Next Door In Nodrumia

[Content note: attempt to consider real people’s real problems using angel-on-pinhead impractical reasoning and ideas]


Imagine the state of nature, except for some reason there are cities. Some people in these cities play the drums all night and keep everyone else awake. The sleep-deprived people get together and agree this is unacceptable. They embark on a long journey to the wilderness where they found their own community of Nodrumia.

They form a company, the Nodrumia Corporation, which owns all the property in the area. The corporation distributes usage rights via a legal instrument that looks suspiciously like private property: people who own usage rights keep them forever, can do whatever they want with the land, and can freely transfer and sell them to others. The only difference is that the usage rights have a big asterisk on them saying “contract is null and void if you break the rules of the Nodrumia Corporation”. These rules are set by a board chosen democratically by the inhabitants, and are all things like “You can’t play drums at night”, and “You can’t sell property to people who will play the drums at night”, and “Anyone who plays the drums at night shall be exiled”.

One day a Nodrumian wants to move out, so he puts his house up for sale. The highest bidder is a drummer who wants to use the property as a studio so he can play the drums at night. The Corporation steps in and bans the sale. The property owner protests, saying that he is being oppressed.

According to libertarian philosophy, who is in the right?

The argument against the drummer: the land is basically the private property of the Nodrumia Corporation, and libertarians believe that private landowners should be able to determine what happens on their property. And more fundamentally, the people there have a strong preference against living near drummers, and that preference seems fundamentally satisfiable if their property rights are respected, and it seems stupid to legislate a world where people are forever forbidden from satisfying a fundamentally satisfiable preference and have to be unhappy all the time.

The argument in favor of the drummer: this is basically just a town. “People who live together in a community, and are governed laws made by a democratically elected council” is a town. It seems sort of unlike a town because of its strange history, but really in America a lot of towns were formed by people leaving society, finding unoccupied (or “unoccupied”) land, and building a community there. Some of them were even formed with some sort of utopian goal in mind, or specifically to escape things the inhabitants didn’t like about the places they came from. The only real difference between Nodrumia and the average town is its odd property right structure, but this is a difference in name only: everyone who moves into any town knows that they own their property only insofar as the things they do on their property don’t conflict with town bylaws. Seriously, Nodrumia is just a town. And the whole point of libertarians is that they are skeptical that governments (including town governments) should be able to ban people from doing things. Therefore, the drummer should be allowed to open his drum studio.

A second argument against: imagine we’re talking about a private company like Microsoft. Libertarians agree that Microsoft has the right to decide that none of their employees can play the drums at their cubicle in a way that disturbs other employees. This suggests that playing the drums isn’t a fundamental right. But it’s unclear how Microsoft is different from the Nodrumia Corporation.

A second argument in favor: maybe this isn’t just a town. The way it’s presented, it sounds like more of a city-state. Its government is a national government. If we’re saying national governments can make laws banning musical instruments, we’ve gotten very far from libertarianism, haven’t we?

We could resolve the conclusion by saying that libertarianism is wrong, actually externalities are bad, and it’s totally okay to ban them. Or we could use an expanded idea of property rights that included that right not to have noise on your property (though this opens up a big can of worms). But if we wanted to at least keep some claim to be working within a strict libertarian paradigm, I think we would have to make an argument based on what kind of characteristics an institution needs to be more like a corporation or intentional community (which have the rights to be strict) vs. a national government (which should be erring on the side of permissiveness). To me, the key differences seem to be things like:

– exit rights and transaction costs of leaving
– number of other options
– ease of forming a new one
– degree to which membership is voluntary vs. hereditary

So to give an example, most people have the intuition that the US government banning pork for religious reasons is bad, but also that if you go into a mosque and demand they let you eat pork there you’re in the wrong. I think this is because:

– the people in the mosque have the option to very easily not be in the mosque
– if you don’t like the mosque, you can always go to a church or an atheist meetup
– you can always start your own mosque, with blackjack and hookers
– most people in the mosque chose to be there because they agree with the mosque’s principles


– it’s hard to leave the US if you don’t like it
– there aren’t that many other countries and you might not be able to find one you like
– it’s very hard to start a new country
– most US citizens are only citizens because they were born here, and didn’t necessarily sign on to any philosophical commitments

This is ignoring some important issues, like whether banning pork is the ethically correct action, or whether the majority of the people in each community support the ban. It’s just trying to give a completely formal, meta-level account of why our intuitions might be different for these two cases.

This seems to justify the libertarian intuition that we shouldn’t be bossing private companies around. It also justifies the much more common intuition that we can boss private companies around when they’re monopolies or otherwise seem hard to get rid of, like people discussing whether the government should make Facebook have better privacy policies. If there were hundreds of equally-sized alternatives to Facebook that people could easily switch to, with a wide variety of privacy policies, it probably wouldn’t come up as often.

Towns seem kind of midway between companies/mosques and national governments. They’re not easy to leave, but realistically people leave towns all the time; I’ve switched cities maybe six or seven times during my life. There are thousands of towns you can live in, including dozens of big cities. Forming a new town isn’t easy, but there’s lots of open land where you could do it in theory if you wanted to; it’s not really beyond the ability of even a dedicated private citizen. And about two-thirds of people no longer live in the town where they were born.

I think a libertarian treatment of this issues would argue that towns have the most right to pass restrictive laws when things like exit rights are most salient, and less right when they aren’t.

The drummer moving into Nodrumia seems like a clear case where exit rights are really salient. The drummer isn’t even in Nodrumia yet, so clearly he has the ability not to be in Nodrumia if he wants. The transaction costs of moving to not-Nodrumia are zero, since he’s not even in the town yet. It seems like starting a new town is easy, since the Nodrumians themselves managed it. And although the story doesn’t give a time course, it seems plausible that most of the people involved are still first-generation migrants to Nodrumia – and the drummer definitely is.

The harder case would be one where, by natural population turnover, the first generation of Nodrumians has children, about half of the second generation want to play drums, and in the interim all the available land has been settled by other towns that ban drums, and there are no pro-drum towns to move to. I don’t know what I think in this case, although I’m tempted to say that if there are thousands of towns but none of them permit drumming, that’s kind of like there being thousands of companies but none of them will pay you $500 an hour – you’re asking for something nobody else wants and you should reconsider your request (though given numbers like this, it should be possible for the pro-drum faction to get at least one town for themselves, even if they have to buy out the existing inhabitants).

In the recent discussion of NIMBYism, YIMBY partisans keep saying things like “it’s illegal to build high-density cities!”. This confuses me, because I don’t think it’s illegal for a private citizen to build a high-density city, assuming she can afford enough unincorporated land and the construction costs [EDIT: maybe not]. And it’s not illegal for a town to change its urban policy to become a high-density city, assuming it wanted to. This seems kind of like saying “It’s illegal to have a community made entirely of log cabins”. You can totally get some people together and found a log cabin community, you’re just not allowed to force existing towns to switch to all-log-cabins unless the citizens want to. I think the reason this argument seems unconvincing to me but convincing to them is that I’m reasoning from a perspective where communities are a basic unit, whereas the YIMBYs are reasoning from a perspective where individuals are the basic unit, eg “It’s illegal for me to sell my house to a high-rise developer”.

And I’m reasoning from a perspective where communities are a basic unit because I believe in Archipelago, a world where the only win-win solution to our many differences about what societies should look like is to let people form highly-varying communities with exit rights and let people live in whichever one they want. This solution depends on Nodrumia’s right to kick out drummers and it depends on viewing towns as being basically a form of private property owned cooperatively by the town members.

If you try to take someone else’s private property because it’s standing in the way of economic progress, that’s eminent domain. I’m not 100% against eminent domain all of the time, but it should be a very last resort. This is why I find NIMBYs’ objection of “we should be allowed to decide what happens to our town” so sympathetic. They’re analogous to Nodrumia’s right to not allow drum studios, and without that kind of private-property-analogous right I’m skeptical that anywhere can provide the good life to its citizens. Without letting towns be at least kind of like private property, they all converge onto the highest-entropy state permitted by the wider country they live in (eg Las Vegas but more so). If you want a libertarian national government but also accept that some people want to live in places other than Super-Vegas, you need to let towns pump against entropy and retain some distinction from each other, the same way we let individual citizens arrange their own lives the way they want. That’s part of why I find myself more sympathetic to local governments than to national governments.


This model also suggests a solution for YIMBYs – start their own town somewhere.

This might be harder than it sounds, because if the YIMBYs aren’t very committed, once they have a high-density walkable city that they’re happy with, they might lose their will and be tempted to keep other people out to prevent it from becoming more crowded. Even if they were very principled, the next generation of inhabitants might not be.

The solution is charter cities. Some profit-seeking individual or corporation could buy some land, explicitly note that they weren’t making it a full democracy, and then try to turn it into the biggest, most economically productive city possible so they could skim a little bit off the top.

If the California state government is really concerned about the housing shortage, but also doesn’t want to densify San Francisco, here is what it can do. Encourage some company to buy a promising but currently empty tract of land (I’m saying “some company”, but we all know it would end up being Peter Thiel). Give them various concessions to lure people in, like that people living there only have to pay half as much in state taxes (or, if they really want to start a land rush, they can exempt the area from the plastic straw ban). The company has strong incentives both to make the city as populous and dense as possible, and to make it the sort of place where rich people want to live and businesses want to operate. Tech companies, social-climbers, and the like move there instead of San Francisco. The San Franciscan NIMBYs are happy, the tech companies are happy, the company that owns the land is happy, and the California state government is happy. The end.

This isn’t so outlandish – I grew up in this city. In 1864, an investor named James Irvine bought a big tract of California land. Over the next century, his heirs formed a group called The Irvine Company to develop it further. They got their big break in 1959, when James’ grandson Myford Irvine cut a deal with the University of California to build a college on the still mostly-empty land, virtually guaranteeing it would grow into a town. The Company planned out their ideal urban utopia, raised some money, and built it according to plan. Now Irvine is the 16th largest city in California, and Irvine Company head Donald Bren has $16.3 billion and is the 80th richest person in the US. Irvine consistently tops various “best city” and “highest quality of life” rankings and manages to balance some density (the listed density of 4,000 is probably an underestimate because of the deliberately preserved wilderness areas; other parts are much denser including a few 20-story buildings) with a very safe, suburban feel. It’s also very good at attracting tech companies: Blizzard, Broadcom, Allergan, and the US headquarters of Samsung, Sega and Toshiba are all located there. It’s also an outlier in new housing construction, growing its housing stock at (informal estimate) 5% per year – twice the rate of Austin, three times that of Seattle, and five to ten times that of San Francisco.

I know this probably “won’t” “work” “in” “real” “life”, just like everything good or interesting or creative. But a state policy of deliberately creating super-Irvines in suitable areas would relieve the need to develop anywhere else. It would slice through concerns that it’s politically impossible to upzone existing cities, concerns about congestion and crime and transit inadequacy in existing cities, concerns about disrupting the culture of existing cities, and concerns about existing cities’ poor business climate and poor reception of out-of-staters. It would be a good way to attract all of the pro-density pro-walkability people to one place so that they weren’t scattered among a bunch of people who wanted lower-density towns. People could make it sustainable and renewable and otherwise buzzwordable. We could finally say, in all honesty, that America had caught up to Senegal.

Right now there’s a small movement for charter cities, but it’s usually considered the sort of thing that will only happen in the Third World. But California already has some legal provisions for a very weak form of charter city, and some parts of California are already getting kind of Third-World-ish. I don’t know whether it’s possible. But it doesn’t seem obviously harder than getting San Francisco residents to agree to add new housing at the rates that would be necessary to make a dent in the crisis.

361 thoughts on “Next Door In Nodrumia

  1. sa3

    Problem with a ‘why can’t they just build their own town’ approach to NIMBY issues is basically government-driven. Governments are often less restrictive as communities develop, facilitating growth. Then, when localities develop and thrive, governments tend to shift gears (gradually, usually) and become more restrictive. This is annoying, but there’s massive amounts of capital locked into a given area and it’s very difficult to move it all. Basically government-logic is to appear market-friendly to attract large amounts of fixed (ideally immobile) investment, then shift towards a less market-friendly attitude once the investment is largely made. Can’t shift too far, but depending on the size of the investment and the relative immobility of the capital governments can go a long, long way. That’s the optimistic argument for why communities subsidize companies to move to them; their theory is that all payments are temporary, but the businesses’ location will be less temporary. This theory doesn’t always work, needless to say, and companies are often more clever than local politicians.

    An especially effective locality that attracts a lot of businesses also creates escalating costs to moving away, in the form of positive externalities of being close to other businesses, better quality of life for employees, etc. From the perspective of the local businesses, it becomes a sort of collective-action problem; in theory, they’d all be better off moving one town over and living under a less restrictive government, but it’s really expensive and it won’t necessarily work unless everyone does it. Silicon Valley is a great test case; state/local government in California is nuts, but the costs of leaving/the advantages of staying are so high that it barely matters. Possibly it’s edging towards the state of too much these days. In a sense, Austin is the equivalent of ‘fine, we’ll just move somewhere else’. Maybe NOVA next, since the state/local gov’t structure protects companies from crazy local governments (it’s county-based, not city/town based, and local governments have limited powers compared to the state government).

  2. davidlizerbram

    But a state policy of deliberately creating super-Irvines in suitable areas would relieve the need to develop anywhere else.

    Listen, I don’t know about the rest of this post, but there is an actual Super Irvine. It’s a (criminally underrated on Yelp) very good Persian/Middle Eastern market in Irvine, CA. Try the sangak bread!

  3. inachodladh427986167

    The Libertarian position is not that Nodrumia shouldn’t be able to ban drums. They can ban things as much as they want regardless of how similar to a state it might seem. The salient distinction here is that in real life states don’t actually form the way Nodrumia formed. In real life something like Nodrumia could only exist on a small scale while being compliant with property rights.

  4. Uribe

    My theory is that the golden goose of what makes a place like SF so high in demand is ultimately mysterious (an economist would say agglomeration, which amounts to mysterious). Maybe it’s the weather, maybe the culture, maybe the bay, the brand, the port, the geography, the people, the tech industry, maybe the gold rush, but it’s something. It is something. The point is that there are too many aesthetic factors for an economist to account for. For me it’s a magical X-factor combining all of the above and more.

    I find it sad that so many people there don’t like living in San Francisco, whereas it seems like a dream town to me. I’m from Houston, and maybe it’s just perspective. I love visiting SF; perhaps I wouldn’t like living there so much if I’m to trust the accounts I’ve read on this site in the past few days. These accounts shock me, because I thought most people living in SF really liked the place.

    This makes my even more of a YIMBY. I’d move to SF tomorrow if I could afford to. When I read accounts of people who don’t like living there I think: “Get out! Let me in!” But in truth I don’t have the skills to get a job in SF , so it doesn’t matter.

    I love living in cities. I currently live in a loft in downtown Houston, but I’d much rather live in San Francisco, LA or NYC, for better culture, smarter people. I suspect people who live in SF or NYC have an average IQ about 10 points higher than those in Houston. That’s a reason for me to want to live there. But, geez… any ideas about how to make your housing more affordable?

  5. Nate the Albatross

    I love the scenario. When I had a house there was a neighbor who ran his leaf blower for three or more hours each Saturday and I always threatened to buy my kids a drum set. As others have pointed out – most towns have restrictions on doing loud things as night, whether running a table saw or using a jackhammer. And those that don’t have very strong social prohibitions against this sort of thing. However, we can use libertarian values to get us out of this.

    In France, long term rentals are allowed to have noise restrictions, but they aren’t allowed to ban pets (or drums). In the United States, Nodrumia is trampling on the freedom of speech. If my neighbors are allowed to mow their lawn or play bagpipes from 8am to 6pm, then the restriction on drums is an arbitrary violation of my free speech rights. Drums are a key part of many musical styles, including several with religious or cultural implications. If Nodrumia corporation bans art that features women’s faces they haven’t completely banned art, but the restriction on free speech is very heavy and discriminatory. A rule against playing drums in a cubicle doesn’t make sense if people are allowed to play the radio really loudly or play guitars. Restrictions on noise that use times of day or decibels make sense, but once we ban specific sounds like hounds baying or church bells or women’s rights protests we infringe on freedom of speech. If a tech company rolls out a drum set that is completely silent except for in my headphones, then I should get to play in my cubicle. In general, I find the argument that corporations can be used in place of govt breaks down when we consider other corporations. For instance if my company Yesdrumia, Inc. operates a fleet of drumming trucks. We drive thru the public roads around and thru Nodrumia playing our drums all night. Heck, you can hear loud music across the water from a different town. Yesdrumia, Inc. can just buy adjacent land and play drums all night. In the absence of any govt regulation, a corporation is just another gang or mafia organization with slightly more civilized rules.

    I also did want to share an exception to the rules. When I was growing up, our neighbor across the street would mow his lawn after dark when I was trying to sleep. I didn’t appreciate this at all. Many years later, I learned he did this because he had severe social anxiety and was afraid to leave the house in the daytime. It took a long time for anyone to really figure this out because he never answered the door or talked to anyone. Parents mostly mumbled about it and as kids we didn’t understand it. In hindsight I would have much rather mown his lawn for him, even if he couldn’t pay, than have my sleep disturbed once a week all summer. And certainly if he had paid me I would have gladly added mowing to the other jobs like babysitting I did for money. Or the neighborhood could have bought him a reel mower that is much quieter. But none of those things happened. I’m sure social anxiety causing a violation of social norms that could easily be resolved with communication is world’s oldest social anxiety problem. Still, until this series I hadn’t really considered how zoning and property regulations impact mental health. I had thought about physical stuff, like people who can’t see well enough to drive. And I’ve known people who have gotten into trouble with the city because they couldn’t physically maintain their yard due to disability. I am going to ponder this more. I wonder if my thoughts on zoning will change. Well, it made me think anyways.

  6. JoeCool

    the problem with charter cities is that they have become associated with libertarianism, which I feel has really destroyed their popularity, especially among institutions (like the gates foundation) that could actually implement them.

    1. Matt M

      maybe this is actually a problem with people who reflexively decide to hate anything “associated with libertarianism” regardless of its merits

  7. bowndim

    I think this analogy implies that NIMBY positions are derived from a set of preferred states that meet the following criteria
    1. can be articulated in advance
    2. apply to the entire jurisdiction
    3. supported by a democratic majority

    And if the jurisdiction is considered city wide they rarely meet that criteria (really is the SF majority opposed to sky scrapers in SF?), rather the number of veto points built into the system favors no action.

    That last 3 mayors of NYC have been pro-development on the margins relevant to city policy making. They recognize that the democratic majority prefers states best served by development, and have always had to fight smaller jurisdictions to build more.

    Now if the jurisdiction gets small enough are the above 3 criteria met? Maybe. This where things get literally NIMBY. But then that’s not a private property vs democracy contest, its two layers of democracy contradicting each other. The majority of Manhattan is pro sky scraper, but every block might be anti sky scraper. This is where the YIMBYs will accuse NIMBYs of hypocrisy, but it could also be an Arrow’s thereom problem. What if 40% are legitimately anti development and pro development each, and 20% is the hypocritical pro development nearby, just not next door. Then we get the above political dynamic, and even though both sides are mostly true to their position we are stuck with a hypocritical median voter.

    But this is where the observation that property rights are best viewed not as a moral law but a political position. Forcing people to put up or shut up with money is more likely at the current relevant margins to yield utility enhancing results and we need fewer veto points on private property decisions.

    If an entire town were really lock step in their preferences like that they would both have the laws to protect their preferences and would be able to cobble together the competing bid necessary to actualize them when in legal limbo, and you wouldnt have to worry about which framework to prefer.

    1. arbitraryvalue

      20% is the hypocritical pro development nearby, just not next door

      It’s possible to be hypocritical about this sort of issue, but I think that often accusations of hypocrisy are directed at people who are actually just playing a zero-sum game. If, for example, the sewage treatment plant has to go somewhere, I will try to make sure it goes into your backyard rather than mine. I don’t think you deserve to live next to it any more than I do; I’m simply competing against you for a scarce resource. “Nothin personnel, kid.”

  8. mercutio

    If we could find someone willing to do the administrative and proselytizing work, I would happily sign on the dotted line with a large sum of money in escrow to be an early member of a charter city aiming at building something based on the city design proposed by “Car Free Cities” [0], which is an incredibly beautiful book as a physical object, and also has some really lovely designs for building a dense, walkable city, with great access to varying density and large tracts of open space.


  9. Nicholas Weininger

    It strikes me also that Georgist libertarians should count as a kind of libertarian, and they would have a pretty appealing potential solution to this. Namely, suppose the federal government levies a land value tax on the Nodrumias of the world whose proceeds are redistributed to those Nodrumia is harming by excluding them from the scarce land it occupies. Then they can still have their local restrictions if they want to; they just don’t get to harm others with those restrictions for free.

