The Corner

Utopian, Aesthetics

Jonah, you write:

“The free market” is an abstraction, to be sure, but in real life it is a means by which we seek to maximize individual choice and

happiness in very concrete ways. It is a mechanism by which individual

people are allowed to choose what will give them satisfaction and enjoyment.

For every neighborhood resident aghast at a big house there is another

would-be resident who is overjoyed at finally being able to live in the

house he always wanted.

Yes, this is true, and I think it should be said that we’re all free

marketeers here. My complaint is against those of our tribe who talk as if

maintaining individual rights, vis-a-vis our economic arrangements, are the

be-all of conservatism. I’m certainly not advocating against the free

market, only saying that it is one good among several that conservatives

should concern themselves with. This is a point often lost on conservatives

who fetishize the market as the ultimate arbiter of social good. Which

brings us to John’s point:

Rod: What’s conservative about demanding control over other people’s property? That’s essentially what you’re asking for when you speak of “the aesthetic character of the neighborhood.” Before long, you wind up with

communities that ban people from parking their big white work vans in their

own driveways because these are supposedly unsightly.

Of course I am, John, because I don’t believe that the individual’s rights

trump the community’s in all property matters (nor do I believe the

converse). John Tierney, who as you know is a libertarian, wrote in his

Times column last month that he’s become a convert on the value of

neighborhood associations as a private way of empowering people to have a

measure of control over what their neighborhoods look like. Of course this

power can be abused, but the reason my wife and I chose to move into our

neighborhood was we liked the look and feel of the neighborhood, which is

not a wealthy neighborhood by any stretch, but is almost unique in Dallas

(it’s an early 20th century bungalow neighborhood). They don’t build

beautiful little houses like this anymore, and I think they’re worth

conserving.

Let me give you another example. My mom and dad live in rural Louisiana. Not

far from their house, a landowner who has had trouble getting financing to

develop her property is now slated to turn her land into a FEMA trailer park

to house 200 families displaced from New Orleans. I don’t know that the

community can stop this, but they have good reason to, not least because

moving hundreds of inner-city folks into a rural community where there are

no jobs for them does not fill residents with optimism about the immediate

future of their neighborhood. All this landowner wants to do is maximize

profits, which is not bad in and of itself, but her private gain will

possibly come at the expense of a lot of people who will see a way of life

they’d like to protect changed irreversibly. (And this is not primarily a

race and class thing; this rural area is already mixed-race, and home to

people of all classes). How is it a conservative thing to tell these people

who have been there all of their lives that they have no right to do what

they can to limit this landowner’s ability to use her land for this kind of

development?

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