Thursday, October 21, 2004

Individual planning vs. central planning

One of the perils of publishing my opinion as a libertarian is that I run the risk of offending people when I make blanket comments like "I condemn urban planning." And that is my fault -- I should be a little more careful about how I write.

I do NOT actually condemn planners or planning -- much the contrary in fact -- but I do have a problem with what is contemporarily refered to as urban planning because it has statist connotations. Whether we live in a capitalist system or a statist one, people usually plan their spatial decisions to maximize a desired outcome, and in a complex specialized society it is of great benefit to have people who are specifically trained to analyze those spatial problems and make those spatial decisions.

However, I don't think those planners need to be hired by the government. Businesses or groups of freely associated people also benefit from doing their own planning -- and in fact they do. Spatial allocation of resources and activities is already something that they concern themselves with and hire planners for. They do this to maximize profit usually, or to minimize impacts to their surrounding environment, or a number of other reasons. These reasons are not always sound ones, but considering the fact that their own benefit is the desired outcome, they can usually be trusted to come up with the best possible solution to their spatial problems given the expertise of their planners (and if they want to maximize their benefit, they will look for the best planners). When the government is in charge of planning, many other purposes for planning may creep into the decision making process and these criteria may be of an arbitrary nature as far as the idea of "best" allocation -- these other purposes are political, such as a ward councillor who has a pet project or who wants to court the vote of activists who want to minimize the rights to property that they DON'T EVEN OWN to advance their own agenda.

That said, I don't think that planning in London is all that terrible when it comes down to roads and sewers. It could be better, I suppose, but it seems that the problem is often one of allocating budget resources. It is not a high priority of mine to get government out of the business of making roads and sewers, but maybe it should be because I think businesses or people who need improvements to maximize their profits would find ways to make those improvements when they are needed or would face the consequences of reduced viability. And that would not cost the taxpayer, who may or may not benefit themselves from those improvements.

This post is very much in response to a comment left about the original post in which I complained about the central planning made by government-hired urban planners -- "The reason London and environs are such a toilet is the fact that there is no planning." Individuals and businesses do not practice planning when it comes to roads and services BECAUSE they can get the taxpayers to do it for them. If that wasn't the case, don't you think that businesses in the city would do something to maximize accessibility to their sites for the customers without whom they would not make a profit?

Why is the city in a budget crunch? I can't really imagine that it is the cost of running roads and sewers -- if that was all the city concerned itself with, I imagine we could have the most amazing road network AND lower taxes AND no deficits. But the city spends tax dollars freely on megaprojects and cultural subsidies and public expenditures. (That is why we at the London Fog so frequently wail about the John Labatt Centre.) Big projects, culture, etc., are not inherently bad themselves, but they do not need to provided by the municipal government -- in fact they should not be because central planning by the government has no means to ascertain the economic reasons for doing so but only political ones. Private businesses can feel free to take risks to provide these services if they feel they can make a profit doing so -- noone's capital is at risk but theirs if it is not a wise economic decision. But they will make a profit if they do it well AND people freely choose to avail themselves of these services -- supply and demand. If we must subsidize Orchestra London every year, then maybe most Londoners do not really support it -- and if they do, then the venture can be paid for by those people who do support it. I myself have not been to the Orchestra since I was a little kid, yet I must support it whether I like it or not. Nor have I ever been to the JLC. And we subsidize the Convention Centre every year, the Grand Theatre, the Library, the University and Fanshawe College, and many more things I am probably unaware of. These are not essential services for the entire population, and should be paid for by those people who want it.

I must thank the commenter for making his comment. This problem is very interesting to me as I study spatial allocation problems and decision making (with GIS and remote sensing). If the city did not engage in this kind of planning, I am sure that individuals would because they want and need these services -- it might be chaotic, but there is nothing wrong with chaos because there is an underlying order of individuals making decisions to maximize their benefit -- and as an added benefit to those people who like to think about "society," these decisions are always made in the context of other people's planning in this complex urban environment.

1 Comment:

Dick said...

Thank you for your kind words, however I think we fundamentally disagree on too many issues to develop any sort of consensus. The problem with whole heartedly embracing public choice theory is that one loses all perspective concerning the 'public good'.

In an ideal world, those in the 'spatial allocation' business would be mindful of social and environmental factors when making economic decisions. The real world is not as kind. Embracing public choice theory legitimizes and even promotes decisions based entirely on profit - which is rather scary when placed in a planning context. Eliminating the checks and balances provided by 'statist' planning advice would be foolhardy.

While I understand the libertarian perspective on government... we as a society have chosen to establish a governing framework which protects property rights and promotes the public good as established by the public every three years at the ballot box.

Assuming that planning is a noble trade above scruple is very naive. If developers want to maximize their profit, they will indeed turn to the 'best' planners in a deregulated environment. These best planners will be those which most efficiently maximize land value for the proponent at the expense of adjacent property owners and community standards. Profitability is the only test after all. I have worked both sides of the counter and I'm now a public servant for a reason.

'Statist' planning flies in the face of everything libertarian for the simple reason that it provides a basic public good which requires long-term thinking that sometimes flies in the face of short-term wants. It protects adjacent land values and mitigates potential environmental and social effects, provides land use integration with existing neighbourhoods and communities, and incorporates public input in decision-making. If this is your problem with what is contemporarily referred to as urban planning, there's nothing I can do about it.

While I may offend those who have no issue with the construction of a 30 storey condo in the middle of an established residential neighbourhood for the simple reason that the proponents own the land, I would contend that orderly development which maximizes transportation and services and promotes integration with existing character is of equal value.

To debase societal benefits to the status of mere by-product of public choice - which are made at the mercy of the proponent’s profit margin - is an interesting argument nonetheless.