    As applied to SF, for example, this would result in much, much higher property taxes for SFR owners, whose proceeds would disproportionately benefit the sort of people who can’t afford to move to SF because of the cost. This would in turn create a powerful incentive for said SFR owners to duplexify or triplexify their houses so as to have rental income to offset the property taxes– changing the political incentives around zoning in a very YIMBY friendly direction. Perhaps this is a fantasy, but I’m not sure it’s any more of a fantasy than getting CA regulatory authorities to approve the construction of a new high-density city on any significant piece of buildable undeveloped land basically anywhere in the state. Irvine did it, sure, but they did it in a totally different regulatory climate from the one we have now.

  10. Uribe

    It seems to me that you are thinking about this issue backwards. YIMBY is not a Utopian ideal, but a solution to a problem, the problem of an insufficient housing supply in a city relative to the (high) demand to live there. (Just as NIMBY is a solution to the problem of too many tall buildings in a city.) Note that the problem is always in the eye of the beholder.

    Therefore YIMBYs starting a new city in the middle of nowhere so that they can live somewhere with sufficient housing supply relative to the demand are going to overshoot their goal the moment they build the first unit.

    It should be said that an insufficient housing supply in a city is *a good problem to have* because it means a golden goose exists. Most of the country is unoccupied for good reason.

  11. undefined

    It’s interesting that I haven’t noticed any word on China, where they are doing exactly this, i.e. building brand new cities from the ground up to handle the housing needs and increased urbanization. See or the case of Shenzhen, for instance. Evidently, the build-your-own-city concept is practicable in real life. Whether such projects are equally feasible in less authoritarian environments is another question.

    1. Matt M

      the housing needs and increased urbanization

      Are these needs real?

      Because I also hear about Chinese “ghost cities” all the time. That the demand doesn’t actually exist and all this construction is just a keynesian attempt at keeping the GDP growth figures high.

    2. Uribe

      China arguably has massively pent-up demand to live in a city, any city. As a developed country, the US only has pent-up demand to live in a few locations, the Bay Area being one of them.

      (I’m ignoring, of course, the massively pent-up demand to live in the US by those outside it.)

  12. Plumber

    I grant thar local government does a lot of stupid stuff, and someone in a previous thread aptly described big cities as something along the lines of “Small enough to be easily corrupted, and big enough to be worth corrupting”, but what I don’t like about the anti-zoning activists is that much of the suggestions I’m reading sound like conquest and subjugation.

    “We want to force San Francisco and Berkeley to squeeze more people in against the will of current residents who democratically choose building limits by getting the State or Federal government to overrule local voters will”.

    Why those two cities and not, oh Menlo Park, Palo Alto, and San Jose?

    How about East Palo Alto, it’s on the bay!

    No, it’s because vocal educated people want land in SF because cool weather and restaurants, and Berkeley because bookstores (or something)..

    I’ve seen more new apartments and condos go up in the last ten years than I have in the previous forty (and tents and shanties have gone up in tandem), but it’s never enough.

    I like leafy inner ring suburb streets (and it took me 18 years of living in a leaky roof apartment on a busy street and in a R.V. to save for a house on one), and now your going to force tall apartments into my street?

    I suppose you may convince some cyber-billionaire to fund the Proposition 666 overrule local voters because “good for veterans and puppies” initiative, but do you have to?

    Why not build on the empty land in south San Jose instead?

    Why up here?

    Berkeley looks nice (except for the tents and beggers) and San Francisco is already more crowded than it’s neighbors.

    Why not build close to Apple, Google, and the rest?

    1. Nornagest

      There is plenty of the same discussion going on in the South Bay and the Peninsula, which are just as overpriced and underbuilt as Berkeley is. (Slightly less than SF.) You’re probably hearing more about Berkeley because you live there (or in Albany or El Cerrito or something, I forget, but those are effectively north Berkeley), and SF because everything in Bay Area politics revolves around SF.

      (Also, it’d be more accurate to say that East Palo Alto is on a stretch of swampland that happens to communicate with the Bay. Building it out is politically impossible because it threatens burrowing owls or something. At this point, of course, I’d like to personally strangle every last burrowing owl, then pave that entire fragile wetland ecosystem over and fill it with skyscrapers big enough to make everyone that worked on the Burj Khalifa spontaneously stutter and blush.)

      1. Plumber

        Yep, I work in SF and currently live in Albany, was born and have lived most of my life in Oakland, and most of my childhood was split between Berkeley and Oakland (depending on whether in was a week with my father or with my mother).

        I fear change tremendously, as too often things get worse.

        The best change that I’ve seen in my lifetime is that they’re less murders and gunfire than in the 1980’s, and street riots seem mostly gone now (except for “fascists” and “commies” who like role-playing the Weimer Republic at the UC campus from time-to-time) otherwise?

        I guess that I’m communicating with you, but nothing else for the majority of Americans lately (please feel free to remind me of something, thanks).

      2. pontifex

        It would be smart for us to leave the wetlands alone, even if we don’t care about nature. During an earthquake these areas experience soil liquifaction, which is just as unpleasant as it sounds.

        Anyway, Plumber is completely correct. There are huge stretches of land in the South Bay that nobody can touch. So far the YIMBYs don’t seem to have taken notice. It’s important to have happy cows.

        But then again, converting the ranches into condos wouldn’t help YIMBYs get a cool apartment in SF. It would just create more uncool suburbs. So who cares (except for homeowners. Cha-ching!)

        1. Nornagest

          I’m being slightly facetious there, but: liquefaction is an issue with loose soils like infill and Bay mud, which mainly pose problems in this context for low- and mid-rise development. If you’re building anything really big, it needs to go down far enough that you’ve got options: the new span of the Bay Bridge is on piers sunk at angles into old, compacted mud, for example, and it’s supposed to be able to stand up to any plausible earthquake in the area.

          The non-facetious point, though, is that there needs to be new building everywhere if you want to have a chance of solving the Bay Area housing crisis. Sure, there are lots of people who want cool apartments in SF, but there are also lots of people who could care less about cool and just want to live somewhere less than two hours from their job in the Apple spaceship. The South Bay’s version of YIMBY is basically defined by these people (and their halfhearted support in the higher levels of the tech industry) vs. legacy homeowners. It’s just as hard-fought as the East Bay and SF iterations.

          And the reason it’s so hard-fought is that you’re going to be rustling some group of legacy homeowners’ jimmies, no matter where you build. Even if the land’s currently unused except by cows or burrowing owls, there will be complaints from adjacent neighborhoods about views and traffic and the character of the city — and, if you think about it, it really will bring those changes, maybe moreso than turning 5% of the lots in a low-rise neighborhood into apartments. Plumber’s “why not the South Bay?” deserves no more or less consideration than some Redwood City geezer’s “why not the East Bay?”, and I promise you those geezers exist.

  13. benwave

    Did anyone else notice that all of the people walking in the architectural mockups of the new Senegal town are white?

    1. Nornagest

      I don’t care about that, but if Senegal can build a city like that for $2 billion, they deserve an Afro-Futurist utopia. I mean, they’re not really my style, architecturally, but buildings like that aren’t cheap, and that price tag’s roughly halfa third of what the new Bay Bridge in Oakland ended up costing — just the bridge.

  14. Nornagest

    Well, these comments are kind of a dumpster fire. Maybe the next post on a highly charged political issue shouldn’t include the word “libertarian” unless it really needs to?

  15. Kingmaker

    This model also suggests a solution for YIMBYs – start their own town somewhere.

    One of the practical issues with the ‘start your own’ solution is that, by and large, people don’t want to start their own. Usually, people lobbying for change in a community – whether its prospective entrants who want the community to be more accommodating to their desires, or current inhabitants who’ve decided something needs to change* – prefer co-opting existing structures and modifying them to fit their tastes to heading off into the wilderness to start their own community. And they often have good reason; whatever you may think of SF’s living arrangements, the city has a lot going for it in terms of climate, community, business, prestige, etc… that you can’t easily reproduce. And worse for our would-be founders, the existence of San Francisco provides a big stumbling block to creating an alternative. Why would I set up my tech company in Yimbyville when SF is already a thing?

    (Incidentally, this extended beyond physical municipalities – you can sometimes see it occurring in subcultures as. The crucial element is that some community has something you want, and you think it’s easier to try and change the community rather than look for it elsewhere).

    *of course, this applies to NIMBYs who want to shut down development as much as YIMBYs who want to facilitate it

  16. peopleneedaplacetogo

    Limitations on density don’t just ban people from doing particular kinds of things in your city, they ban additional people there from living there at all. Arrangements like Nodrumia’s with deed restrictions that prohibited homeowners from selling to black people have been entirely invalidated by the courts in the US, for good reason. The exact boundaries between “laws regulating behavior” and “laws excluding certain people entirely” are fuzzy (laws against homosexuality, as well as many kinds of zoning/building laws, fall ambiguously between), but in general it’s a mistake to ignore the distinction. If every single city and county on the continent bans drumming, drummers can still move to one until they form a majority and change its rules; if every single city and county bans selling to anybody with any interest in drumming, their situation is much worse, and much harder to fix.

    At the risk of sounding too deontological (I’m not a deontologist though I am a rule-utilitarian): Migration is a human right. Drumming isn’t.

    (Given the extreme negative externalities from cars and other suburban inefficiencies, not to mention the huge subsidies they demand from the rest of us, I’d say the situation is actually more like drumming being mandatory in every city in the US, aside from a handful of places where residents of existing drumming-free buildings are grandfathered. YIMBYs are trying to make it legal to go whole nights without drumming in at least a few cities. But that’s another argument.)

  17. greghb

    One way to circumvent the problem of property rights is to argue that many current wealthy, high-opportunity, low-zoned residential areas are basically ill-gotten goods: due specifically to dynamics like red-lining and white flight. It’s a longer argument to make that these dynamics are real, important, and ethically problematic. I won’t go into that here. But if you share that view, then I think you share a “mood” with YIMBYs: you basically agree that people don’t have as much of a right to their hard-to-enter neighborhoods as it seems on first glance, because these neighborhoods were not created from a state-of-nature, but rather were created in a way that violated the property rights of others. Therefore, they are not so sacrosanct as property rights in general.

    Thinking this doesn’t force one to be a YIMBY nor does it say much about the correct remedies for the situation. But insofar as “missing mood” is something we’re discussing here, I find the above to be missing in Scott’s discussion so far. Note: I tried to phrase this in a way that doesn’t run aground of pillorying NIMBYs as horrible racist scumbags or anything like that. I hope that comes across.

    1. detroitdan

      I agree.

      Another way of looking at Scott’s vision of self-segregating communities is that poor people have no means of going out and creating new cities. And when you’re poor, the main factors are comfort and survival as opposed to more abstract principles. So perhaps the government should help poor people escape their poverty by providing alternate communities where they can go to? But where? I’m not sure there are a lot of places that are looking to self-segregate along a poverty dimension.

    2. The Nybbler

      One way to circumvent the problem of property rights is to argue that many current wealthy, high-opportunity, low-zoned residential areas are basically ill-gotten goods: due specifically to dynamics like red-lining and white flight.

      You can argue this, but it doesn’t make any sense. For instance, white flight _harmed_ those fleeing.

      1. greghb

        How so? My experience in the mid-sized southern city where I grew up was that the suburbs that came into existence as a result of white flight were, and had basically always been, prosperous, had the best schools, etc. and that the people left behind (mostly black folks) got the short end of the stick. The wealth and resources — which usually have spill-over effects — left with the white people. Those left behind couldn’t afford to follow along to the suburbs with the good schools and jobs, perhaps even if they could have afforded housing there, were kept out via more-or-less direct discrimination (banks refusing to lend, real estate brokers refusing to do business with). The home prices out there are very high now, which becomes a de facto way that the poor minorities still can’t access the opportunities (schools, jobs) that are out there.

        That’s roughly the chain of reasoning I had in mind, anyway. Do you see it differently?

        1. The Nybbler

          How so?

          Because in most narratives they sold their houses at fire-sale prices in order to get away from black people.

          The wealth and resources — which usually have spill-over effects — left with the white people.

          How does that make the wealth and resources ill-gotten?

        2. Nabil ad Dajjal

          There are a few reasons:

          A. Being forced from your homes en masse by violence or the threat of violence is typically considered a wrong on the scale of war crimes. White flight was ethnic cleansing in the classic sense; police standing back and letting violent criminals do the dirty work. That’s a pretty direct and obvious harm.

          B. Most working and middle class people have most of their wealth tied up in real estate. If your property values tank, say because of a recent influx of violent criminals, you’ve lost the majority of your wealth and need to rebuild. That was a substantial monetary loss even though the people harmed largely managed to recover.

          C. A lot of the things you mentioned, like good schools, have more to do with culture of inhabitants than the amount of money. A lot of inner city schools spend much more per student than schools in wealthier suburbs to seemingly no effect. It’s unclear how having a culture which values education is supposed to injure people who lack that culture.

        3. idontknow131647093

          I am not sure this is the proper formulation. The people left behind didn’t “get” the short end of the stick, they perpetuated the problems and doubled down on them. If the people left in Detroit and Cleveland had better social habits and better voting preferences than those leaving then the cities would have been revitalized by white flight. It would have been like a super-gentrification. Property values would have gone down at the same time schools, police, and other services increased in quality while crime was also going down. It would have been a miracle.

          The fact that this didn’t happen means the people leaving had a point.

        4. greghb

          (Responding to several comments above)

          The story in my city, at least, was that the flight was mostly in reaction to school desegregation. If you didn’t want integrated schools, after Brown your best option was to move away, make a new town with a new school district, and switch to de facto segregation instead of de jure. It wasn’t that the cities were becoming increasingly violent in the run-up to this, or that somehow the police were standing back. The economic and social problems started after the people with wealth/power departed. And the great American real estate boom really started in earnest around the time whites started moving out of the cities, so there wasn’t such housing wealth there to take a hit when they moved out.

          Furthermore, the black people left behind had been systematically denied most opportunities to accumulate wealth (slavery, then share-cropping, then red-lining; low-quality education throughout). The argument goes that some of the wealth accrued by white people basically should have belonged to the slaves and their descendants, but it never did.

          So, in a somewhat diffuse way, some chunk of the wealth accrued by the white population really was ill-gotten. One way that manifests today is in existing segregated communities maintaining their segregation with zoning laws.

          1. idontknow131647093

            But your explanation doesn’t make much sense. If people with wealth departed the more productive area they should have lost productivity and those left behind while perhaps not as productive, should have significantly gained.

            Plus, it is not like they moved their working capital out of the cities, all they moved was their residential real-estate capital which could still house just as many people, but now for less! Under any normal circumstances this would be an incredible result for the YIMBYs. More, cheaper housing, possibly even a smaller demand on social services while the commercial sector stays the same (with any possible outsourcing being slower than the natural rate of growth).

            So what is the problem? One is that the fleeing people took good students out of schools they perceived (likely correctly based on history) to be of declining quality. This isn’t really a problem unless you are a wierdo that wants to force people to put children in bad schools they don’t like. The next is that they took social capital with them. Neighborhood watch programs, churches, etc. This is actually to me the greatest effect, the people who moved in never ended up replacing those social institutions. Those things are difficult to build. However, maybe people left because those were already crumbling. We know ethnic diversity does cause harm to social capital, so perhaps this is just a cause of flight that we are incorrectly thinking is an effect.

            Indeed, that is a major issue with the white flight theory. All the ill effects could just as likely, indeed more likely, have been causes for the flight itself, and the effects were simply made more clear when all the leaky damns were breached.

  18. romeostevens

    It is de facto illegal to build a nice town for reasonable conceptions of nice. The remaining nice towns exist via momentum. It’s not like the seasteaders just never thought of doing it on land…

  19. detroitdan

    I love this blog (I’m new here), and the concept of encouraging self-segregation has some appeal. But one problem I see is that everything is already owned by someone. So just letting people use their, in many cases, ill-gotten wealth (see Trump, Donald) to establish new cities or whatever in the middle of nowhere seems to perpetuate inequality under the pretense of freedom. I think of my hometown of Detroit which was quite a boomtown. Lots of money was made here, then the rich people left and started building factories in Guangdong China. They left behind a big mess.

    So I lean to more central government to deal with these sorts of issues which, in my opinion, are not seriously considered here.

    For another example, I am skeptical that we can develop A.I. by just letting the rich people go ahead and develop it without input from society as a whole. A.I. will have an enormous impact upon people who want no part of it.

  20. stephenbyerley

    I think this discussion would benefit from fewer hypothetical examples and more real ones. Also, there’s a rich literature by libertarians and libertarian-leaning scholars on zoning and private alternatives – see The Voluntary City (edited by Marginal Revolution’s Alex Tabarrok) for an example.

    Most libertarians are quite happy with the setup you describe, and the real-world equivalent are suburban developments with restrictive covenants. This was actually quite common from the late 1800s until the 1960s or so, when zoning became detailed enough that setbacks would be specified there rather than in a covenant. The difference between the hypothetical example and the real world is that, historically, restrictive covenants would cover individual residential neighborhoods rather than whole cities, leaving large amounts of area available for denser development. Furthermore, the residents of a neighborhood with a private covenant couldn’t simply vote to extend that covenant to nearby houses, as happens with zoning.

    Let’s go through a real-world example. Palo Alto, California, which is now a hotbed of fights between YIMBYs and NIMBYs, was originally developed in the late 1800s as “Stanford’s business and residence town”, as an early flier promoted. The north side of town was developed as single-family homes, boarding houses, and fraternity houses with no restrictive covenants, around a downtown that – by the 1930s – had a streetcar, several eight-story tall hotels and apartment buildings, and a number of five-story buildings. The neighborhoods north and south of downtown and the train station began to replace the largest single-family homes with townhouses and apartment buildings.

    Between the 1940s and 1960s, south Palo Alto was developed neighborhood-by-neighborhood into a car-oriented suburban environment. Most but not all of the neighborhoods had private, restrictive covenants that specified things like setbacks, parking requirements, and height limits. (Some also specified racial restrictions, but both YIMBYs and NIMBYs are OK with ignoring those now.) Notably, though, the property bordering El Camino Real, which is the main commercial area and the desirable location for multi-story apartments, never had any restrictive covenants.

    In the 1970s, the states and federal governments highly encouraged restrictive zoning, which was adopted in Palo Alto, including limits on height and buildable space. Most of the neighborhood north of Palo Alto’s downtown would be illegal to build today under that zoning, as would much of the neighborhood south of Palo Alto’s downtown. At the same time, the state passed a number of laws that shift the burden of proof to new development, and, for example, make it discretionary for the cities to approve new buildings even if they fit the current zoning standards. (It’s no coincidence that SB35, the biggest victory for YIMBYs this decade, was legislation that prevented cities from denying housing developments that complied with zoning standards.)

    To my knowledge, all of the YIMBY/NIMBY disagreement in Palo Alto centers around areas that never had restrictive covenants, such as the neighborhoods near downtown and the land bordering El Camino Real. These lots would be available for landowners to build apartments on in a history that followed the Nodrumia example rather than the actual history of Palo Alto. Similarly, many points of disagreement – like the height limits in the downtown core – don’t actually impose any externalities on nearby residential properties other than that those residents have to share their city and its amenities with newcomers. Most fights are actually about this, and the relevant amenities are public schools and public roads.

    So the more nuanced libertarian argument here is simply that private cities like Nodrumia or Irvine are great, developers historically followed this model through private covenants before zoning, and by and large it worked out fine. However, the rules of zoning are very different and allow current residents to exercise a monopoly-like privilege over land that they never purchased, and which they can use to exclude potential residents who would be willing to pay enough to see that land developed.

    1. Hendi

      An important difference here is also that (at least in most anglophone jurisdictions) it was generally illegal to permanently encumber land with restrictive covenants, eventually they had to expire or else there was a mechanism for subsequent owners to have them removed. This provided a natural safety valve against overly oppressive restrictions and allowed covenants to serve as a damper on change rather than an enforcement of stasis. Zoning tends to work in quite the opposite way, with a ratchet effect where restrictions become more and more severe over time, with the situation you describe of having entire neighborhoods (that people seem to like) that would be illegal to build today is very common.

    2. Nicholas Weininger

      This. Also, note that the current set of homeowners in SF, Palo Alto, etc is very different from what it might otherwise be had we not had, for decades, a policy regime that basically said you could get heavily federally subsidized credit to buy a SFR in a “good” neighborhood iff you were white. Some of the victims of this state-sponsored, no-exit-right discrimination are still alive; many of their children are, and are considerably less wealthy because their parents were discriminated against. Telling them to go do the work of founding a new city on undeveloped land is a pretty poor second-best to giving them some say over the level of inclusionary zoning in the cities from which they were forcibly, and utterly unjustly, excluded.

