for the most part, written by rational profit-maximizing entities, to wit, the multiple municipalities of America. These entities seek to maximize net tax revenue, i.e., the excess of additional property tax revenue attributable to new development less the cost of services required by such new development.In general, it isn't clear to me that life would bee very different in a libertarian paradise. As I understand, libertarians don't object to covenants running with the land, including covenants that establish homeowners' associations (or merchants' associations) with power to establish binding rules for properties subject to the covenant regime. If the whole country were blanketed by such associations, the land use rules in effect would be enforced by private civil actions rather than governmental actions, but the actual rules would be about the same as they are now.

  20. Good Lord, a multi-block hike? How do the the mere mortals who obey laws cope with such hardship?An economist would say that you are a free rider: creating laws mandating that one pays for parking is meant to make it easier to find a place to park in exchange for money, and HOV lanes are made to reduce commute times in exchange for reducing the number of cars on the road. You didn't give up the bad thing to get the good thing by taking advantage of lax enforcement.Of course, a normal person would call you a selfish dickhead who hates to be around poor people. These people would be off the mark, because they can't understand the exquisite calculus going into your commute.

  21. Pingback: A Life Best Ordinary: Social Reproduction of the Status Quo « Generation Bubble

  22. Will's argument is just silly. If people tend to prefer the land use and transportation patterns they've already got, how did cars and sprawl become the dominant form of transportation and development in the first place? Why aren't most of us still living in dense urban communities and getting around by public transportation? If laws and government policies relating to transportation and land use are strongly at odds with how most people want to live and get around, how have those laws and policies managed to persist for so long, and in so many places? Sprawl is not an American phenomenon. It's a global phenomenon. It seems to be the more-or-less inevitable outcome when a democracy becomes wealthy enough for mass ownership of private automobiles (and it is not precluded by geography, as in countries like Japan and Singapore).

  23. I don't remember how many blocks it was; I think it was something like a 15 minute walk, but I could be horribly off. This was a few years ago and I'm not used to measuring distances in blocks since I don't normally spend much time in cities, apart from that one summer. I do remember trying the Metro+hike thing for the first week, and quickly learned that arriving at work each summer morning in a suit and tie and dress shoes, drenched in sweat, was not pleasant.I might have felt guilty violating the parking meter laws had the spaces ever been even close to fully occupied, but they never were. I think the most I ever saw was one other car parked on the same block, with 3-4 other spaces remaining empty. An economist would probably say the spots were over-priced since the market never cleared. Strangely, I would feel extremely guilty parking in a handicapped space even if I believed with a high degree of certainty that it wouldn't be used otherwise. And I consider it extremely rude when I see others doing it. For some reason that social norm sticks for me in a way that regular metered parking doesn't. It may have something to do with the fact that I've spent the majority of my life in Atlanta, where parking is ubiquitous and rarely if ever rationed by price. It's rare to ever have to even parallel park, and a lot of people I know forgot how to do it after they passed their drivers' exam.You have a better argument with the HOV lanes, although I didn't even realize there was a law until I got ticketed the first time. Admittedly, after receiving the ticket I continued to break the law, knowingly. Meh, no feelings of guilt. Again, as a counter-example, I do feel guilty driving in a normally marked HOV lane on the left side of the highway as a single passenger, just not when the entire highway turns into an HOV during rush-hour. Maybe if I lived in D.C. for longer the social norm would begin to develop for me?I don't feel guilty free riding unless I'm actively depriving someone of something they would have gotten otherwise. For example, I use Wikipedia all the time but have never contributed. (I suppose I'm using up some bandwidth.) And I illegally pirate music and movies that I wasn't planning on buying anyway. I still pay to go see movies in the theater on occasion, and purchase the rare concert ticket or album if I appreciate the band.I can understand the selfish dickhead part, I suppose, but not so much the “hates to be around poor people part.” Of all the people entering D.C. each morning on either the Metro or the highway, I suspect that summer interns are in the lowest income brackets as individuals, and my family was in a lower income bracket than most of the other interns I met. I don't recall seeing very many poor people on the Metro in the morning; most were dressed in suits, carrying iPods, and looking all policy wonkish.Despite your snark, you did make me realize how much the laws and social norms differ from state to state, so thanks for that. And I suppose urban density and city vs. suburb living has a lot to with the establishment of different social norms as well. For example, I remember noticing that in D.C., pedestrians are much more likely to observe the crosswalk signals even when no cars are coming, whereas in Atlanta, pedestrians pretty much ignore the signals at their convenience and jaywalk wherever they please.

