The fundamental question I often ask is, “What is the optimal role of Government?”
And I usually use Building Codes as an example.
I ask it this way, should the government “MANDATE” building codes? Or should we let the free market do its thing? Or should it be a hybrid of both extremes?
This question plays out all the time.
The latest example is in California.
Huntington Beach is challenging the state’s recent housing reforms that force cities to approve housing projects on a “by right” basis—e.g., without all the nettlesome and subjective local-government approvals.
If builders meet basic standards, they are free to build these projects.
That should be a dream come true for conservatives, who argue bureaucrats have too much discretionary power.
The proper right-of-center regulatory framework is for officials to produce simple and objective standards—and let citizens operate freely within those boundaries.
Yet conservatives, who like to lecture us about the importance of letting markets do their thing, are throwing a hissy fit.
Now they tout “local control” as their prime animating principle. It’s a shibboleth.
In Huntington Beach’s lawsuit against the state, the city says the laws “deprive the City Council of its authority to zone property” and complains that allowing private companies to build homes without the city’s subjective authority “overburdens existing city infrastructure, damages environmentally sensitive areas of the city, and devalues affected private properties.”
Republican Mayor Tony Strickland, who lives in the kind of “affordable-housing” project his current policies likely would forbid, makes the hackneyed NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) argument: “If people in Huntington Beach don’t want to live in a suburban community…they’d move to Los Angeles or San Francisco.”
The city attorney makes the view sound more highbrow: “This is all about whether the state controls local zoning or whether cities control local zoning.”
As Planetizen explains, “Local control is a term used to describe the legal powers of local governments (e.g., cities and counties) to create regulations.”
In other words, NIMBY conservatives such as Strickland argue for the “right” of governments to exert power and control.
In this case, they choose a bigger, more subjective, and heavy-handed government over deregulation and market forces—simply because it flows from the locals.
The conservative view of land-use issues is that a builder or homeowner will propose a project. Staff members then impose their subjective design standards, the planning commission exacts concessions, and the city council votes on the project in the same way that two wolves and a sheep vote on what’s for dinner.
Neighbors, who rarely like any change, exert a heckler’s veto.
Local control isn’t a principle but a practical way to evaluate the proper level of government to undertake essential functions.
Obviously, local governments are closer to the people and are the proper arm to fill potholes.
Far-off bureaucrats cannot be depended on to do the best thing.
The goal of conservatism is not to assure that a local bureaucrat is the one to erode your property rights.
The real principle is the advancement of freedom.
That’s why one of the current legislative goals of the conservative movement is to advance state “pre-emption” laws that limit the ability of local governments to set their own minimum wages, pass strict gun-control laws and enact tobacco bans.
The Left is apoplectic about this, given that local governments often are far more liberal than state governments.
And let’s face it; if these California conservatives believed in local control as the be-all and end-all, they’d have to oppose Proposition 13 and other statewide limits on local taxing authority.
So, “local control” is not their principle, but NIMBYism is.