      1. albatross11

        It’s interesting to compare this narrative to the one about white flight. Both have some truth, but it’s not so easy for me to figure out what to do about either one.

        ETA: My impression is that there is/was not a huge black population in the bay area in general, so it seems like redlining and its interaction with Fannie/Freddie is probably not as relevant there as, say, Illinois or New Jersey. And there are significant NIMBY/YIMBY battles in Seattle and Portland, too, despite quite low black populations historically.

    3. peopleneedaplacetogo

      If we’re trying to frame things in terms of property rights it seems very relevant that the cities never had to pay compensation to property owners as they progressively passed stricter and stricter zoning rules over the course of the past 60 years. If the city wanted to eminent-domain property, paying just compensation, and then lease it back with restrictions on its use, that would seem philosophically a lot more reasonable; instead they just expanded their micromanagement of their neighbors’ lives further and further while denying that this was a “taking”. And now Scott wants us to treat this micromanagement-power as though it were legitimately-purchased property and ignore that in fact it was stolen in living memory.

      1. albatross11

        Stolen in exactly the same sense that every other change in the law introduced by democratically-elected governments has taken some value from some people and given it to others. The coal industry would like a word with you about how much value they lost because of environmental laws passed with about as much legitimacy as those zoning laws.

        1. peopleneedaplacetogo

          Principled deontological libertarians are often mad about those environmental laws too, and Scott’s post seemed aimed at rationalizing zoning to such people. Personally, I don’t think property rights are sacrosanct, but that they should only be violated if the result is of aggregate benefit to humanity as a whole; environmental regulations usually are (as are most externality taxes and even some redistributive taxes), while density-limiting zoning is usually designed to benefit a subset of the people who already happen to own property in a town while making people outside worse off.

  21. baconbits9

    I would like to frame the conversation this way (as libertarian leaning person)

    Rights only make sense (to me) as a right to veto. If 10 guys get together and take a vote and think that Sally has to have sex with them we over ride the vote because we recognize her right to determine if she wants to have sex with one, several, all or none of them. We don’t demand or expect that she goes out and finds at least 9 people to vote against the proposal to then have the ability to reject it. Likewise we don’t recognizer her right to decide who to have sex with and allow her to exercise that right by demanding that Bill have sex with her, her right is only a veto right, the right to refuse and not a right to decide for someone else. If I own a house I get to decide who doesn’t live there, not who does. No one can live here except Scarlett Johansson is a different statement than Scarlett Johansson must live here alone.

    The right to veto is the only way you can have universally applicable property (including physical body) rights. The right to do what I want with my body isn’t an accurate description of the traditional libertarian position, its the right to determine what doesn’t happen to my body. With the former you get a conflict when I punch you in the nose, if I have the right to my body and you have the right to yours then there is no clear resolution based on rights where both parties have the same rights.

    These aren’t fringe positions either, these are the points in which most people agree with libertarians on, forced sex isn’t OK no matter how many people wanted it to happen, and his nose hit my fist isn’t a defense

    Nimbyism is a wild departure from how we attempt to treat individuals in this country, I have a right to my apartment’s view of the bay applied universally means protecting that right will infringe on your neighbor who wants their view to be gleaming skyscrapers set against the bay. Your right to have your neighborhood be low density housing is in direct conflict with many other preferred variations and these situations cannot be resolved by appealing to rights as a basis for decision making.

  22. DawnPaladin

    If there were hundreds of equally-sized alternatives to Facebook that people could easily switch to, with a wide variety of privacy policies, [discussions about government intervention] probably wouldn’t come up as often.

    This is exactly the idea behind Mastodon (and a few other apps in the Fediverse).

  23. blacktrance

    One important difference between Nodrumia and actual cities is that I could go to Nodrumia Corporation and make them an offer to buy the right to drum on their property. You can’t go to a planning/zoning commission and buy a right to build from them – and locals would be indignant if you tried.

    Also, while the Nodrumians are within their rights from a strict property-rights perspective, from a broader generally-liberal one, one hopes that people wouldn’t transfer their rights in a way that prevents them from doing what they want with their property.

    1. cryptoshill

      I think making “explicitly bribe the city coffers for zoning exceptions” the default solution would satisfy both YIMBYs and NIMBYs. If a big developer wants to build a big high-rise with a BART station (to use SF), they have to pay the existing NIMBY neighborhood (their coffers, not the individuals) a price set by the neighborhood for free reign over their property, thus the neighborhood now has money to build an underground parking structure to fight traffic – or more police to roust the homeless in the BART station at night.

      John Schilling – to your comment about how “there are no cities like San Francisco” – you’re dead wrong. Seattle, Portland, Chicago, New York, and Austin all have most or all of these features to varying degrees – and I haven’t even left the United States yet. And if your revealed preference is to live in a city where service workers who provide you all the cool amenities you came to SF for are living in comfort …. I’m not sure that we’re coming from the same place.

      1. Hendi

        We see this “bribery” system in one form or another pretty frequently, and I’d argue that it doesn’t really make people happy. For instance, in downtown Brooklyn there was just a huge fight over a zoning variance for a large development where the developers, essentially, offered to build a school in exchange for allowing more condos. This was on a main thoroughfare in an area with plenty of 35+ story buildings, a few blocks from one of the best served subway stations in the city. A deal was eventually struck, but the passions of the NIMBYs were decidedly not placated by the public benefits offered by the developers, nor was there any indication that there would have been some other public benefit that would have got them on board with more housing.

        There are also plenty of examples of this type of thing where the local neighborhoods figure out pretty quickly that if you set the “bribe” price at some astronomical amount, then that’s as good as outlawing development in practice. This happens a lot with affordable unit requirements, where the demanded number of below market apartments is frequently set well above the point at which a given project is economically viable.

      2. peopleneedaplacetogo

        For Coasian bargaining between the developer and the NIMBYs to work, you need an explicit legible structure about exactly which NIMBYs are necessary and sufficient to bribe, and transparency about how much it costs. Actually-existing zoning fights have neither of these; developers sink lots of time and money into projects that get killed at the last minute because some group decides the bribe wasn’t good enough.

  24. John Schilling

    that’s kind of like there being thousands of companies but none of them will pay you $500 an hour – you’re asking for something [unreasonable] and you should reconsider your request

    Also, there are thousands of cities but none of them have lots of smart cosmopolitan rationalist-adjacent techies doing cutting-edge work for many different institutions including multiple world-class research institutes, and all the restaurants and nightclubs and museums and other cultural amenities that such a concentration of techies will collectively want, all in a setting with reasonable amounts of greenspace and good sightlines and decent public transit rather than an urban hellscape of concrete and skyscrapers, without having to feel bad about the service workers living four to a room or commuting two hours every day, with safe clean streets and without having to feel bad about the police rousting the homeless, and all of this for rents of no more than $2100/month.

    Your revealed preference, like so many others, is to live in the Bay Area, and you’ve expressed a desire that the rent be more like $2100 than the present $3500. Possibly you should reconsider your request. What, of the various present features of the Bay Area, are you willing to give up? No credit for “giving up” things that are of no value to you but are valued by people who provide the area with some of the things you value.


    This model also suggests a solution for YIMBYs – start their own town somewhere.

    “Their” own town?

    Talk is cheap, and you’ve already listed many of the reasons this isn’t really going to happen even if something like it sort of did in 1959.

    But if a true YIMBYtopia does blossom in, say, Utah, it’s not going to be just a handful of weirdos who go live there. A significant number of the people you moved to Oakland to live near, are going to absolutely prefer YIMBYtopia. More still are going to follow them because their boss moved to YIMBYtopia and took the company with him, because more of their friends moved than stayed, because the good restaurants in SF are shutting down, because the new university they got the state to found there is more appealing to them than Berkeley, etc.

    What are the odds that, in this hypothetical, YIMBYtopia winds up with more of what drew you to the Bay Area than the remnant BA retains, and so it becomes your town as well even if you don’t like parts of the underlying philosophy? And if so, isn’t the rational move to be part of the process from the beginning?

  25. Ghillie Dhu

    There are some major differences between a corporation-owned settlement and a municipal government which are glossed over and/or muddled in the thought experiment.

    1) Voting rights: a corporation is one vote per share instead of one vote per person. If a drummer bought enough shares in Nodrumia Corporation they could change the bylaws without having moved there yet; in a municipality the current residents (whether they own any part of the city or not) get the only say, even if the drummer buys out all their landlords. Current customers (in this case renters) can’t legally force a company to keep catering to them rather than pivoting to serve a more lucrative market.

    2) Annexation: many properties have been made part of cities against the owners’ express wishes; that would be like a corporation acquiring a sole proprietorship unilaterally. Arguments from the initial owners’ voluntary actions are invalid when the action was involuntary.

    3) Power: a corporation can neither impose taxes nor criminalize anything; I think most people would rather have an encounter with a security guard than a cop, and not paying fees charged by Nodrumia Corp. wouldn’t land anybody in jail.

  26. Edward Scizorhands

    One problem with building things in the country is that so many people have an effective veto over what you build.

    Pretend my neighbor wants to spend $5000 to add a small addition to his house that will bring him $20,000 worth of happiness. But if I can veto it? I demand $5000 to not veto. (In practice I would not be this brazen, but instead say you have to contribute $5000 to some local charity that aligns with my interests.) If there are a few such neighbors, each demanding $5000, he doesn’t even bother.

    But I’m not very interesting in fixing the NIMBY cities. Let them be stupid and broken and go someplace else. If you try to squeeze into their city and bid up real estate prices, you are rewarding the people for creating policies you don’t support.

    If you insist that you have to live in a given city, then you have no negotiating power, and you are giving the NIMBYs power over you. Fix that first. I know the first response will be “but I really do have to” but you don’t. It’s a consumption choice. Lots of people, not wanting to do the hard emotional work of choosing between competing priorities, tell themselves they have no choice, and that they have to do all sorts of things millions of other people don’t.

    A willingness to leave is way more powerful than the ability to vote. Exiting the US is hard, but not moving into a NIMBY city, like Scott said, is one of the easiest things in the world.

    1. cryptoshill

      All cities are NIMBY cities, they just aren’t as NIMBY as San Francisco. Seattle is a prime example – we have activists trying to protect the Showbox downtown as a historical music venue (they are not wrong in suggesting that it is some sort of landmark). The refrain is “we don’t need more rich-people high-rises!” – when in fact, 80% of the city is zoned single-family. We might not need more rich-people high-rises, but if we could make West Seattle full of duplexes, quadplexes, or those cute victorian three-flats you see in SF (one of the only good things I will say about San Francisco – the architecture there is phenomenal) we could triple city density while maintaining the leafy tree-lined streets we all love. The single family districts in West Seattle, South Seattle, Mercer Island, Northgate, etc *aren’t even a part of the conversation at all*.

      1. Edward Scizorhands

        Is there something in Federal law that demands that a lot of people get veto power in every city?

        IMO the problem is not necessarily that a city decides through democracy to become NIMBY — it’s that certain embedded groups end up with the power to veto growth even if the polity should desire it.

  27. newsroot

    Nodrumia is about managing the costs of negative externalities. Cities exist though because they generate extremely powerful positive externalities. They allow people to specialize economically and socially, but it comes at the cost of giving up some control over your environment. Suburbs allow people to free ride on the benefits of density (particularly access to highly specialized jobs) without paying any of the associated costs.
    Why choose though? If suburbs allow their residents to have the best of both worlds, shouldn’t we be encouraging them instead of upzoning them? Because suburbs aren’t just free riders off the positive externalities of cities, they create negative externalities that they impose on everyone else (primarily longer commute times that negate the benefits of bringing people physically close together).

    Imagine a widget that can only be produced by the coordinated efforts of 100,000 people working together in one place. The widget manufacturer builds a company town with the factory at the center of 100,000 identical homes on one acre lots arranged in concentric circles. Since all the homes are the same, the only thing that differentiates them is commuting time. Managers and bigwigs in Ring A can walk or bike to work if it’s a nice day, or enjoy a short five minute drive if it’s not. The interns and janitors who live in Ring Z face a two hour long drive in bumper to bumper traffic each way, every day.
    Now imagine a group of workers volunteer to give up their nice one acre lots in Ring Z and move into an apartment tower on a lot in Ring A. They don’t have a lawn anymore and they can sometimes hear they’re neighbor arguing through the walls, but now they can walk to work and they get four hours a day back to spend with their families. It’s not for everyone, but it’s a net benefit for the people who choose to volunteer. Everyone who works at the factory has to pass a background check so there’s no crime or anti social behavior and the company invested in an aesthetically pleasing architect to design the building, so none of the managers have a problem with the plan (except the one manager gets bumped back to Ring B). In fact, taking all the apartment building’s residents cars off the road improved commuting times for everyone. The apartment residents chose to move there for wholly selfish reasons and get the most improved commute times, but everyone benefits from their decision by getting to spend more time with their families even if they didn’t move.
    The opposite is true if suppose the managers at the company notice that the managers at their rival widget company have homes on five acre lots and they demand to have five acre lots too. The company caves and converts Rings B to E into a new super sized Ring A. The managers are happy because they have even more space, but everyone else is bumped back further from the factory and has to spend more time out of their day commuting.

    1. cryptoshill

      Suburbs are not “free-riding”. They pay in liquidity and commute times what city-dwellers pay with traffic and money.

      If my house burns down tomorrow – I am going to be couch-surfing for multiple months until my insurance pays out, along with the loss of a lot of goods that I own that aren’t typically covered by homeowners (appliances, usually – which are fairly pricey). If an apartment burns down – as long as that person and the family photo album survives, nothing bad has happened.

      In a less absurdist scenario – if a city-apartment dweller wants a new job with higher pay across the city, he will only have to suffer the negative externalities of his commute for a few months before he picks somewhere closer to his work. A suburb dweller is basically stuck unless they move across the country because of the value of the land and home they live in (as well as the debt they are paying down that they used to buy it). A home sale like that can take 90 days due to the amount of capital involved, and that’s if things go *well*. If things go poorly you can have your house on the market for months or years.

      1. newsroot

        The differences you describe are differences between owning and renting, not between a single family home and an apartment. You can own an illiquid $10mm apartment or rent a house in a suburb.
        In addition, renters generally have leases that are difficult to get out of (believe Scott wrote a post about a bad experience renting a house once). You can’t sell a house instantly, but you can’t walk out on a lease instantly either. A homeowner can choose to begin the sale process at any time. A renter who’s life changes dramatically a week after he signs a new 12 month lease is stuck until the end of the lease.
        Also, none of these are externalities. They are costs that are borne entirely by the individual who chooses to either rent or own. The same is true of the renter who changes jobs and temporarily “suffers the negative externalities of his commute.” Externalities are not something you suffer because of your choices, they’re something your choices impose on others.

        1. cryptoshill

          You’re right, I used that word wrong.

          In fact, I doubly used it wrong because I was trying to explain that the negative externalities of suburbs are in a lot of ways borne by those NIMBY suburbs themselves. They have absurd property tax rates, they commute far too much, generally pay more for their property, and can get stuck in a down-market as well as restricting their options to live in a new city. Your rent vs. own distinction there is pretty compelling, my argument was based on “renters typically engage in more liquid arrangements than homeowners” – but that might not *always* be the case and I’ll be forced to give you that one.

    2. A Definite Beta Guy

      Cities exist though because they generate extremely powerful positive externalities. They allow people to specialize economically and socially, but it comes at the cost of giving up some control over your environment. Suburbs allow people to free ride on the benefits of density (particularly access to highly specialized jobs) without paying any of the associated costs

      Because suburbs aren’t just free riders off the positive externalities of cities, they create negative externalities that they impose on everyone else (primarily longer commute times that negate the benefits of bringing people physically close together).

      The problem with the above:
      1. Suburbs also provide positive externalities. You cannot “free ride” on the positive externalities of a city by working in the city, it doesn’t even make sense. Your act of working in the city is what creates the agglomeration effects. Suburbs are part of the same economic ecosystem as cities, so they are part of what contributes the agglomeration effect.
      2. The traffic externality created by suburban commutes is borne by suburban commuters. I am creating an externality for my neighbor and my neighbor creates an externality for me. It hampers the trucks, but they also have the option of travelling at off-peak times.

      Suburbs are not free-riding by refusing to up-zone, and a lot of this isn’t related to suburbs, but city neighborhoods. Refusing to up-zone means refusing to provide a positive externality, it doesn’t mean robbing the rest of the city of resources.

      Where suburbs free-ride is by not contritbuting to services provided by the city that are required for the upkeep of the cities comparative advantages. A classical example would be New York City paying the entire upkeep of its own port structure without surrounding cities fronting any cost, despite the fact that they derive benefits.
      A lot of this in Rust Belt cities comes down to ridiculous legacy costs, though, so the surrounding cities are not paying the legitimate costs of maintaining a competitive advantage, but the cost of Mayor Corrupt maintaining his Empire and the Greedy Union maintaining their high standard of living.

      However, most of the dollars are plowed into schools, which then get little state or federal funding. If my parents pay massive amounts of money for local schools, and then I take my education and go into the city, is the city robbing the suburbs because I went into the city? The city just got an educated worker for free, because the city never contributed a single dime to my education.

      1. baconbits9

        1. Suburbs also provide positive externalities. You cannot “free ride” on the positive externalities of a city by working in the city, it doesn’t even make sense. Your act of working in the city is what creates the agglomeration effects

        No, your act of working in the city creates a part of the agglomeration effect, not all of the effect, but you benefit from the larger effect. If 1,000 people work near each other and you move away to work alone leaving 999 of them your individual drop in productivity will be expected to be greater than the productivity drop of the people you are leaving. This is a positive externality.

        1. A Definite Beta Guy

          Not sure if we are disagreeing. “The suburbs” are benefitting from the effect, but they also are contributing to the effect because “they” “send” worker there. That’s how an agglomeration effect works, after all.

          If a new suburb starts up nearby and we have more workers, it’s adding to the agglomeration effect, not subtracting. The suburbs aren’t robbing cities of jobs, their residents are working in the greater metropolitan economy and adding to the agglomeration effect.

          1. baconbits9

            Your statement was that you cannot free ride off a city by working in a city, which isn’t true. You are free riding if the gains that you experience from the agglomeration effect are greater than the gains you provide to others. If I go to a park with a $1 suggested donation and put $1 in and the park cannot survive without more than $1 donations per patron then I am free riding on those that give more. If the city as an employment center would not exist without residents supporting the infrastructure then it could well be that suburbians are free riding off that infrastructure.

          2. A Definite Beta Guy

            That’s not my statement, or at least that’s not my intended statement. People absolutely can free-ride if they are not paying the cost of upkeeping whatever creates the competitive advantage in the first place. But that’s not coming from density, that’s coming from governance structures, so refusing to densify has nothing to do with those costs. There are lots of neighborhoods within cities that refuse to densify but are still contributing dollars to the city coffers, and there are inner ring suburbs that are denser than city neighborhoods but still aren’t directly contributing to the city. This was actually mentioned in the prior thread, there are LOTS of places within city limits where you can still get low-density living. I think several commenters mentioned Queens, which matched my impression of Queens in my 2-day visit there.

            If those sections of Queens refuse to upzone in the future, they cannot be said to be free-riding, because they have been contributing to NYC for a long time. They just don’t want to upzone. Preferring low density by itself isn’t free-riding, it’s only free-riding if you aren’t paying to upkeep the stuff that makes you competitive.

            If it was just a question of free-riding and not a question of density, suburbs wouldn’t be low-density. They’d be high density enclaves on the border of the city limits. That they aren’t high-density means the residents prefer low density, based on its own merits.

            However, I think a lot of this is ridiculous, because from my POV cities (especially Rust Belt cities) have bloated budgets and are spending a lot of money on things that do NOT contribute to their competitive advantages. Politicians aren’t looking to capture free rider money, they are looking at rich suburbs and seeing more money for them to buy votes.

          3. newsroot

            The reason I say suburbs are free riding is that the costs and benefits of urban living aren’t equally distributed. Benefits seem to be spread over a wide area (available city or region wide), while the costs are much more local (confined to the immediate neighborhood). That’s probably one reason why cities can generate such jarring inequality.

            The wealth of the Bay Area comes from its position as the world capital of technology. Residents of Atherton and San Francisco can both commute to those high paying tech jobs, but only San Francisco bears the brunt of the discarded needles and human waste.

            Atherton is free riding off of San Francisco because the technology industry that makes it wealthy couldn’t exist without the density of San Francisco. If the entire Bay Area was restricted to Atherton densities, the population would be too low and spread out for Apple, Facebook, and Google to find the workers they need. So Atherton is dependent on the relatively average high density of the Bay Area as a whole, while creating a local bubble of low density to push the problems elsewhere.

          4. The Nybbler

            The wealth of the Bay Area comes from its position as the world capital of technology.