  24. Yes, and Will misses this. A car involves more freedom for an individual.It does involve more responsibility (car payment, insurance, gas, etc.), but it allows you to go so many more places than public transport. I say this as a non-car owner and heavy user of public transportation.Until we have teleportation technology, that will always be the case.

  25. Two obvious and related hypothesis about the “libertarian preference” question.First, and more meaningfully, cars provide much more individual liberty than trains and busses. You can take a car anywhere you want, whenever you want (or close enough as makes no difference).With a bus or train, especially state-run ones, you go where the State wants to let you go, when it wants to let you go there.The libertarian appeal of the former is obvious, no?Secondly, I think it's more that given that we already have both subsidized roads and subsidized mass transit, most people focus on the “greater evil” both in terms of state control and in terms of expense (after all, if it was free and nobody was being oppressed by taxation to promote it, it would be far less of a libertarian evil!).That and arguing for road privatization is a lot harder to manage – too many people reflexively assume it's just impossible to have private roads of any amount and quality; the rewards to arguing against them are lower per amount of effort than arguing against subsidized rail boondoggles, where the costs and failings are more obvious.I've certainly seen academic libertarian arguments against road subsidies as well as rail and bus subsidies.

  26. As for the crosswalks, that's probably because of diplomats who can run over people with impunity. You have to watch out for those stupid foreigners even when you are in the right.

  27. “With a bus or train, especially state-run ones, you go where the State wants to let you go, when it wants to let you go there.”That was well put.

  28. Where is this libertarian consensus that state-subsidized roads and suburban zoning is a good? I am not familiar with Caplan's thoughts on this, but my subjective experience is that a libertarian who feels this way is in the minority in his camp.Given the false choice between state roads and state rail, I can see why a pragmatic libertarian would choose the more governmentally decentralized option of roads and zoning. That, at least, provides for a lower cost “right of exit” to which Kling was referring.

  29. Pingback: Path dependence, libertarianism, and HSR « city block

  30. Quite a few people do travel between Dallas and Houston, and not necessarily to travel elsewhere. If that were the case, Southwest would have never taken off.

  31. Southwest's business is built on cheap multi-hop flights. Probably 50% of Southwest passengers arriving at DAL or HOU are through-passengers headed somewhere else. Probably 90% of the remainder needs a car upon arrival to get to their (non-downtown) destination. That leaves about 5% of the original set of passengers who might benefit from downtown-to-downtown rail service.

  32. Who said it?'We need only turn to the problems which arise in connection with land, particularly with regard to urban land in modern large towns, in order to realize that a conception of property which is based on the assumption that the use of a particular item of property affects only the interests of its owner breaks down. There can be no doubt that a good many, at least, of the problems with which the modern town planner is concerned are genuine problems with which governments or local authorities are bound to concern themselves. Unless we can provide some guidance in fields like this about what are legitimate or necessary government activities and what are its limits, we must not complain if our views are not taken seriously when we oppose other kinds of less justified “planning.”'

  33. Who said it?'We need only turn to the problems which arise in connection with land, particularly with regard to urban land in modern large towns, in order to realize that a conception of property which is based on the assumption that the use of a particular item of property affects only the interests of its owner breaks down. There can be no doubt that a good many, at least, of the problems with which the modern town planner is concerned are genuine problems with which governments or local authorities are bound to concern themselves. Unless we can provide some guidance in fields like this about what are legitimate or necessary government activities and what are its limits, we must not complain if our views are not taken seriously when we oppose other kinds of less justified “planning.”'

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