            Which makes the Bay Area one of the worst examples you could have picked. Silicon Valley isn’t San Francisco; it’s a bunch of suburbs further down the peninsula.

          5. idontknow131647093


            Its not really clear why you think those costs are only being borne by the city against its will. The reason those people are in the city is because the city chooses to allow it.

            A better example is schools. Washington DC has notoriously poorly performing schools, but also has massive per pupil budgets. Did the people of Fairfax county and Prince George’s tell them to create such an oddly terrible system? Not at all.

            Indeed, among the anti-suburban arguments, I find yours uniquely perplexing. Ostensibly, the pro-city person says that the network effects and efficiencies of having lots of people close is beneficial, on the other hand you are saying that having all these people together is uniquely expensive to maintain. This is silly. I will say that I have observed a general trend of cities having worse corruption problems than suburbs, and overall have more expensive and inefficient government. I don’t see how that is an argument for suburbs to subsidize the bad governance of cities, rather it seems like city governments are freeloading off of the network effects of the entire urban+exurban area in order to not have to be efficient themselves.

          6. newsroot

            Dealing with the problems related to poverty is expensive for local governments. You have to spend more on police, schools, social programs, etc. Wealthy suburbs avoid all of these costs.

          7. albatross11

            Also, there’s a lifecycle thing happening. Most big cities have accumulated huge liabilities (public sector pensions, large pools of dysfunctional underclass people living on public assistance, closed-down factories and abandoned buildings, etc). The mobility of American society means that when things start falling apart, you can just move. Baltimore is a mess, but you can move to Seattle or Austin or even to London or Beijing. Not your problem anymore.

            The costs and poor / high-cost people and blighted areas still remain. But since voters/taxpayers can move away, it’s not uncommon to see the tax base for a declining urban area collapse. The industry leaves, the net taxpayers and people with any choices leave, but the abandoned buildings and long-term financial liabilities and pools of dysfunction remain.

          8. John Schilling

            Which makes the Bay Area one of the worst examples you could have picked. Silicon Valley isn’t San Francisco; it’s a bunch of suburbs further down the peninsula.

            It’s both. It’s a bunch of corporations whose offices are further down the peninsula and are filled largely by people who live as close to San Francisco as they can manage, with the location of the offices being driven by the desire to attract an SF workforce without having to pay SF commercial rents.

          9. The Nybbler

            The cities don’t own their tax base; people leaving the cities for the suburbs because the cities have become terrible aren’t somehow stealing from the cities. This was a big issue in the calls for “regionalism” in the 1980s in the DC area, with DC wanting to get that sweet, sweet, suburban tax money even as its residents fled.

            @John Schilling

            I’m not so sure that matches with the history of Silicon Valley, but if it were so, then perhaps by the upthread reasoning it’s San Francisco which owes the peninsula, seeing as it is SF that’s the bedroom suburb.

          10. idontknow131647093

            Dealing with the problems related to poverty is expensive for local governments. You have to spend more on police, schools, social programs, etc. Wealthy suburbs avoid all of these costs.

            That is just question begging. Saying suburbs are naturally wealthy and urban areas naturally poor is nonsensical. Indeed, if urban areas were well run, had good governance, and could provide services at lower costs (because being close together is allegedly good at that per you) then the opposite would be true.

          11. MH

            I don’t think there’s anything necessary about it, which makes speaking structurally a bit iffy, but at least in America there is a history of suburbs building off of, and imposing on, city infrastructures, like municipal water supplies, while not contributing (as much) to them.

            And there’s an even more significant history of suburbs using an outsize economic and social influence over not just city but county or state systems to push cities into developing in ways that disadvantage city residents to their benefit. A fairly dense city not only doesn’t directly benefit from having big traffic arteries running through it, it’s usually to the detriment of people living in the city who would do fine if they weren’t there.

  28. Matt M

    My understanding is that there are a bunch of these in Texas as well. Not necessarily cities proper, but suburbs of existing cities. A lot of the suburbs of Houston are technically these (most prominently The Woodlands, which is a bit out of the way but is definitely one of the nicer places to live in the Metro Area), and oftentimes, people don’t even know/realize it.

  29. Andrew Clough

    I don’t have any problems with Nodrumia as described but…

    From a contractual libertarian perspective it’s important to remember that every town and city in the US that existed before 1905 or so started out with no zoning laws and later had those laws imposed by an act of government. So it should be legitimate for those laws to be removed by act of government too. If some group incorporated a town with zoning laws fully formed then maybe they could argue that changes to those laws are illegitimate from a contractualism standpoint.

    I’m libertarianish but I’m not a strict libertarian. I believe in things like a progressive income tax to fund social services. People like to keep what they have and taxation makes many people upset. There are some people on the left who delight in the pain that taxation causes the rich but I think that’s wrong and we ought to sympathize a bit. Taxes also do certainly reduce the incentives to create and it’s possible to go to far with them. Still, we have to balance the desire of rich people to keep what they have created with the desire of poor people not to starve. In a similar way we have some people who are very rich in the amount and quality of the land that they own in that their lots are large, they’re close to a major city but not full of the weirdos that live in the city, etc. And I think its legitimate to ask them to give up some of what they have in the same way it’s legitimate to ask rich people to pay more in taxes. There’s compromise to be made here too but we have to balance competing needs. The fact that we’re talking about the legal privileges the people of Mountain View or wherever have voted themselves rather than money doesn’t make much difference in the analysis for me.

    As to coordinating to move to found a new city, has that ever worked? I can imagine a neighborhood pulling that off but not a city. And really, that seems like it’s a feasible option for the people who prefer low density, they can get that in most places in the US by default. The thing they want is low density right next to high density but without having to pay the huge amounts of money that takes to achieve in a free market. That is a very nice thing and I understand why they want it but again I’m not sure why it makes sense for them to be given that.

  30. salim_f

    Scott, thanks for the interesting thought experiment and conclusions. I like it in part because it confirms a lot of my own priors 🙂

    I think there are two central aspects of the YIMBY/NIMBY debate that this doesn’t address, however.

    1) NIMBYs did not found San Francisco or most other towns. They achieved dominance through a series of institutional & electoral changes. A lot of the YIMBY movement is just participatory democracy: trying to convince voters & officials to make different decisions within the constitutionally permitted space.

    2) Housing restrictions, unlike many other rules, actively cannibalize the archipelago model. You can choose between short commute/iffy schools Dallas and long commute/good schools Frisco because both places allow homebuilding. But you can’t choose to live in Marin County unless someone else moves out. See Emily Hamilton’s argument about zoning as a restriction on competitive federalism:

    Finally, the charter cities model sounds like a great addition to our current institutions – lobby your state government to create enabling legislation that would make that legally possible, because it isn’t right now.

  31. benquo

    Part of what’s going on in SF (and NY, DC) is that a bunch of the growth is an indirect effect of national policy, causing wealth flows into (or at least through) the largest cities, so that towns in rural areas get poorer despite nominal subsidies. This makes the big cities in effect national cities. It’s one thing to tax everyone to pay employees in an urban core. It’s another to do that, and then still permit the urban core to regulate itself like any other town, banning the massive new construction your national policy’s created demand for.

    1. benquo

      The obvious solution here is to have a distinction between walled (commercialized or militarized) and unwalled cities, regulate “walled” cities to have a strong presumption of uniform standards and responsiveness to market forces, and allow independent incorporated towns that don’t interact much with the national system to mostly self-govern. And, mostly tax the “walled” cities.

  32. Cecil Harvey

    If you want a libertarian national government but also accept that some people want to live in places other than Super-Vegas, you need to let towns pump against entropy and retain some distinction from each other, the same way we let individual citizens arrange their own lives the way they want. That’s part of why I find myself more sympathetic to local governments than to national governments.

    Bingo! I used to be full on anarcho-capitalist libertarian, but I eventually settled on distributism, which is based on a hierarchical notion of subsidiarity, treating the family unit as the smallest unit of government, and placing special emphasis on communities. A libertarian-esque national government, in a nation the size and scope of the US, would allow for many different peoples and cultures to form places where they can be happy. Ultra-Vegas could exist in the same country as a neo-feudalist Catholic barony, as well as everything in-between.

    1. Nicholas Weininger

      Why should we assume that the desire to “not live in Super-Vegas” is something that people ought to be able to indulge by restricting the actions of others? It’s clearly a common desire, but common != moral.

      1. albatross11

        Well, it suggests the possibility of a large increase in utility by allowing people who really want to to opt out of Super-Vegas.

        1. Nicholas Weininger

          Why should we care more about their utility than about the utility of people who really want to live in a whites-only neighborhood?

          1. Cecil Harvey

            Because most of them largely just want to be left alone. Also, farming wouldn’t happen if everyone lived in super-Vegas. Rural towns need to exist.

            Frankly, I’m inclined to indulge people who want to live in whites-only (or black-only, or hispanic-only) neighborhoods. They want to self-segregate, let them. If you’re black, would you want to live around assholes like that?

            And if there was a whites-only town somewhere in the middle of Utah or whatever, and they listed that as a selling point, encourage them all to go there, so everyone else doesn’t have to deal with them. I see that as win-win.

            I’d personally love to live in a rural town that was nearly 100% practicing Catholic. People that go to daily mass regularly, pray vespers communally, have an overall Catholic notion of conviviality, etc. I think that would be a pleasant way to live.

            In general, I tend towards allowing people to live however they want to live, even if I find that repugnant. I tend to view people that want to restrict the way I want to live and who I associate with as evil.

          2. Doctor Mist

            I’d personally love to live in a rural town that was nearly 100% practicing Catholic.

            And if you’re Protestant, would you want to live around assholes like that?

            (Seriously, do you not see what you did there?)

          3. Cecil Harvey

            And if you’re Protestant, would you want to live around assholes like that?

            Perfectly valid for protestants to think I’m an asshole. I’m fine with them thinking so. They probably don’t want to be around me either. Wouldn’t I be doing them a favor by selecting myself out of their neighborhoods?

            But my point is, why is it so wrong to want to have my home life revolve around communal prayer with everyone in my proximity? Why is to wrong for other people to want to live in other ways you don’t like? Also, shouldn’t people who don’t want to live the way I want to live want me to not be part of their communities?

          4. albatross11

            The benefit of this way of running things is easy to see in the first generation of homeowners–people who want to live in a Catholic community all buy homes there. The problem shows up a couple generations later, when some of the kids and grandkids of the original owners have changed religions. An explicitly Catholic town enforced by restrictive covenants is something you can imagine working in a libertarian society[1], but they’d have to work out some sensible way to deal with conversions and new spouses and kids/grandkids not remaining Catholic.

            This is the same problem that comes up otherwise. Restrictive covenants seem better than zoning laws in terms of not imposing your will on nonconsenting people (my neighborhood’s rule that nobody can sell their house to someone who wants to turn it into a high-rise doesn’t prevent someone building high rises in the vacant lot across the street), but still have the problem that the rules that seemed good yesterday may not seem so good to the residents a generation later.

            [1] But I’m sure it wouldn’t work in ours, as those restrictive covenants would be unenforceable.

          5. Doctor Mist

            Perfectly valid for protestants to think I’m an asshole.

            Then I have to apologize for suggesting you were being inconsistent!

          6. Doctor Mist

            the problem that the rules that seemed good yesterday may not seem so good to the residents a generation later

            This is the crux of the problem. Even the Constitution understands that and includes a method for amendment.

            My first house was in a neighborhood with lots of early-twentieth-century covenants that were routinely ignored. Some were clearly invalidated by government edict, like restrictions on race. Some were de facto invalidated by time and inflation, like a minimum value that must be spent on a building. Some were just made silly, like the restriction on wooden fences — intended to mandate stone or brick, I assume, but instead accidentally validating chain-link. But I was always sort of surprised that there was nobody identifiable to whom one could go to request a variance — or complain about a violation.

            But it is sort odd to hear the opinion that the folks who like a neighborhood’s status quo are the ones who ought to get the hell out if there are other folks who don’t.

          7. Plumber

            “….I’d personally love to live in a rural town that was nearly 100% practicing Catholic. People that go to daily mass regularly, pray vespers communally, have an overall Catholic notion of conviviality, etc. I think that would be a pleasant way to live….”

            @Cecil Harvey,

            Not a “rural town” and no longer “nearly 100%” but you may be suprised to learn how welcoming San Francisco, California may be for you.

            While not as much as before, for decades cops, firefighters, and the working hands at the Department of Public Works in San Francisco have mostly gone to Catholic schools, and are practising Catholics. 

            The chapal on Fisherman’s wharf (blessed by the Archbishop of Palermo in 1989) was built in the late 1970’s and early ’80’s with volunteer labor from building trades union members (the chapel broke away in the 1990’s and now does an old-style Latin Mass), and we in the City and County of San Francisco are their landlords (me and a couple of other CCSF plumbers unplugged their drains in 2011, and IIRC the rent is $1 a year).

            Lot’s of Catholic churches and schools are in the area, and while San Francisco itself is pretty nasty (used hypodermic needles on the street) and expensive, nearby South San Francisco and Daly City have very large and devout Filipino communities, and across the bay bridge, just a short walk from my house, there’s St. Ambrose in Berkeley which is a very nice church in a beautiful neighborhood with St. Mary’s Catholic high school close by.

    2. Plumber

      “….I eventually settled on distributism….”

      @Cecil Harvey,

      I’ve read a small bit about “distribution” and it sounds intriguing.

        1. Plumber

          In my brief reading about it I got the impression that “Distributism” was sort of a Catholic version of “Guild Socialism” but not as radical a difference from the status quo, and “Guild Socialism” itself (which I learned about from a Bertrand Russell book) was diluted “Syndicalism” (and auto-correct is my mortal enemy!).

          1. DavidFriedman

            You should probably get someone who knows more about it than I do, possibly Deiseach, to describe the doctrine. I think part of it, and the source of the name, was the idea of many people having small land holdings.

  33. Forward Synthesis

    This seems to justify the libertarian intuition that we shouldn’t be bossing private companies around. It also justifies the much more common intuition that we can boss private companies around when they’re monopolies or otherwise seem hard to get rid of, like people discussing whether the government should make Facebook have better privacy policies. If there were hundreds of equally-sized alternatives to Facebook that people could easily switch to, with a wide variety of privacy policies, it probably wouldn’t come up as often.

    I agree with th common intuition, because my thoughts pretty much evolved from straightforwards libertarianism towards something like “Everything(!) should be allowed somewhere, but not everything should be allowed anywhere”. I think that better captures the spirit of libertarianism, than the rules of libertarianism, and I think most hardcore anarchist libertarians have a decentralized utopia in mind, rather than a huge private monopoly based society, even if they lack the ruleset to achieve it. I think distributist insights temper libertarianism well.

    I think the only weakness then philosophically is that you lose the absolutist purity that straightforwards propertarian nihilism has. You have to engage in a line drawing exercise, and different people are going to draw the line in different places. I think social media giants are big enough that perhaps it would be right for the government to force them to not ban people or perhaps even to chop them into little bits with user caps to fight the network effect and other seemingly tyrannical decentralizing schemes. By the same token, my intuition is that a major world renowned city is big enough that perhaps it should be forced into having lax building codes, whereas any podunk town should be exempted from such schemes. So it’s a relative exercise, because you have to decide what counts as too big an entity to have free reign over its own domain. I guess when it’s big enough to piss me off?

    Of course, the charter city solution sidesteps this pretty neatly, and I would support it wholeheartedly.

  34. vV_Vv

    The harder case would be one where, by natural population turnover, the first generation of Nodrumians has children, about half of the second generation want to play drums, and in the interim all the available land has been settled by other towns that ban drums, and there are no pro-drum towns to move to.

    And by the third generation, 90% of the Nodrumians want to play drums. Should they still support the drum ban because of tradition?

    I don’t know what I think in this case, although I’m tempted to say that if there are thousands of towns but none of them permit drumming, that’s kind of like there being thousands of companies but none of them will pay you $500 an hour – you’re asking for something nobody else wants and you should reconsider your request (though given numbers like this, it should be possible for the pro-drum faction to get at least one town for themselves, even if they have to buy out the existing inhabitants).

    Well, if you didn’t like YIMBY, why don’t you move out of San Francisco? Can’t you and your rationalist friends create a charter city in the middle of a desert, on a offshore platform, or whatever, without high rise buildings, BART stations, and all the other things that annoy you?

    There is no default reason to privilege NIMBY over YIMBY or vice versa. They are both legitimate political positions.

    1. wysinwygymmv

      I took the original post to assume that (some) YIMBYs don’t consider NIMBY to be a legitimate political position and attempt to argue that actually it is. So maybe you’re in violent agreement?

      1. vV_Vv


        I think Scott and his friends are trapped in what he calls ‘mistake theory‘: the notion that political issues have, in principle, an objective resolution in the same sense that scientific questions do.

        While it is true that for some issues certain policies are strictly Pareto-better than others (at least for, say, 99% of people), many other issues are true conflicts between different interests, and the way that society resolves them depends just on the relative political bargaining power of the different interest groups.

        NIMBY vs YIMBY is a typical example of this: Scott has an interest to live in a nice suburb far from the junkies who attack random people, some other guy has an interest to have at least a bedroom all for himself. Neither of them is mistaken, but they are in conflict.

        In a civil society we can’t hope to eliminate conflict, nor deny it and lecture people who don’t support one’s position about how mistaken they are, instead we can regulate conflict by acknowledging different positions as legitimate and prevent disputes from escalating to scorched-earth negative-sum strategies (e.g. physical violence, false rape accusations, etc.). Scott is against escalation, but a bit too much in the “lecture your opponents” camp, IMHO.

  35. gabe

    One thing a contract requires – this should include the Social Contract – is consideration for both parties. In Nodrummia we offer people freedom from being bothered by drums. And in return we request they don’t do any drumming.

    Now if someone didn’t like drums in the first place, they probably don’t want to drum anyway. So what are we getting from them? We’re getting them not drumming. But they wouldn’t have drummed in the first place so we would have gotten that even without the no drumming rule. So Nodrummia is getting nothing from that bargain.

    If someone does want to drum we are getting “no drumming” from them, which is what we want. But what are they getting in return? They get “no drumming” from anyone else. But since they like drumming, they probably wouldn’t have minded hearing some drums. They might have even enjoyed and preferred it. So offering them “no drumming” is of no value. They get nothing from the bargain and have to give up something they want.

    Back in the real world we make noise ordinances like “No drumming between 8PM and 8AM”. So that both parties can get some of what they want. Any system that promises you’ll get everything you want and give up nothing is doomed to fail as long as people have differing values.

    1. arbitraryvalue

      There is consideration for both parties. First, in exchange for assurance that your neighbors won’t drum, you give up not just drumming yourself but also selling your property to a drummer. Second, the fact that you don’t want to drum in the first place doesn’t mean that you’re not giving anything; it simply means that you’re giving something less valuable to you in exchange for something more valuable to you.

    2. kominek

      Now if someone didn’t like drums in the first place, they probably don’t want to drum anyway. So what are we getting from them? We’re getting them not drumming. But they wouldn’t have drummed in the first place so we would have gotten that even without the no drumming rule. So Nodrummia is getting nothing from that bargain.

      like many contracts that aren’t about an immediate transfer of goods/services between two parties, it is about the precommitment to do things that you might not want to do, when it comes time.

      nodrummia is getting the precommitment of all of the other parties to refrain from drumming even if they find some youtube videos about drumming, and decide that they want to take it up.

  36. Quixote

    You should watch the documentary Wild Wild Country. Its about a group of people who tried to do exactly this. It takes a little while to ramp up, so don’t make your continue / desist decisions in the first 15 minutes of the first episode.

  37. baconbits9

    In an entire city of no drummers why is the drummer the highest bidder? When the city was founded it was done so with the money of Nodrummers, they banded together, came to a complicated agreement, and created something new but now they can’t handle raising enough funds to purchase one apartment to prevent a drummer moving in?

    This is what economists talk about when they discuss revealed preferences, the original group was willing to absorb the costs of building the new city and they demonstrate not with words but with actions what they believe the best course to take is. The second group clearly only wants to prevent drumming as long as it comes at little to no cost to themselves, all the good and none of the bad for me means that I am passing on externalities to you.

    What if on the edge of the city limits the drummer built his drumming studio, what if the entire perimeter of the city was surrounded with a literal circle of drum studios. What is the principle here? If the city has more residents can they vote to incorporate the drum circle and then ban them from playing? If the reverse can the drum circle vote to incorporate the city and force them to allow drumming anywhere in the city limits at any time?

    This is what happens when you try to use democratic intuition to solve these problems.

    1. Furslid

      I don’t think having the city buy the studio is a sustainable solution. The city would have to outbid the drummer (pay above the market price) for the property. This means that any resident selling property could milk money out of the city by threatening to sell their property to a drummer. This is an even worse version of the tragedy of the commons. The defector doesn’t even have to live with a ruined commons if they exploit it because they have already moved out.

      The people who built my house spent a good bit of money on security, such as putting up a door with a decent lock. That I won’t give a potential theif 5$ if they agree not to break in is not because I don’t care about security. It’s because I would go broke from people demanding their free 5$.

      1. baconbits9

        There are numerous solutions to such a problem, the city could have the right to match any accepted offer on the apartment meaning that you couldn’t bluff them and claim that you had an offer from a would be drummer.

        The point though is the difference between the situations, whereby the people gaining the benefits in one are also absorbing the costs and in the other the people gaining the benefits are attempting to shift the costs onto someone else.

        The people who built my house spent a good bit of money on security, such as putting up a door with a decent lock. That I won’t give a potential theif 5$ if they agree not to break in is not because I don’t care about security. It’s because I would go broke from people demanding their free 5$.

        And would this desire not to be robbed give you the right to demand an interview with every potential buyer for every potential house in your city to determine if they might be a thief and have veto power over their purchase?

        1. Furslid

          No, but I expect any potential thieves to pay the costs of not stealing, even though I benefit from it. If I have an established right to quiet, I would expect potential drummers to pay the costs of not drumming.

          1. baconbits9

            Do you expect the thieves to pay for the locks on your door? Do you expect them to pay the salaries of the police? (Plus its weird to state that ‘thieves’ pay the cost of not stealing, if there is no stealing then no one is a thief, who is paying the costs then?).

          2. baconbits9

            But everyone who doesn’t steal is forgoing the profits of theft. Everyone is a possible thief, who thinks that it is reasonable to make everyone else pay for the locks on your door?

          3. idontknow131647093

            I think you have it backwards in this scenario. The question is more appropriately thought of as, “who thinks that it is reasonable to make everyone else pay for the locks on your doorprofits you forgo from not stealing?

          4. Furslid

            This got a little derailed. The key point is I will spend money to protect my rights by purchasing precautions. This is practical and requires a limited amount of resources. I will not spend money to bribe people not to violate my rights. Moral considerations aside, this is impractical. It gives people the incentive to threaten me and costs can balloon out of control.

          5. idontknow131647093


            I really don’t understand your question at all now. I expect people not to steal, but I know people dont often conform to my desires. Thus I purchase precautions like locks and car insurance. It would be best if there was some way for me to get the benefits of locks and car insurance for $0, but that is not the world we live in. Insurance (of all kinds) is a dead weight loss caused by randomness and bad actors. But we live in such a world because we don’t have a perfect world. If we did we wouldn’t need insurance, or money, or government.

  38. Thegnskald

    I have been working on a design for a form of density that should feel less hellish, while hopefully resolving a large part of the square-cube transportation problem produced by density. The current version:

    Imagine a skyscraper that is a cylindrical shell wrapping a park. The diameter of the footprint is 2,250 ft; the height of the building is 1,125 feet. (The goal being to permit enough light into the park area, except on the outskirts which would be more like open market areas, for unaided plant growth).

    The shell itself has a depth of, say, one hundred feet, and is subdivided into sections of twelve feet. Setting aside space for infrastructure, and rounding down, we arrive at five hundred sections per floor. Each section includes one outside unit and one inside unit, giving us 75,000 total units. The outer and inner units are divided by an interior hallway that wraps the entire building, divided into bicycling (or electric golf cart equivalents?) lanes on the interior and pedestrian lanes on the exterior, occupying about twenty feet. Each unit provides around four hundred square feet of living or office space. Freight elevators are spaced periodically as part of the infrastructure. Ideally, interior units overlooking the parks are “zoned” as residential, exterior units expected to be used as office space, store front, or other business units.

    The original plan was much grander – the goal being to make the interior space farmland for a theoretically self-sufficient arcology. That didn’t work out (not because it couldn’t be done, although it was a bit expensive, but because my actual goal was to see if the entire world population could be settled in the US, the answer to which is “Not without stacking farms on top of each other”.). This version is more optimized for pleasantness combined with density; by wrapping a park 13% of the size of Central Park in a cylindrical skyscraper, you can create a more nature-oriented space that also packs a smallish city into the area of a neighborhood (this construction occupies the space of 500 quarter acre lots, a typical size of suburban houses). The original design, being much grander in scope, also included mass transit built into the tower itself (a monorail system halfway up the tower); this version doesn’t need that, although a network of these buildings could be connected very easily with high density mass transit.

    Toss in thick walls and floors – this is specced out to allow a foot of additional insulation between each floor – and really nice balcony spaces overlooking the park, and you have something that would satisfice for the majority of people.

    Alternatively, you could pack two to three times as many people in, if you don’t particularly care about their home comforts. (Technically, you could probably shove a lot more people in – ten to twenty times as many people – but I am assuming US occupants who won’t put up with too much of that.)

    Without stacking people in, an area the size of about five hundred houses can comfortably house around a hundred thousand people, up to a quarter million if you use all space for residences instead of mixed development.


    You could make the hallways less claustrophobic by making them span more than one floor, so that they feel more like streets running between buildings, but this comes at other costs, such as requiring stairs or elevators to access the upper floors accessed by the streets, as well as increasing traffic density.

    1. eric23

      Look at an aerial photo (i.e. Google Maps) of Paris. Every city block is basically an 8-story donut-shaped building facing the streets, with common space in the middle. This allows for an extremely high density in which most people consider a very pleasant format. Most other European cities, like Barcelona or Berlin or Stockholm, have a variation of the same thing. No reason US cities couldn’t build like that. And except for Manhattan (NYC) and Boston, it would provide more than enough capacity to meet housing demand.

      1. Thegnskald

        The major element that is missing is incorporated transportation reduction; my thought is that by combining mixed-use development with internal walkways, that shops, restaurants, and offices will be able to service the occupants without imposing heavy traffic issues. Then, by building tall, you can get enough population density to support, say, a subway terminal underneath the structure.

        Potential issues with this design I can think of:

        Freight might require a rail line run to each building, and transporting freight within the structure might require specialized equipment/vehicles.
        People may still want cars to go outside the arcology, so a parking structure might need to adjoin it.
        Emergency services might be slowed considerably by the network; they must get to a freight elevator, ride it to the relevant level, then get to the situation, which might be non-trivial. Also, crowds might be harder to get through than traffic.
        The density would be optimized for double occupancy units; family units would take more space, and single occupancy would reduce the available density.
        Infrastructure like schools and medical care would probably need to be situated outside the building itself, meaning even if jobs could be balanced within the building with residential units, there would still be considerable traffic flow to and from. (Just not as much). Given the high density, you still need substantial transportation infrastructure to support the structure.
        If there is more demand for residential units than other units, residences might need to expand to include exterior wall units, which would likely have a less desirable vista.
        Traffic density within the structure might not support a lot of the businesses we would like to see within it.
        Traffic density within the structure might be prohibitive – seems unlikely, but can’t rule it out.
        Businesses with substantial exterior footprints – nightclubs with long lines, for example – could cause pedestrian traffic problems. Since networking effects would tend to cluster such businesses together, large areas of the building might have constant crowds causing traffic flow problems.

        You would also need very good ventilation systems for the building as a whole, and there would likely be considerable security requirements to make it work.

        1. eric23

          In Paris and similar places, the ground floor is typically retail (and restaurants, etc.) So the buildings are already mixed-use, and a high fraction of people’s trips are done by foot. 8 stories is more than enough to support an extensive subway network, which Paris already has. Schools are built in separate buildings from housing, but with a similar footprint.

          Only large industry requires freight rail. Consumer-oriented businesses, for example a supermarket or Wal-mart, are supplied by trucks.

          Tl;dr European countries have already figured out the optimum way of doing this, and when you reinvent the wheel, you are not doing it as well as they have.

      2. nameless1

        Yes, but we don’t actually like to live in them, just cannot afford the suburbian houses. Just like how not driving Ferraris does not reflect our preferences, but the price of Ferraris.

        The reason US cities are not like that is likely caring more about people’s preferences. People want a house with a garden. Not necessarily detached, but at least a small patch outside to put the barbecue somewhere and toys of the kid and maybe a small inflatable pool. So that you don’t have to leave your house in good weather.

        This is what we like but look at the price tag: basically no hope of affording it ever unless both you and your wife have managerial jobs and then who is looking after the kid?

  39. Garrett

    To extend the idea out a little bit: what happens if the people in Nodrumia decide that not only will they ban drumming (because it keeps people awake, and even shift-workers need to sleep) but to ensure maximum harmony they will ban people from having drums anywhere inside city limits? And what happens when a highway gets routed through the city? Does everybody going from home to band practice through the city now get fined, even if they aren’t stopping and/or drumming inside city limits?

  40. zima

    A fifth factor I would add is the degree to which the entity controls land (including natural resources, as opposed to improvements or other types of capital). The libertarian theory of property for capital is simple—you make something with your labor, it’s yours. For land, the theory is a lot more complicated and less widely agreed on—the most common view is that you can acquire land by mixing your labor to improve the land, so long as there is enough land for others. Thus, property rights over land should be more limited than other forms of property—especially when land is limited so one country or town’s claim to land means others won’t have enough.

    A major difference between a country or town and a company is that a country or town’s main power is its ownership of land—even land that is unimproved and therefore under libertarian theory should belong to no one. That is why countries and towns should have less power to regulate people who live on their land than companies do to regulate people who use their capital, even if exit were easy.

  41. J Mann

    I don’t see the libertarian problem in YIMBY. It’s obviously OK (IMHO) to set up your city so it’s Portland or Houston, and people who buy property there know what they’re getting.

    It’s also obviously OK to argue that Portland should be more like Houston, or vice versa. I guess it’s a little crummy if you bought into Portland and like it that way and 75% of the population decides to just eliminate zoning restrictions, but the ability to change the rules is itself one of the rules you bought into when you moved there.

  42. Garrett

    Counter example: California City.

    What puzzles me most about this isn’t that people have preferences and want to keep things the way they are/were when they moved in. It’s that they want to do so without accepting the side-effects of that desire. All of the NIMBY stuff conflicts with the other complaints about a lack of affordability. Duh. You have a place you like because of the way it is. Lots of people would like to live there. That drives up the bid price to live there. All of the affordable housing issues are merely changing *whose* preferences get fulfilled, not *how many* do.

  43. Doesntliketocomment

    On this subject I would suggest looking into colonias, which are essentially extra legal peri-urban housing developments. In a typical colonia, a landowner illegally subdivides a larger property and sells lots to a number of immigrants, who then build housing. This construction in most respects illegal, and without government oversight, and is thus generally done by the residents themselves by their own means. Over time, roads, utilities, and other improvements are made to the community by the residents, to the point where some older colonias look like dense but otherwise unremarkable subdivsions. What is most fascinating is that the transfer of property, construction of housing and improvement of public works happens without any formal legal status or protection. I think it’s an interesting phenomenon to consider vis-a-vis libertarian philosophy, but I’ve never heard it discussed from that perspective.

  44. Salem

    Isn’t the Nodrumia “conundrum” just Communist vs Capitalist trucks, redux?

    The libertarian answer, as set out there, is that the incentives for market entrepreneurs like Nodrumia Corporation (or, irl, James Irvine) in setting up towns, systems of governance, etc, are far better than the incentives for political entrepreneurs.

    1. nameless1

      Thank you for the link. I find Friedman’s argument oversimplified. Small bakers who bake bad bread lose money But if General Motors makes bad trucks, the shareholders lose money. So there is a long chain, shareholders try to push/incentivize the CEO to make good trucks, and this goes down 5 or 10 organizational levels until it arrives to people actually doing the assembly. Let’s introduce a term here: incentive decay. It is like a game of telephone. It is not trivial to make it the personal interest of any random mid to low manager to do a good job.

      My point is IMHO the real difference is small vs. big, not government vs. private. Small scale government, like the condo association or the mayor of a village of 500 people (personal experience) works. Small businesses have clear incentives. And even small-scale socialism, like the kibbutz, had positive results. Sure, at the end of they, even a few competing corporations are better than central planning, because the chain of incentive decay is shorter than from voters to government to planners to managers to workers, and because what Friedman correctly pointed out, choosing from a menu card vs. voting for a one size fits all meal for all.

      But in anything big, incentive decay is inevitable. And in anything small, even if it looks like a bad thing, like small scale socialism or government, I find that things are often very reasonable because other incentives at work: in a closely knit community, you don’t want to look like an idiot, you don’t want to look lazy, so people often end up doing reasonably good work.

      1. Plumber


        “Incentive decay” is a brilliant coinage. 

        I’m still more pro-democracy than pro-property “rights” because for most of my life I’ve been without property and one-person-one-vote represented my choices better than voting-with-your-pocket-book (and it’s hard to change my mind now!) but anyone who’s worked for (ot interacted with) large organizations (corporations and governments) can see where central planning fails, and my preference for small businesses and very local governments is a reason I’m against anti-NIMBY as it mostly seems to be about having larger governments taking away control from local residents. 

      2. DavidFriedman

        My point is IMHO the real difference is small vs. big, not government vs. private.

        If the result of the problems you describe is that GM makes worse trucks at a higher price than firms one twentieth its size, after a while GM goes out of the truck business or goes broke.

        Your “incentive decay” is commonly referred to as the principal agent problem. The issue of administrative diseconomies of scale vs coordination economies of scale is discussed in the Coase essay “The Nature of the Firm,” one of the two articles which earned Coase a well deserved Nobel.

        1. nameless1

          Please also consider that antitrust law does not allow price-fixing coordination between many small makers and vendors, but of course a large corporation can not be forced to have internal price competition, so as long as it is inside one legal entity, price-fixing is allowed, even entirely normal and expected. This legislation puts the guild at a direct disadvantage against the firm.

          Ever year, the Society of Swiss Builders publishes a recommended price list for works that are invoiced as a time and material basis, without a previous quote. The purpose is largely to be used for small changes in building projects, or one firm asking the other to lend me a crane operator because all mine are on sick leave. However this is also acts as a wonderful Schelling point for how to price the various works in actual quotes, go much above and the customer will ask you to justify it, go much below and you look like a low quality corner-cutting bidder. The result is a strong dampener put on price competition, which can of course be a bad thing. But it isn’t a regulation, it is a Schelling-signal. As a result, small firms who are often more responsive and flexible, have a certain advantage, because the price-fixing which is generally not allowed is kinda done for them.

      3. idontknow131647093

        I think you have grossly misidentified the problem here. The Kibbutz, for one, as far as I recall, in Israel failed pretty dramatically.

        The second real problem is that voters are not like shareholders of a corporation (unless that corporation is a true monopoly). A voter’s self interest and feedback mechanisms are nothing like a shareholders. A shareholder sees his stock prices and dividends, but a voter may not see the changes in his own pocketbook as a result of his voting. Or maybe he does, but even then he only sees it in his pocketbook without seeing it in others.

        A good example would be gay marriage. It costs a straight married person $0 to ban gay marriage, indeed, it benefits him because gays must pay more in taxes because they dont get marriage benefits. The straight man thus does not bear any of the costs of his choice to negative the gay couples. If he were a shareholder, however, and chose officers who refused to sell to gays, that would impact his pocketbook.

  45. nameless1

    There is an issue with options, exit, new-forming is the hidden assumption that doing what we like is far higher value or priority to most of us than associating with other people who may not like what we like. In the most extreme form, it is like saying a Superintelligence generating a simulated universe for everybody would be utopia. Despite it being fundamentally lonely.

    But we are species social to our core. We put up with the frustrations of social life instead of escaping to a cabin in the woods, despite how tempting that sometimes sounds.

    This is doesn’t scale up to large city level YIMBYing. I don’t think current SFians really put a high value into associating with yet another million newcomers, likely they have enough people around already.

    But there are usually people we do care about, a smaller circle maybe. And we just won’t go: well if you don’t like what I like, OK I will fsck off to this new colony on the Mars and maybe occasionally send you an e-mail. This isn’t how we roll.

    My point is that divorce is normally the last option when going on together seems really unbearable, it is not the first thing to think about when some differences arise.

    I know Nick Land would disagree. After all the Eternal Anglo is an individualist. But I am not Anglo and the US is rapidly becoming not majority Anglo or have already passed that. So there is this perspective. For most people exit is not an easily taken obvious solution.

    1. Forward Synthesis

      But we are species social to our core. We put up with the frustrations of social life instead of escaping to a cabin in the woods, despite how tempting that sometimes sounds.

      I don’t think you’re wrong, but there are those of us who aren’t very representative of our species. I think how much you enjoy social interaction is largely proportional to how average you are. The more compatible you are with other members of your species, the more social you will appear. Most people don’t have to worry too much about living around people who may not like what they like, because being within a normal range of personality and interests by definition, the people they are living around, while different, generally aren’t going to be so different as to cause grievous psychological alienation, and they can very easily sort themselves into sub-groups that represent them just fine.

      1. Michael Watts

        I think how much you enjoy social interaction is largely proportional to how average you are. The more compatible you are with other members of your species, the more social you will appear.

        The second sentence here seems right, but the first is basically incoherent. There are so many dimensions to “what you are like” that no one in the world is close to being “average”.

        The lack of grievous psychological alienation between members of a community that is basically getting along is more of a function of (1) most people not perceiving the large differences in personality and worldview that exist; and (2) those differences mostly not having any impact on person-to-person relations. It’s not a function of the differences not being large — they are.

        There was a good article a couple years back making this point for people’s physical dimensions ( ), but it applies just as much to personality dimensions.

      2. nameless1

        I find that compatibility can be important, but the strongest ties are often formed by e.g. hardship endured together. There are books about very different soldiers becoming brothers in arms e.g. Leon Uris’ Battle Cry. My best friends come from insane death-march software projects or failing exams together at college.

        Everybody’s normal instinct is to make our lives comfortable, I am doing that too, but it then leads to rather superficial and transitory social ties, like a shared hobby. It seems to me plenty of the social kind of happiness could be harvested from just throwing ourselves into difficult, highly uncomfortable things with others, even strangers. Anyone up for a 100km without sleeping hike in the Alps? 🙂

  46. fluorocarbon

    Honestly, I think you’re cherry-picking examples when you only talk about Noddrumia. I looked at some other cities in the State of Nature for comparison:

    – Drumattle: About 80% of the city is zoned for single-drum use. Whenever people suggest allowing two-drum units, it gets shot down. So instead, the city builds huge 100+ drum towers in already noisy areas, which everybody hates.

    – Drum York City: One of the drummiest places on the planet—if someone wanted a dense “drummable” neighborhood, they would drum here, and it’s often used as an example of a city the Noddrumians hate—old, rich, and retired residents still complain at city meetings when any new drums are proposed.

    – Droumston: Any amount of drums are allowed as long as there are at least 1.25 parking spaces per drummer.

    – Los Drumeles: People are driving over four hours a day to get to their jobs (as drummers). This is creating huge negative environmental externalities that should at least be balanced with the externalities of having more drums in neighborhoods that dislike drums.

    – San Drumcisco: Most of the drumming issues could be solved by rezoning one-drum and two-drum areas to two-drums and three-drums, but being San Drumcisco, everything is taken to the extreme and the DIMBY groups want to force massive 300+ drum circles everywhere.

    – Dromerville: The opposite of Noddrumia—this city is 90%+ multiple-drum units and the residents moved there because of the way it is. However, even so, zoning laws were passed and it’s illegal to build any new drum-friendly units; there are only 20 drums in the entire city that would be legal to build today.

    – Drumifornia: Created its own housing crisis by limiting drum-tax with a ballot initiative. Now new drums are prohibitively expensive because they have to make up the tax that existing drums aren’t paying. Instead of fixing this issue, residents form themselves into QIMBY and DIMBY groups and yell at each other.

  47. Plumber

    “…If the California state government is really concerned about the housing shortage, but also doesn’t want to densify San Francisco, here is what it can do. Encourage some company to buy a promising but currently empty tract of land (I’m saying “some company”, but we all know it would end up being Peter Thiel). Give them various concessions to lure people in, like that people living there only have to pay half as much in state taxes (or, if they really want to start a land rush, they can exempt the area from the plastic straw ban). The company has strong incentives both to make the city as populous and dense as possible, and to make it the sort of place where rich people want to live and businesses want to operate. Tech companies, social-climbers, and the like move there instead of San Francisco. The San Franciscan NIMBYs are happy, the tech companies are happy, the company that owns the land is happy, and the California state government is happy…..”

    @Scott Alexander


    I’m going to re-post something that I wrote in the NIMBY thread:

    “…..Currently I work as a plumber for The City and County of San Francisco (mostly repairing plumbing fixtures in one of the Jails), but I have done some work in San Francisco’s sewage treatment plants, and I had a wastewater treatment plant operators certification, and know a little bit about this.

    San Francisco (where I work), Oakland (where I was born and have mostly lived), and Berkeley (where I spent most of my childhood), unlike newer towns, are all older cities that don’t have seperate sewage and storm pipes in the streets, which causes problems during heavy rain, and the Federal government fines cities for how much raw sewage goes into the bay during downpours.

    The current treatment plants can’t handle many more people, more land and money is needed.

    If the pipes under the streets were rebuilt this would be less of an issue, but that would be extremely disruptive (Hey can you please not flush, or use the street you live on for a while?), and really why should current residents tax themselves more, and be displaced so more people can be crammed into an already overburdened area?

    Instead of up here, why not build in south San Jose, there’s lots of land down there, and it’s even closer to the “Silicon Valley” that seems to be the source of the overbidding that’s causing this problem”

    and I’ll ask, why isn’t this happening already? 

    Why try to cram more people into San Francisco? 

    Why try to change Berkeley? 

    Go south young men!

    Please build in San Jose where the empty land is instead. 

    You don’t have to tear up so many existing streets and displace so many existing residents. 

    If you want bay views the Alviso neighborhood is relatively empty, and it isn’t toxic like the Bayview/Hunters Point, and Treasure Island.

    “Silicon Valley” and Santa Clara county still has low density, leave Berkeley and San Francisco alone!


    Also, I’m probably whatever is the opposite of Libertarian, and “Nodrumia” sounds AWESOME!!!, I lived in a nice family filled and quiet apartment building, then the Costa-Hawkins Act went into effect, and one by one my quiet neighbors were replaced by loud-up-all-night-college-students (hates collegians forever!) making it a HELL, and I’d pray for the draft to come back and send the students overseas!

    1. eric23

      Adding more residents will decrease the amount of infrastructure needed per resident, making it more affordable.

    2. DavidFriedman

      Please build in San Jose where the empty land is instead.

      The San Jose government won’t let you.

      A good many years ago, people at the tiny private school our kids were then going to were considering the possibility of buying instead of renting. I investigated one potentially interesting piece of property, and was told two things:

      1. The present developers had city permission for what they were planning to do with the land, and the land with such permission was worth much more than the land without it.

      2. Whether one got city planning permission was up to the city councilman from that part of San Jose.

      In the most recent election, there was a ballot issue that was being pushed by some developers who wanted to build a bunch of housing on land currently zoned industrial and not being used for anything. The mayor strongly opposed it, and it didn’t pass.

      There was a news story recently about a large farm in an urbanized area of the South Bay, not San Jose, which was being sold. The land was zoned for agricultural use and the price it was being sold for was easily an order of magnitude, I think more, below what I calculated that amount of land in that town would sell for if being used for housing.

      It may well be that the optimal solution is not mainly housing in SF but housing elsewhere in the Bay Area, presumably including places closer to SF than San Jose, but political restrictions block that too.

      I’ve seen the claim that between eighty and ninety percent of the land in the Bay Area cannot be legally used for housing, through some combination of park land, zoning restrictions, … . I haven’t checked it, but I saw the claim being made both by a source that thought more land should be available and by one that thought less should be, which makes me suspect that it’s probably about right.

      1. Plumber


        You seem most able to show evidence to make me reconsider my views, so I’ll ask you:
        To me the drive to re-build San Francisco (and Berkeley and Oakland) looks to me to be the same story of pushing out the powerless that was in the case in 16th century Britain, 

        and in the 18th century

        and the 19th century

        the United States in the 1930’s

        San Francisco in the 1950’s,

        as it is in San Francisco today.

        I get that a big part of the problem is that tenants don’t own their homes, any solutions?

        1. DavidFriedman

          Before responding to your questions, I want to make sure you saw my revision to my earlier numbers on the effects of Prop 13, which was in a thread old enough you might not have seen it. A commenter pointed out that I wasn’t taking account of inflation in measuring state spending and also that Prop 13 did not, as I had thought, simply freeze property assessments, it pushed them back two years and then froze them (subject to a fixed annual increase).

          So I redid my calculation allowing for both inflation and population increase, calculating the per capita real state expenditure.

          Prop 13 passed in 1978. State expenditure (real per capita) in 1978-79 was about twenty percent higher than in the previous year. My guess is that a lot of assessments had just been raised due to increases in housing prices, producing both a lot of money for the state and the political pressure that led to Prop 13.

          In 1979-80 real per capita state expenditure was slightly lower than in the previous year but much higher than in the year before that. It declined for the next few years and then started back up, but was never below its 1977-8 value. By 1986-7 it was above the 1978-9 high. Here are the figures:

          Year …….. Exp/CPI*Popn
          1977-78… 8.2
          1978-79… 10.3
          1979-80… 10.2
          1980-81… 10.1
          1981-82… 9.4
          1982-83… 8.8
          1983-84… 8.7
          1984-85… 9.3
          1985-86… 9.9
          1986-87… 10.4

          I don’t think those numbers are consistent with your view that Prop 13 resulted in making the state government poorer, hence its products worse, than in the past, unless you limit the past to the single year of 1978-9.

          On the other hand, these figures are all for the state government, and some of things you were concerned with might have been produced by local governments. I was unable to find historical figures on the pattern of expenditure by local governments.

        2. DavidFriedman

          To me the drive to re-build San Francisco (and Berkeley and Oakland) looks to me to be the same story of pushing out the powerless that was in the case in 16th century Britain,

          Page not found.

          and in the 18th century,

          Interesting but highly partisan account—whether accurate I don’t know. Checking the Penguin Atlas of World Population History, the population of Scotland was 1 million in 1700 and 1.5 million in 1800, which doesn’t fit his story of mass depopulation. On the other hand, that’s for all of Scotland and he is talking about the highlands, so perhaps population loss there was balanced by increase in the lowlands. There is a more detailed and less passionate account on Wikipedia.

          the United States in the 1930’s,

          That’s describing what happened as farming became less labor intensive, a pattern that goes back a good deal farther. In 1850, farmers were about 64% of workers, by 1920 down to about 30%. Currently about 2%.

          San Francisco in the 1950’s,

          A good example of why I am a libertarian.

          I grew up near Urban Renewal Project 1 (I think) in Chicago , which eliminated a chunk of low income housing in Hyde Park, the area where the University of Chicago is, and replaced it with town houses. The classic critique of urban renewal was The Federal Bulldozer, written by Martin Anderson, a libertarian. The modern version of that conflict is the Kelo case, where the losing side (supporting the home owner against the city that wanted to seize her home–and did) was the Institute for Justice, a libertarian law firm.

          as it is in San Francisco today.

          The argument against NIMBY, at least by libertarians, isn’t that the government should seize land and change its use to what the government wants, it is that the government should stop preventing people from building things on land they own. In the SF context my guess—I don’t know a lot about it—is that without restrictions you would have a lot of single family homes, currently valued at a million dollars or so each (from a quick look at Zillow), replaced by high rise apartment buildings. Presumably the sellers of the homes, assuming they wanted to stay in SF, would buy luxury condos that either cost less than what they sold their homes for or were preferable to those homes—which is why they would sell. Since the land area that holds five houses would provide apartments, luxury or otherwise, for many more than five families, the net effect would be more people living in SF at lower cost, the opposite of the pattern you are objecting to.

  48. Jacob

    I have a friend who analogizes land use rights to a separable bundle of sticks. You might have the right to live on a piece of land, but that’s just one of the sticks, it doesn’t (necessarily) give you the right to drill for oil, build a skyscraper, or in this particular thought experiment, play drums. Damming a stream in a wooded area might infringe on other peoples usage of that stream, even collecting rainwater might do the same. So while I very much think we should default to a libertarian “let people do what they want” position on any particular usage right, if there is an externalized cost it means the stick doesn’t actually belong to you. It belongs to everyone around you, ie the government, and so they have the right to control it.

    Irrelevant sidenote: As a drummer and a YIMBY I experience constant internal struggle.

    1. DavidFriedman

      It belongs to everyone around you, ie the government

      Up to that point you were giving the standard law and econ account of property rights, going back at least to Coase. But the implication is not that it belongs to the government, it’s that some sticks in the bundle may be worth more to someone else than to the land owner and a sensible set of institutions will allow that someone else to end up with those sticks.

      In the case of riparian rights–rights to draw water from a stream–there can be, in some places is, detailed law determining who has what rights. That doesn’t require the government to allocate the water any more than ordinary property rights to land require the government to decide what the land is used for.

  49. Brad

    If Nodrumia wants to go off and do their own thing, I think that’s fine. But if it’s private property, it’s private propery. They can pave the roads, purify the water, treat the sewage, patrol the streets, and so on. What I don’t think is reasonable if for people to say:

    “You outsiders sit down and shut up. We don’t care what you think, want, or need. We don’t care about maximizing the collective good. This is our space to do whatever we want. We and not you.

    Yes, of course we still expect all the financial benefits that flow to other towns. Why would you think otherwise?!?”

    There’s an analogy here to public vs private schools. People have the right to go off and teach their kids that the world is flat and the body is made up of four humours. It isn’t illegal to start such a private school. But it is entirely unreasonable to expect us to pay for it. We run public schools, at least in theory for the public benefit (externalities), an organization that says screw your public benefit we do what we want, has an awful lot of chutzpah to put its hand out anyway.

    1. arbitraryvalue

      They can pave the roads, purify the water, treat the sewage, patrol the streets, and so on.

      Those things are already paid for mostly by local property taxes; I happen to own a house somewhere where I have to purify my own water and treat my own sewage because the town doesn’t do it. (I would say that when an area is too dense for everyone to have their own well and septic tank, then that’s roughly when it is too dense for me to enjoy living there.)

      The federal (and sometimes state) government does subsidize some local services, but the inhabitants of those towns you don’t approve of still pay federal taxes. (And they tend to have higher incomes (and higher taxes) than the average American.) I don’t see why they are fundamentally less entitled to federal subsidies.

      1. Brad

        Everyone else pays federal taxes and *also* isn’t actively working to strangle one of the most important engines of growth we as a nation have.

        1. arbitraryvalue

          Should there be an obligation to create economic growth or to enable the creation of economic growth by others? My personal answer is “no” – I’d rather live in a country where there is less economic growth but local development is up to local residents than in a country where there is more economic growth but someone in the state capital hundreds of miles away can choose to destroy my enjoyment of my house/neighborhood because doing so increases net GDP.

          1. Brad

            I mean, it seems like it shouldn’t be an all or nothing thing. There should be a way for you to opt out of the collective effort to make this a better nation but then also not get the spillover benefits from all the people that haven’t opted out.

    2. Nabil ad Dajjal

      I think the central disagreement here is who earned the 32% of each taxpayer’s income that gets paid into various levels of government.

      Your view has merit. In a highly interconnected society, there’s a certain sense in which “you didn’t build that” is true. If you start from the position that everything you earn is the result of gifts from society, then being allowed to keep 68% of the money you earn is already generosity. Asking for further control over how society spends its money is greedy and ungrateful.

      But I and a lot of Americans don’t see it that way. With exceptions like beggars and bank-robbers, income is earned when the person creates value for society. A lot of that value is already externalized so income earners are already paying their share into the broader society even before tax. Taxes are necessary to maintain essential public services (inb4 David Friedman), but taxpayers should have as much control as is reasonably possible over how their money is spent. Returning a portion of the property tax a homeowner pays into their locality as a school voucher is the logical extension of one of our country’s founding principals, no taxation without representation. Having that representation on an individual rather than a district level is making the process more democratic, not less.

      Anyway, of you want to actually convince people and not just yell at them this is the disagreement that you need to engage with. Convince people that it isn’t their money and then they’ll let you spend it for them.

      1. Brad

        A lot of that value is already externalized so income earners are already paying their share into the broader society even before tax.

        That’s the crux of the issue. We have a situation here where a group of people quite deliberately want to reduce their positive externalities as compared to a parallel community. There should be some response that the broader nation can take to in turn reduce the spillover benefits that these refusenik communities get from everyone that isn’t sandbagging. Otherwise the nation is rewarding defection.

        1. Nabil ad Dajjal

          If you internalize a positive externality, you incentivize the pro-social behavior. It’s the mirror image of internalizing a negative externality.

          People not doing things exactly the way that you want isn’t anti-social or harmful. If they’re actually causing some kind of harm that would be one thing, but nobody is obligated to be optimally social according to the particular views of one subset of the public.

          1. Brad

            By the same token society isn’t obligated to subsidize the yeoman farmer fantasies of people that nonetheless want to work in cities.

          2. Nabil ad Dajjal

            Can you point out any such subsidy, or is it more of the same internalizing of positive externalities?

            I can think of a few possibilities. The interstate highway system maybe, or tax deductions for homeowners. But right now that’s just me speculating about what specifically you object to; it would be easier to talk about this stuff if you put your cards on the table.

          3. cryptoshill

            We heavily subsidize four things in America:
            Student Loans
            Public Transit

            Public Transit is more subsidized percent-wise, but roads are more subsidized in real terms.

            So yes the Federal Home Loans (both FHA loans and the loan rates being subsidized by government acting as a buyer of last resort) and tax deductions for mortgage interest both are a “subsidy” for single-family unit dwellers.

            I think Brad and I can agree that we should either except rent from taxes (as well as mortgage principal) or we should remove the SALT deductions.

          4. Brad

            How about sewers, roads, water systems and the largest bank in the entire world giving away money at submarket rates with barely any underwriting to start?

    3. cryptoshill

      But why is it ok that the parents who are sending their kids to a private school in the area are paying for YOUR kids to go to the public school, because they don’t magically get out of property tax if they paid their own way?

      The shoe is on the other foot, here.

      As far as school vouchers are concerned – I support it because one of the things that is pretty apparent is that the larger the percentage of federal funds in the school’s budget (vs. private or local tax or whatever) the worse the school is for the students. Why is this?
      1. ) Schools receiving federal money are teaching the *most* impoverished (thus, through a lot of correlational effects, the most difficult to teach) students.
      2. ) Federal money comes with all kinds of strings attached, my high school had enough money from local taxes to tell the Federal Government to take a hike when NCLB came around – and I think we can all agree that is a good result.

      School choice at least resolves some of these problems, by reducing the effect of the community you grew up/live in on your eventual schooling, and resolves the strings attached problem by using the mechanism of “if you suck, people won’t choose to spend their federal dollars on you”.

      Using it as an example of “people expecting government handouts for their weird religious education” is weird and wrong (although I have no doubt that there would be some weird religious schools that would receive federal vouchers). People who are currently giving their kids weird religious educations are subsidizing *you*, not the other way around.

      1. Brad

        The persistence of this notion that taxes are basically tuition and that paying then creates and entitlement is bizarre to me considering that proponents of this view never seem to connect the dots vis-a-vis the people without school aged children.

        Taxes are completely orthogonal to the question of who is and isn’t receiving handouts. If there’s spending for private benefit, that’s a handout. Public schools are ostensibly not a handout because they are run for the benefit of society and just happen to benefit students and parents.

        1. Nabil ad Dajjal

          So what’s the purpose of the public school system in your view?

          If the point is getting a populace which knows reading, ‘ritting, and ‘rithmatic then you should be thrilled that the same number of students can be educated to a higher standard at a lower cost. I don’t know the national numbers, but here in the city charter schools have done wonders for black students with no negative impact on the scores of students of other races. Way more kids are reading and doing math at grade level than they would have otherwise.

          If the point is indoctrination to an ideology shared by a plurality or even a slim majority of the population, then fuck that shit. Why should non-socialist Americans have to pay for their kids to get lectured from the “People’s History of the United States” just because the teachers union leans that way ideologically? This is why we had a separation of church and state to begin with.

          1. Brad

            It doesn’t matter what I think they should do. The public schools are ostensibly run for the public good while private schools make no bones about the fact that they are run for private benefit.

            Charter schools are a weird intermediate thing, but as long as they are ultimately under the control of the public and obliged to serve the public good, with flexibility delegated for instrumental reasons, I think they can be considered public for this purpose.

          2. albatross11

            As Janet pointed out above, if you think schooling children provides positive externalities, it’s hard to see why that would only apply to public schools. Surely private schools and homeschoolers produce similar positive externalities.

          3. Matt M

            The public schools are ostensibly run for the public good while private schools make no bones about the fact that they are run for private benefit.

            If we accept that education in general has significant positive externalities, isn’t it possible that a very well run private school whose primary purposes is for private benefit (but still provides the externalities – despite their best efforts to contain the benefits) would still benefit society more than a very poorly run public school that tries to do “what’s best for society” but actually is just a spoils program designed to enrich members of the teachers’ union?

          4. Brad

            Sure that’s a possibility, but what’s the upshot? Some elaborate externality inspection and calculation apparatus? It seems like a reasonable place to draw the line at least ostensibly trying to serve the public good.

          5. Matt M

            It seems like a reasonable place to draw the line at least ostensibly trying to serve the public good.

            The fact that you yourself throw the ostensibly in there, as if in anticipation of someone objecting that they clearly don’t live up to their own ambitions, speaks volumes.

            US public schools outside of upper-class suburbs suck shit by virtually any metric imaginable. I have a tough time imagining anything you could replace them with that would be much worse. Putting kids back in the coal mines would probably be a better solution.

          6. idontknow131647093

            @ Matt M

            I disagree. I think the public schools do a good job on everything BUT COST.

            They are too expensive, otherwise they work great. Finnish-Americans outperform Finns in Finland, same the Chinese-Americans, Somali-Americans, etc etc. The only difference is most countries with GDP/capita that people like to compare us with don’t have a lot of Somali-Swedes. Indeed, we have seen the relative implosion of various European societies over minority numbers that the US would scoff at.

          7. Matt M

            Hence my comment of “outside of upper class suburbs”

            If the schools only perform well “educating” the types of children who were going to perform well regardless of what you did with them, then they aren’t performing well at all.

          8. albatross11

            I suspect most private schools express a strong set of values surrounding the common good. Certainly Catholic schools do.

            Most of the benefit of any schooling is going to fall on the students who receive it. (Along with most of the costs, note.) Positive externalities come from having an educated literate population, and that happens whether the school is named “Park Vale Elementary” or “St Mary’s.”

            There are other social goals that people try to accomplish with schools, which may or may not produce a positive externality in the end. But if we want to debate those, we should debate them on their own merits.

            In rural Missouri in my youth, high school sports were a pretty significant source of entertainment and community pride, for example. That doesn’t seem like a great purpose for your school system, but I’m pretty sure abolishing the football teams in those towns would have been massively unpopular.

          9. Plumber

            “…US public schools outside of upper-class suburbs suck shit by virtually any metric imaginable. I have a tough time imagining anything you could replace them with that would be much worse. Putting kids back in the coal mines would probably be a better solution”,

            @Matt M,

            Judging by my own memories of public schools in the 1970’s and ’80’s you’re exaggerating, but not that much.

            From my experience a library card is more educational, I learned far more at the public library, and sneaking into the libraries at UC Berkeley (especially the Morrison reading room) then in class (though I did learn some from stealing textbooks that were left unguarded one day in 8th grade), unless you count learning how to dodge, duck, and what being punched unconscious feels like.

            While the leaky roof rent controlled apartment in Oakland was Hellish (especially after the Costa-Hawkins act and adults moved out and college students moved in) our son’s public elementary school in Oakland was surprisingly good, but we paid $550,000 for a house in Albany which had “higher ranked” schools, and they turned out to be surprisingly bad, and the last straw was a classmate trying to stab our son.

            At 13 years old he’s now being homeschooled and attending a Spanish class at Berkeley City College which seems a better option. 

            For myself I think the older plumbers at my unions night school did a better job teaching trigonometry to we apprentices than Berkeley High School did (and by better I mean at all).

            I’ve been reading about how Tudor era education worked, first, almost all youths went “into service” no matter their social class, even the upper class kids would be “pages”, “squires”, “maids”, and “ladies-in-waiting”, rural kids would work alongside their parents,  and just as often for wealthier neighbors, and even just those that were deemed “good influences”, there wasn’t the age segregation that our current system has and children learned from elders.

            The Tudor city and town artisan and merchant apprentice system is of most interest to me, parents who could afford to would pay to have their teenage children apprenticed to “masters” and “mattresses” tht they felt could teach them skills (and it was often thought that teens were more likely to listen to adults that weren’t their parents, so even if the “master” was the same trade as the parents, the kids were still apprenticed), both boys and girls were apprenticed, though the trades were often different (more boys were masons, more girls weavers, et cetera). “Orphans” (sometimes the parents were alive but poor)  were also apprenticed, usually younger than teenage, which was paid for by the town (I’m reminded of our current “foster care” system), and being an apprentice then wasn’t like being an apprentice carpenter, electrician or plumber today (for one thing you could be younger than 18), and while the same “indentured” language is used today, the apprentices were effectively adopted into their masters and mistresses families, including corporal punishment, but they were limits, one 16th century apprentice in the City of Exeter escaped his master after a brutal bearing that left his back bleeding, and the town put the master in stocks with the apprentice standing next to him showing his bare back so passersby could see.

            In their early 20’s apprentices would graduate to Journeyman status, work for wages until they set up shop themselves, usually in their late 20’s to early 30’s, upon which they would get married and start families (peasants in the countryside got married a little bit earlier, usually in their mid 20’s, and upper class women married in their late teens).

            A complete adoption of the Tudor system would be too radical today, but bit-by-bit some elements could be brought back. 

            First: High School is too long, it was only in the 1930’s that the last two years were added, get rid of them, and let kids go to community colleges and craft trades apprenticeships instead, and subsidize youth employment. 

            Where to get the money? 

            Well, besides my usual list of what to tax more  (that would you Musk and Thiel), and the money saved by eliminating two years of high school, in most states the highest paid government employee is a college basketball or football coach, make that a voluntary position, that free’s up millions of dollars. 

            Still not enough money?

            Turn the UC’s and CSU’s into regular community colleges, and stop paying the faculty so much!

            Still not enough?

            Shorten Jail and Prison times, hire more cops instead to deter crimes.

            Still not enough?

            Turn off the televisions in Jails, and more time in “safety cells” instead of furnished ones, and you don’t need the sentences to be as long for a deterrent. 

            Still not enough?

            Hire more tool users and less “managers” in government.

            Why are there less craftsmen actually fixing things at the Department of Public Works now but more desk jockeys in Building A doing well, whatever it is they do?

            I don’t need to take a class for the tenth time about how bad asbestos and lead exposure is, just buy some respirator filters instead!

          10. DavidFriedman

            On the subject of alternative educational models, two other examples you might find of interest:

            West, in Education and the Industrial Revolution, discusses the situation in English industrial towns in the early 19th century, where education was private and the population, by our standards, very poor. Teaching was often by people such as retired ship captains, with no educational credentials but likely to be more interesting and impressive to kids than the teachers in our system. The data suggest that average number of hours of schooling per year was about the same there as in the contemporary Prussian state system.

            Another interesting case is modern Amish. They won a Supreme Court case allowing them to take their kids out of school after eighth grade and educate them at home, which mostly meant the boys learning to run a farm and the girls to run a household. For many of the kids, education through eighth grade is in one or two room schools, with teachers who themselves have no formal education past eighth grade.

            In recent decades Amish, aside from farming, have been quite successful in starting small businesses, which suggests that their educational pattern produces people able to manage for themselves reasonably well. And they are all bilingual, in a home language that is one of two German dialects (depending on Amish group) and English.

            Happy to hear you are home schooling, by the way. Have you considered home unschooling?

            Or is that what you are already doing?

        2. cryptoshill

          You’re not going to get me on people without school aged children – people without school-aged children largely don’t live in areas with high property taxes for good schools. So they find a way to not pay the taxes by *not living in NIMBY neighborhoods*. Some people explicitly do find a way to do this as school-aged parents by living somewhere with low property tax and then paying money for the good schools. Either way I will agree – people who do not have kids are subsidizing people with kids in terms of educational costs.

          If an educated populace is the net goal that produces all these “societal benefits” – then you should be absolutely fine giving people handouts to go get one. In fact, I predict that you are totally fine with the way the federal government subsidizes the risk of student loans to get a university education! Even though the math on “societal benefits” of universities is very bad.

          You are revealing that “the part about education that I like is that everyone is in the same room being inculcated with the same cultural values” – which is *totally fine*, but is not the sort of thing I would expect from someone as progressive as you are.

          1. Brad

            If an educated populace is the net goal that produces all these “societal benefits” – then you should be absolutely fine giving people handouts to go get one.

            Inasmuch as the spending is for the purpose of the public good and not private benefit, it’s a not a handout. The issue here is that people want to do their own thing for their reasons but get the same money that we spend on things that are dedicated to the public good.

            In fact, I predict that you are totally fine with the way the federal government subsidizes the risk of student loans to get a university education! Even though the math on “societal benefits” of universities is very bad.

            You’re wrong. You can search prior SSC comment threads for the details.

            You are revealing that “the part about education that I like is that everyone is in the same room being inculcated with the same cultural values” – which is *totally fine*, but is not the sort of thing I would expect from someone as progressive as you are.

            Wrong again. I’ve argued in these pages that public schools in wealthy areas ought to be abolished as a waste of money. How do you square that with your model of me?

          2. cryptoshill

            Brad – the benefits of education spending is primarily the individuals being educated – not the state or “society”. In fact, the math is *much worse* for society as a whole than it is for individuals.

            So by your model, it’s a handout. Less of a handout than say, medicare, but still a handout.

            I don’t see how your bit about abolishing public schools paid for by rich people’s taxes doesn’t square with my model of you. Unless of course you’re on a platform of abolishing public school altogether.

          3. Brad

            If I was all about public schools as indoctrination centers then why would I favor abolishing them in the places where future powerful people disproportionately live?

          4. cryptoshill

            Because rich people’s kids are going to be going to private schools anyway, and largely lean the direction you want them to.

            I just don’t see a whole lot of society-wide benefit for public education past the eighth grade, and considering you are at least somewhat of a realist I’m not sure what “massive social benefits” we’re getting that aren’t largely just a handout of daycare services for our 12-18 year old children.

        3. quanta413

          Education past the 8th grade or so has questionable external benefits. Most people don’t remember high school material a few years after finishing school.

          I see no problem with not taxing people without kids for schools and just having parents fund schools.

          1. Brad

            I don’t really have a dog in the empirical question fight. My point was about the ostensible purpose of the two kinds of institutions (public and private schools).

      2. wysinwygymmv

        Public education generates huge positive externalities. It almost certainly increases the literacy and numeracy rate (even if schools are not quite as good at this as we would like, it seems implausible to suggest they have no effect whatsoever), and I suspect pretty much everyone underestimates the benefits of herding almost all teenagers into one large building to prevent them from getting into (or just causing) trouble.

        1. Nabil ad Dajjal

          The debate here isn’t “school or no school,” it’s “one government-run school or multiple privately-run but government-supervized schools.”

          Kids are still being herded into buildings and taught how to read and write. We can debate quality of education and whether or not it’s more efficient to herd every child into one building or have multiple pens for parents to choose from, but those are very different arguments.

          1. wysinwygymmv

            That’s irrelevant to my point, which is that parents that want to send their kids to private schools still get a benefit from public schools even though their own children aren’t attending.

            Similarly, taxpayers with no children get a benefit from public schools even though their own (non-existent) children aren’t attending.

            It doesn’t look like it’s well-established that privately run schools can be operated better than public schools on the scales that public schools are run at the same budget. I hope people are working on this problem, but as things stand, it seems like public schools deliver a pretty good value.

          2. albatross11

            Yeah, the question w.r.t. voucher plans is: Should we provide free public education by having the local government run free schools, or should we do so by having the government pay some standard level of tuition at privately run schools. There are arguments both ways there.

            This is entirely different from whether people who don’t use whatever mechanism is being used to provide education should get out of paying local taxes.

            I don’t see any overlap between these issues.

          3. albatross11


            It depends on where you live. There are a fair number of places where people routinely live until they have kids, and then move, because the public schools in that area are so shitty. A substantial number of parents pay their own money for private schools, all over the country. A smaller (but still decent) number of parents homeschool their kids.

            None of this looks like strong evidence that public schools are providing a good value across the board. There is a huge amount of variation, with some public schools doing a good job and some doing a lousy job[1].

            For a lot of people, the choice they face is to either move to a more expensive neighborhood or pay private school tuition, when they’re living in a lousy school district.

            [1]It’s not so easy to untangle that from the nature of the students the different schools have–when your students are mostly middle-class white kids, things seem to go better than when they’re mostly poor black kids, regardless of how you run your school. But public schools in DC and Baltimore are famously horrible in just about every level–corrupt, unsafe, academically lousy, etc.

          4. Nabil ad Dajjal

            No, it’s exactly relevant to your point.

            All of the benefits that you’re talking about are from the majority of the population going to a school. You go so far as to helpfully point out that even a crappy school provides these benefits.

            So why do they have to be government-run? It’s not as though nobody else knows how to run a school; the Catholic Church had been doing it for centuries before America was even discovered. And the funding source is the same, so it’s not as though it’s placing some huge financial burden on the parents.

          5. wysinwygymmv


            But public schools in DC and Baltimore are famously horrible in just about every level–corrupt, unsafe, academically lousy, etc.

            Sure, but charter schools in those areas don’t seem to substantially outperform the public schools (unless they get to select their students) which suggests to me that the schools in question are actually a fairly good value compared to plausible alternatives.

            Actually not sure about this, I’d have to research. Charter schools seem to do a little better on average, but that seems to be because some of the public schools are abysmal — possibly confirming your point.

            @Nabil ad Dajjal:

            No, it’s exactly relevant to your point.

            If you think so, then you don’t understand what point I’m trying to make. Probably because you decided you’d prefer to ride your hobby horse than to understand what the person you’re arguing with is actually saying.

            So why do they have to be government-run?

            I never said they have to be government-run — because that is not the argument I am making. If you think it is then you have misunderstood my argument.

            Here, let me establish the context for you:

            But why is it ok that the parents who are sending their kids to a private school in the area are paying for YOUR kids to go to the public school, because they don’t magically get out of property tax if they paid their own way?

            The question is “why is it ok that…” I say it is OK because:

            Public education generates huge positive externalities.

            Similarly, if I do not have a car, I am not exempted from those taxes that go to refilling potholes, in part because fixing potholes generates positive externalities that benefit me. Arguably, a childless taxpayer benefits more from public education than a car-less taxpayer benefits from fixing potholes.

            In other words, public education is a public service.

            What you clearly really want to get in an argument about is whether there’s a better way to provision that public service than public schools. I haven’t taken an explicit stance on that.

            Since you clearly can’t contain yourself, though, my opinion: I don’t think the data make a compelling case that there are scalable alternatives to public schools that are substantially better and/or cheaper.

          6. quanta413

            I highly doubt the positive externalities of public school are equal to the total cost of sending children to school. Even if they were, there is large private benefit being delivered. Well at least up to middle school or maybe some part of high school.

            It’d be very reasonable for people without children to pay much less, and people with children to be able to move funding to a different school. It’s not like parents get to pocket the money. The public receives the external benefits regardless of where the children go to school. And the person with children pays taxes either way. There’s no connection here.

          7. Janet


            The “huge positive externalities” are due, not to public schools per se, but to the education the children receive. That is, there’s a huge positive externality to private schooling also, and to home schooling– indeed, the externalities are significantly higher, since nobody but the parents bears the costs, yet everybody else still gets the benefits.

            So again: why shouldn’t parents be reimbursed (via voucher) for the education expenses that they could have, quite legitimately, imposed on the public purse, yet do not? (Provided, of course, that they show that the proposed result is actually achieved, say by testing the children to ensure that they are in fact being educated, of course.) It’s entirely possible for this to be financially beneficial to everyone, given that the costs for private schools and home schools are almost always significantly lower than the public schools’ costs.

        2. DavidFriedman

          Literacy and numeracy are primarily private goods–my ability to read makes me more productive, increasing my income, and expands the range of what I can do, increasing my happiness.

          Also, it isn’t clear that compulsory public schooling increases the literacy rate. West’s book, Education and the Industrial Revolution, looks into the 19th century data on this. The data are not very good, but there doesn’t seem to be any observable increase in the rate at which literacy was increasing associated with the shift from entirely private (in England) to almost entirely public, compulsory, state funded schooling.

          The comparison between the English and Prussian systems early in the century, when the former was entirely private and the latter public and compulsory, suggested that the average time in school was about the same for both.

    4. Douglas Knight

      I think that there is an analogous argument that is correct, but I think this argument is pretty much just wrong and you are drawing attention to all the wrong details. The subsidies you mention are small, which is why you are forced to equivocate on what bundle of taxes you mean.

      The argument that I think is correct is that people who live in the suburb live there specifically because it is near the city. Maybe it is useful to think of this as an implicit, non-financial subsidy, but I think it is dangerous for communication. If the town existed “to do its own thing” and were swallowed up by the expanding city, I would have more sympathy for its residents; as in the example of the hog farm. But suburbs exist because of the city and even when older towns are swallowed, they are mostly taken over by people with suburban purposes before it becomes an issue.

      1. Brad

        This is a good point, and one that I tried to make in the original NIMBY thread, though I framed it perhaps unhelpfully in terms of ingratitude.

    5. MH

      “If Nodrumia wants to go off and do their own thing, I think that’s fine. But if it’s private property, it’s private propery. They can pave the roads, purify the water, treat the sewage, patrol the streets, and so on.”

      I think it’s worth pointing out there that “property” is not some kind of natural thing in the world that we managed to trip over one night in the dark when walking to the bathroom. It’s just a set of rules that we made up to serve a purpose, about who can do what to which stuff. So saying that something is private property without a lot of background into exactly what society/legal system is being talked about is pretty empty, just like saying that someone someone is driving on the wrong side of the road. You don’t know which side they’re on until you know what the rules are for the specific road that they’re on.

      For example, there are countries where owning land does not come with the right to restrict movement across it, or pick fruit growing on it.* If property was actually the kind of thing that we could talk about outside of an agreed on set of rules we’d be able to say they were wrong. And it might be a bad way of doing things, but it’s ridiculous to say that their laws are false.

  50. yildo

    Cities have network effects. Accountants want to be next to other accountants, banks want to be next to other banks, lawyers want to be next to other lawyers, tech companies want to be next to other tech companies, even gas stations want to be next to other gas stations. Core infrastructure like public transit has network effects — the value of the network is multiplied by the number of possible destinations and intersecting routes.

    You can’t just put a city core in the middle of nowhere ceteris paribus and expect it to work. The people who want to be next to other people don’t want to be the first to move to the middle of nowhere.

    There is a movement that’s been doing something like what you describe. It’s called New Urbanism, and it’s built stuff in greenfield suburbia. My impression of it is that of a mix of limited success and failure caused by contradictions.

  51. Jack V

    I agree with most of your end conclusions about how communities might manage these trade offs, but libertarianism seems (to be generous) to be the observation that there are too many regulations in many situations and there should be fewer of them, and people should have freedom.

    But “person A wants to drum all night”, “person B wants a quiet house” and “moving house is expensive” are an inherent contradiction, there’s no way for both people to have what they want without coming up with a complicated network of expectations about what’s usually acceptable – i.e. local laws or the equivalent. The market CAN’T solve that situation because the market isn’t liquid enough. It can be solved by “someone buying a whole city and decreeing everything” but that’s not a market on individual preferences, that’s benevolent or less-benevolent dictatorship. So I don’t think libertarianism tells you the answer about how much regulation to have.

    1. HeelBearCub

      but libertarianism seems (to be generous) to be the observation that there are too many regulations in many situations and there should be fewer of them,

      This is way to generous to libertarianism.

      Libertarianism takes that feeling and then builds an entire ideological structure on top of it. It’s not content with simply saying “we shouldn’t have unnecessary regulations” rather it declare regulations intrinsically unnecessary and immoral.

        1. wysinwygymmv

          There are other reasons besides immorality and lack of necessity that you might not want to do something, and there may be cases where you should do something immoral or unnecessary. So no.

        2. HeelBearCub

          In the sentence “we shouldn’t have unnecessary regulations” the word “unnecessary” is doing almost all the lifting.

  52. Richard Meadows

    The harder case would be one where, by natural population turnover, the first generation of Nodrumians has children, about half of the second generation want to play drums, and in the interim all the available land has been settled by other towns that ban drums, and there are no pro-drum towns to move to.

    This feels like an important point that is often missing from these discussions: framing it as ‘insiders vs outsiders’ is wrong. For example, in my home city of Auckland, young people are effectively locked out of the housing market by dumb zoning laws and NIMBY lobby groups. They’ve spent their entire lives in Auckland, they work in Auckland, and all their social connections are in Auckland. It’s their city, as much as it’s anyone else’s. It seems to me entirely reasonable that they should be aggrieved about the fact that the average house now costs a million dollars (US$650,000), especially in a sparsely-populated country infamous for having 20 times as many sheep as people.

    Sure, the disgruntled young folk could just up and leave – and many of them do, myself included – but saying ‘if you like drums, you shouldn’t have moved here in the first place’ doesn’t describe the situation at all.

  53. gabe

    But it’s unclear how Microsoft is different from the Nodrumia Corporation.

    The difference is people are getting paid to be at Microsoft. They voluntarily suspend some of the rights in exchange for compensation. The people in Nodrumia are not being compensated, Instead they are the ones paying to be there.

    1. wysinwygymmv

      People at Microsoft give up rights in exchange for money. Nodrumia residents give up money in exchange for rights (specifically the right not to hear drumming while you’re trying to sleep). Doesn’t strike me as a particularly significant difference.

  54. MH

    I think it’s pretty easy why we have the intuition that the US Government banning pork for religious reasons would be bad, and a religion banning it for religious reasons would not, and doesn’t require anything particularly complicated.

    The obvious reason why the US Government banning eating pork for religious reasons is bad, and it being fine for a mosque to do it is that the whole point is that the US Government is supposed to be for everyone, equally, and not to prefer one group over another in the way that banning pork for religious reasons would.

    It’s the ‘religious reasons’ that’s the bad-maker here, not the banning of pork. The US Government could ban pork for any number of reasons without any moral problems, it just can’t do it for that reason.

    This is also consistent with pointing out that town governments also cannot ban pork for religious reasons, which seems just as intuitive to me.

    Whether this is consistent with libertarianism I’m less sure, but then again libertarianism has a long history of being either obviously incompatible with basic moral intuitions, or just devolving into more boring pro-government liberalism when pushed on practical questions.

      1. Furslid

        Not even that. There are lots of startups that fail despite feasible products. There are even more plausible ideas for startups that aren’t implemented or don’t get the first bit of funding.

  55. eric23

    It’s strange that the word “libertarian” appears anywhere in the proximity of an argument to restrict people from using their property (land) as they wish. A libertarian would say you can do anything you want, and if it harms your neighbor, then they should sue you to recover the damages. (At most, an automatic mechanism could be set up as a more efficient/direct way of achieving the results of suing, for example, collecting fuel taxes to pay for medical care needed due to vehicle air pollution.) In this case, this could mean builders of tall buildings should pay a fee to their neighbors to compensate for increased noise, shadows, etc. But preventing the building entirely is incompatible with libertarianism.

    1. nameless1

      I haven’t heard about any version of libertarianism where the neighbors can only sue for damages paid, and not, for example, actually stopping the activity that harms them, which may even include removing the building or more realistically just launching the lawsuit just when they begin the planning or construction. And if you accept the right for this later, then there is no practical difference between “the regulation is that only 10m tall buildings are allowed” or “you can build whatever you want, but if the neighbor sues you, you will have to demolish everything above a height that bothers them, which is 10m”.

      I must say, the air pollution example is absurd. My property right to my lungs, or body in general does not mean that if someone wrecks my lungs they must pay for medical care. It means they must not wreck it, full stop. If they do it, a lawsuit for damages far higher than the medial care, basically a compensation for suffering and reduced quality of life, and forbidding future such behavior is entirely in order. Libertarianism is a propertarian philosophy, not a “put a price tag on everything” philosophy. As far as I can tell. It just predicts, but does not prescribe that when people are left alone, they have a certain tendency to put price tags on things. So the air polluter may ask it in advance, and since I am smoking anyway I could let them crap in my lungs for free medical care + another $500 a month. But it has to be asked in advance. Just suing for free medical care afterwards is pretty much coerced trade at best.

      1. theodidactus

        “sue for damages” also doesn’t make sense as a catchall solution because even in the libertarian-utopia-to-come or whatever, the transaction cost of a lawsuit is going to be pretty non-negligible.

        If I’m your neighbor and I plant a quaint little garden that incidentally attracts flocks of songbirds that fill the air, at all hours of the day and night, with sonorous birdsong….the ensuing suit has numerous points of argument about exactly how much damage I am responsible for doing to you.

        1. eric23

          That is why I mentioned the hypothetical example of fuel taxes, as an efficient way of compensating for medical harm done by pollution. Millions of lawsuits replaced by a single easy-to-collect tax. This is called a “Pigovian tax” and it’s a major point of discussion among libertarians.

          Yes it’s hard to estimate the exact harm done by continual loud birdsong. The court’s job is to estimate such things. That is true in any government system with concepts of property and harm.

      2. eric23

        My property right to my lungs, or body in general does not mean that if someone wrecks my lungs they must pay for medical care. It means they must not wreck it, full stop.

        Every car on the road is an argument against this. They are all wrecking your lungs (a little bit). Does libertarianism therefore say that cars should be banned? I don’t think so. Rather, people are allowed to get a great amount of benefit from driving cars, while (in theory) they should pay a small amount of compensation equal to the harm to they do to others. The same should be true of zoning: people should be able to get a great amount of benefit from building high, while paying a small amount of compensation for the shadows they cause their neighbors.

      3. idontknow131647093

        Technically it doesn’t matter per Coase. The only real problem with Coase is that small externalities get ignored because of transaction costs.

        1. Mitchell Powell

          Coase might not care whether my neighbor is allowed to build a giant pile of pig shit next to my house, but I care.

        2. idontknow131647093

          Yes, but the point is in the end it doesn’t matter if you set the right as a right to have shit or the right to be free from shit.

          If he has a right to shit, you can pay him to not have shit. If shit is worth more than you are willing to pay, having the shit is good.

          If you have a right against shit, he can pay you to have the shit. If shit is worth more than what you are willing to accept, then there will be shit and having shit is good, if he can’t pay you enough there will be no shit.

          The only problematic scenario is an uncertain legal environment. Or one where the anti/pro shitter side thinks he can get the advantage without paying through political action for cheaper.

        3. Guy in TN

          If he has a right to shit, you can pay him to not have shit. If shit is worth more than you are willing to pay, having the shit is good.

          “Good”? No, its economically efficient. And not even necessarily utility-maximizing, since $ =/= utiles.

          It’s cases like this that are stark reminders of how economic efficiency and morality sharply diverge.

        4. idontknow131647093

          With respect guyinTN I think the shit problem is one where economic efficiency and morality are actually quite closely aligned. Lets just arbitrarily say we live in an anti-shit county, but you are allowed to buy up shit rights.

          I need to store a lot of shit, and so I go around asking all my neighbors if they mind. Now, technically it is rude to say no (just like it technically is rude to refuse your neighbor a cup of sugar), but you can and then I can ask to bribe you off so you agree to endure a few days of shit smell for $100 or so. This is a moral way for neighbors to solve the dispute. Now, if I ask you, and you refuse, then I do it anyways, that’s not very moral. And you can sue me for damages, and it would be immoral for me not to just immediately settle for a reasonable amount. BUT it is even less moral for me to now go and try and form a pro-shitter coalition and get the county board to enact pro-shit policies, so now all my neighbors have to bribe me not to put up shit piles.

          And the same is true of someone who doesn’t like shit who happens to live in a pro-shit county. The most immoral thing to do in these sorts of disputes is to attempt to get the government to redraw the rules in your favor.

        5. Guy in TN

          The most immoral thing to do in these sorts of disputes is to attempt to get the government to redraw the rules in your favor.

          Why? Let’s replace “smells like shit” with “cancer-causing” to raise the stakes a little higher.

        6. idontknow131647093

          It doesn’t change things if its cancer. Cancer has an incredibly high negative value. But, what if the only way to generate electricity and supply potable water in your city caused everyone to have cancer by 55? Is it preferable to make it impossible for the potable water and electricity corporation to buy up cancer easements?

          Edit (and I hope Im fast enough)

          To make it strike closer to home (and show why my system is preferable to the political process), lets assume there is a city that has no electricity or potable water. Three proposals exist: 1) Anti-Cancer; 2) Cancer Easement Purchase; 3) Democratically decided cancer placement.

          1) Is a common answer in modern times, but many people would trade cancer at 55 so that they don’t have 50% infant mortality and an average age of death of 20.

          2) This is the property right answer. You will pay a bit more for water and electricity, and people will get cancer at 55, but you eliminate almost all child deaths and deaths before 55.

          3) This is the political answer. Some percentage of the population over 50% gets potable water and electricity, and all the cancer is concentrated in some other percentage of the population. Not only do those other people get cancer, they get no water or electricity.

          1, 2, & 3 are essentially the options available to us. Some may say they are parodies, but that isn’t true, or slavery and war would be considered parodies. Just because we are quibbling over a minor smell vs. $5000/year in income doesn’t change the principles we should apply.

        7. Guy in TN

          If option 1 is “ban the cancer-causing thing, with the trade-off of mass death and suffering”, then you have the neglected the obvious option 4: “Don’t ban the cancer-causing thing, no matter who is able to pay to stop it, and reap the rewards of living past 20”. [No purchase and shutdown of the cancer-causing industry is allowed, since the utility is actually extending our lifespans compared to the alternative.]

          You’ve crafted a just-so story, where for some reason people are willing to die at 20 so they won’t get cancer at 55. So of course Coasian bargaining looks better by comparison.

          The real challenge is to find a reason Coasian bargaining is better than the utility-maximizing option 4, not the suicidal option 1.

          *edited for clarity

        8. idontknow131647093

          I really dont understand your idea, because you have made a scenario where Coasian bargaining always wins, and then asked for when it will not.

          The problem with Coasian bargaining is that sometimes there are tiny infractions where the costs of lawsuits exceed the costs of externalities.

          An example would be an electric company that causes cancer at a very small rate to a very large amount of people, lets say they reduce the life expectancy of each person in an area by 30 days. This is worth probably almost nothing given how long people currently live. But, imagine this happens over millions of people. Then class actions is the correct answer. In reality these 30 days compounded over millions can be worth something. I dont see why this would be a unique circumstance.

        9. Guy in TN

          I really dont understand your idea, because you have made a scenario where Coasian bargaining always wins, and then asked for when it will not.

          No, not at all??? (And it’s your scenario anyway?)

          In your scenario:
          Option 1 (suicide)< Coasian bargaining < Option 4

          Coasian bargaining only "wins" when compared against making the worst choice. It loses when compared to the best choice.

        10. idontknow131647093

          Except 4 is only a better option if the cancer causing thing is known to be better. The reason for coasian bargaining is that you shouldnt be so arrogant to presume that you know.

        11. Guy in TN

          The outcome of choosing option 4 is better, regardless of whether you know beforehand if its better or not.

          If its totally random, and people have no idea of whether 1 or 4 is better, then they have a 50/50 chance of getting it right, in a non-Coasian bargaining situation.

          If people are bidding on whether to shut down the cancer-causing thing or not via Coasian bargaining, and they too have no idea what the outcome is, then the highest bidder also has a 50/50 chance of choosing the right option. No difference.

    2. John Schilling

      A libertarian would say you can do anything you want, and if it harms your neighbor, then they should sue you to recover the damages.

      I’m a libertarian, and I wouldn’t say that.

    3. albatross11

      Libertarians are fine with contracts, though, and contracts can exist that restrict future uses of land. Maybe I’m missing something, but it seems to me that you could accomplish most of what zoning laws manage with private contracts. In fact, HOAs do this. The city doesn’t care what color I paint my house, but the HOA has some rules I’m required to follow or they could sue me.

      I think there’s a lot of value in allowing different communities to be different–letting some places be rural, some be suburban, and some be urban with various densities. At least some subset of the YIMBY arguments seem to imply a world where there is no way anyone can buy a house without the risk of someone else coming along and putting in high-rise apartments all around it. As Scott said, this seems pretty broken, given that we can see by revealed preference that a lot of people really strongly prefer living in low-density places, enough so that they’re willing to spend large amounts of their own money and accept a long commute in order to have a big house with a yard in the suburbs instead of a condo in the city.

  56. Bugmaster

    Starting a town is relatively cheap. Conceptually speaking, all you need to do is buy some land, build a log cabin, then invite your friend to build a log cabin next to it. Boom, you’ve got a town. Technically.

    Starting a town that has actual jobs (besides the jobs related to running the town) is much tougher. Your best bet is to exploit some sort of a natural resource, like farmland, oil, or rare-earth ore. You build the resource extraction facility (farm, oil derrick, mine, etc.), and the town will sort of grow around it. Realistically speaking, only multi-millionaires will have enough money to build something like that.

    Starting the kind of town that would attract high-tech companies (a la Silicon Valley) is virtually impossible, because instead of exploiting inanimate ore or farmland, such places exploit human resources. Humans are incredibly picky, and they will not move to your town unless there’s something there for them to do; and mainly what they want to do is to hang out (personally or professionally) with lots of other people like themselves. You’re going to need to convince a bunch of people with highly specialized skills to move into your town en masse all at once. I’m not sure this is even possible, though maybe a Singularity-grade AI could do it…

    1. Scott Alexander Post author

      Irvine solved it by building a university there. Hong Kong solved it by being a better place to do business than the rest of China. I agree this is the hardest part of starting a new city, but with government support and/or enough money I think it is solveable.

      1. nameless1

        Being an excellent natural harbor helps. Just like with Singapore. With London, having the fairly unique advantage that the Thames was deep enough for seafaring ships.

        But starting a high-tech town would be very easy these days if the government would be willing to declare it a special economic zone with low to zero taxes and certain regulations relaxed. You can put a Dubai anywhere. Everything that makes Dubai Dubai is the “free zones”.

        1. Bugmaster

          I would say that being a natural harbor falls under the category of “exploiting a natural resource” — just as it helps to be located next to arable land, or a rare-earth deposit, or whatever. The harbor is probably even better in the long run.

        1. Matt M

          I can’t speak for the others, but I live quite near The Woodlands and I can say that it has basically none of the features discussed above.

      2. Hendi

        I suppose the question then is why it would be better or more efficient from the perspective of the state government to support a new city instead of forcing some additional density on one or two existing ones. Creating a special economic zone has large costs in the form of lost tax revenue. Building a large new city on undeveloped land has ecological costs. Creating a regulatory safe haven where people are allowed to do some usually forbidden activity (Hong Kong / Macao etc.) has costs to the extent that there is some reason you banned that activity in the first place. Building a new University or some other large public employer is likewise expensive.

        On the flip side, forcing one or two close-in suburbs to allow 6 story apartment buildings or making a rule that every city with a population over 100k people must allow unlimited density on 25% of its land area increases tax revenue for the state, is minimally ecologically disruptive to the extent the land is already developed, and inconveniences maybe a few thousand people who get to sell their land at newly increased prices for their trouble.

        1. watsonbladd

          If that! San Francisco could become a metropolis of 3 million people, then the rest of the bay wouldn’t have the same growth issues. Likewise if Palo Alto became the city that it’s wanted to be by attracting employers, Los Gatos wouldn’t feel the need for more housing.

      3. Bugmaster

        While that is true, AFAIK Irvine and modern Hong Kong were built before the information economy really took off. It was a more boutique industry back then; and yes, I realize how strange it sounds to call e.g. 1970s-era IBM “boutique”, but it really is that, compared to Silicon Valley. I believe that the barriers to entry are much higher today.

        By analogy, everyone agrees that Facebook is terrible and that Mark Zuckerberg is essentially Beelzebub. Starting a new Facebook-like site is pretty easy from the technical point of view; in fact, this is what Facebook itself had done when it took on MySpace. However, even the mighty Google failed to pull it off; and none of the indie developers had any more success. The reason for this is that Facebook’s major appeal is that everyone’s already using it.

    2. johan_larson

      I’m guessing one of the major high-tech companies could plant a town in any remotely reasonable location by setting up a medium-sized (thousands-strong) office there. People come to work for these companies from across the world. Many of them are young, and very mobile. Attracting more senior staff might be a problem, but I expect some promising mid-level staff could be persuaded to move to what amounts to an isolated college town if the move came with a step up to senior roles.

      1. Hendi

        Walmart’s home office in Bentonville, AR is something of an example here, though the company has had to work with the town to make it a more attractive place to live in order to recruit top talent and even then it still struggles:

        Its often hard to break through the corporate spin when it comes to stories like these, but there appears to be broad agreement that UBS’s move of its investment banking operations from its corporate office park in suburban Connecticut back to midtown Manhattan was at least partly driven by the difficulty it was having recruiting bankers to come work in the suburbs:

        1. idontknow131647093

          As someone who lives in IL, and I assume CT is somewhat like use based on voting patterns, it seems to me that the failure of the corporate suburban model is being driven as much by active sabotage by the city as it is a failure of the model. Plenty of people love the idea of living a 5 min car ride from work to work at UBS or Motorola, etc, but cities (Chicago) actively sabotages this model because it also runs the state government, and thus has destroyed the metra sytem making it hard to work in the city or even to travel there. In addition they work to shift all the taxes towards statewide instead of county/muni taxes etc etc. At some point all these things add up and there actually isn’t much of a cost savings to have your complex in a suburb so you might as well locate your headquarters in the city or next to the airport.

          1. Hendi

            Stamford Connecticut is in an entirely different state from New York City (which is in New York) so the analogy doesn’t really hold. If anything, CT was offering huge breaks to UBS to try to keep them on their side of the line (indeed, that’s part of how they ended up there in the first place).

            New York City also doesn’t do much to actively court companies compared to most other big cities. This is going to sound snobby, but they don’t need to, especially not in finance.

      2. Matt M

        I watched this dynamic play out in business school, among corporate recruiters and my classmates.

        My perception is that about 80% of the top talent really prefers to live in large/prestigious metro cities – by which I basically mean “Chicago or larger.” Indianapolis, for example, was considered a podunk backwater.

        Companies like Wal-Mart and Cummins, who are large and somewhat prestigious but happened to be headquartered in places much more backwater than that, definitely struggled to recruit the “top of the class.”

        That said, there’s still the 20% of the class that is okay with suburbia, largely because they either already have, or are soon planning on having a family.

        So it’s not the case that if Facebook relocated to Wyoming that they wouldn’t be able to recruit any talent at all. But their potential pool of recruitable talent would drop dramatically. And when you stop getting the top talent, you stop being seen as an elite employer, etc. It’s sort of a vicious cycle.

      3. Douglas Knight

        if the move came with a step up to senior roles.

        Whereas, today it’s exactly the opposite. So much of climbing the corporate ladder is contact with people higher up, that it may not be possible for the company make a credible promise of focusing on the new campus, short of moving the executives.

        There is an obvious place for a satellite campus: San Jose. At least it opens up different suburbs for commuting.

        1. Matt M

          I worked for a company who once relocated the entire Leadership Team of one of their business units to Asia, mainly for signaling purposes. On the one hand, they wanted to signal to customers that they were serious about the Asian market, and on the other hand, they wanted to signal to Asian employees that this wasn’t just an “American company” at which you could never get promoted because you happened to be Chinese.

  57. nameless1

    I have a lot of libertarian instincts but I don’t consider myself precisely because it is a too deontological, deductive thing. But I am a big fan of the Archipelago model because actually distinct communities make a fun world to explore, and that is the proper kind of diversity. And the current world of putting everything into a big blender and calling that diverse is a joke. And I am not even talking race or suchlike. Just the fact that if I go touristing to Rome or Oslo I will mostly see people wearing the same clothes, listening to the same pop and living in quite similar houses. Pretty boring. One size fits all globoculture. It is like going to an entertainment park and finding out every ride is a slightly different looking version of exactly the same. No fun.

    So I am pretty much in favor of Nodrumia being nodrumia and if third generation Nodrumians who really like drumming are upset that their preferences are not reflected in the rules, they are welcome to move somewhere else, I don’t care if they feel oppressed or if it some sort of a natural right violation. I just want an interesting world where if I go to different places, they are going to be different.

    My real argument would be, however, that doesn’t matter if it is nature or nurture that makes people dislike drumming, the third generation Nodrumians have both nature and nurture programming them to dislike drumming. Why would they even like drumming? And the answer is that **because this is what the high status cool people in Hollywood or SanFra are doing**. And this is precisely something I don’t care about. I want people to justify their preferences in such cases, not just accept to have them. Because you see, if you look it at a more collective, than individual level, this is an intrusion into Nodrumia by HollywoodSanFraGenericHighStatusCulture. And it is okay for them to protect their culture even if some members disagree. This is sort of a collective right.

    The collective right to protect culture derives from an individual right to social status as a kind of property. Imagine that in Drumia the best drummers have high status, and in Drumia the best poetry reciters have high status. So you invested 20 years into learning to recite poetry really well, but somehow globally Drumia has higher status, and your kids are not only demanding to be allowed to drum, there is also a cultural intrusion coming that drumming well is going to be higher status than reciting poetry well. And I say it is a nope. You invested into earning that status. It is a kind of a property. The status ladder just shouldn’t be upset. At least not quickly, a slow change may be OK. You homesteaded your local respect and status by learning to recite poetry well. It is yours and you have a right to defend this culture, this status ladder.

    So in my view status is a lot like property. Kind of like property in zero sum things like beachfront single family houses. Melting Asphalt made a good point that status is used as a currency, supporting the point that it is a property-like thing.

    People have a right to defend the conditions (culture) that maintains the amount of status they own. And the point is that both nature and nurture tends to make people accept the culture, status ladder of their parents. EXCEPT when some super high status external culture intrudes and suddenly the kids want to imitate it. And that is something like aggression.

    1. nameless1

      Shoutout: it is important for me to try to be really right about this, so I am asking you now to recommend be books and articles *that actually reference studies* about 1) status in general 2) if cultures can be interpreted as status ladders

      ( 3) not strongly relevant but as a bonus, the thing that is called “signalling spiral”, is it just something some blogger came up with or there are any articles or books *actually referencing studies* about it? It is the spiralling aspect that is interesting. Of course people signal virtue. We have studies about half of the Prius owners saying they bought it because it makes a statement about themselves. What kind of statement it makes? That you care about the environment, an important virtue these days. But any studies about “spiralling”, like it makes other people buy full electric cars, that makes other people buy bikes, and eventually some people will just jog to work because finding even manufacturing a bicycle has too much of an ecological footprint?)

    2. HeelBearCub

      I just want an interesting world where if I go to different places, they are going to be different.

      Do you realize how self-contradictory this position is?

        1. HeelBearCub

          You don’t see the self-contradiction in “I want other’s preferences to be suppressed so mine are met”?

          1. Plumber

            “You don’t see the self-contradiction in “I want other’s preferences to be suppressed so mine are met”?”


            Well I don’t see any contradiction, seems pretty straight forward to me, unless you mean fairness I suppose.

          2. carvenvisage

            @HBC do you own a tv? OP obviously doesn’t want garbage actively pushed like it currently is rather than wants to forbid people from independently coming to drink coke, twerk, or praise the hypnotoad.


            And how the hell do you get to “wants other people’s preferences suppressed” with such certainty as to bulverise a combined characterisation/accusation with no argument or justification.

            I can guess how you get to your other egregious error in that short sentence, -“so mine are met”: by focusing on incidental phrasing when clearly the idea was that the world is a better place when genuine diversity is preserved, rather than being reduced to an amorphous lowest common denominator. And this is the place for literalism, so sure, you get a pass.

            but “wants other people’s preferences suppressed” doesn’t rise to the level of such an at-least-nominally-plausible error. To spell it out: *”No drums in nodrumia”* might have the side effect of inconveniencing some would-be drummers, but clearly this is not the goal or intent, -what is wanted, but an unavoidable cost of an enterprise carried out for extremely clear cut and unambiguous other reasons — and this cost certainly doesn’t rise to the level of “suppression” when they are free to drum anywhere else but the small specially designated no-drumming area. The rule is not “you can’t drum”, it’s “you can’t drum in nodrumia”.

      1. alcoraiden

        There’s a difference between visiting a place and living there. In this hypothetical “ideal” world where everyone can travel but you can’t immigrate out without conforming fully to the culture you’re going to, you get the benefits of isolationism (wide variance of cultures in different places) with none of the drawbacks (extremists murdering each other because they have no idea who these other people are or why they should be considered human). I think nameless1 is saying that when you let anyone move anywhere and do anything in that new place, you basically put the world in a blender and nobody conforms to any culture and so there is no culture. To take it to an extreme, anyway.

        The difference here is conformity and assimilation, IMO. If cultural preservation is paramount, like if the city is Nodrumia for a reason, well, people who move there will conform and won’t play drums at night. But if it’s just yet another town without cultural rules, you will get a mix of drummers and non-drummers just like everywhere else.

        1. HeelBearCub

          He said people who grow up in nodrummia should have no say in whether it becomes “somedrummia” so that his own personal preference for variety is met. That’s not “outsiders shouldn’t be able to impose their preferences on nodrummia”, actually it’s the opposite.

          1. carvenvisage

            He said people who grow up in nodrummia should have no say in whether it becomes “somedrummia” so that his own personal preference for variety is met. That’s not “outsiders shouldn’t be able to impose their preferences on nodrummia”, actually it’s the opposite.

            He incidentally phrased something that vaguely sounds like that while speaking loosely (and, no offence, sounding like a non-native speaker) and you seized on it rather than request clarification, use some common sense, or even directly criticise/attack it rather than jumping straight to assumption of motives.

    3. Hoopyfreud

      There’s a specific kind of thinking at play here that I run across pretty often on SSC that makes me want to run gibbering into a basement. It involves the framing of endorsed values as responses to incentives.

      What on Earth could it take for people who frame the discussion in this way to be able to contemplate something, think about it for a while, and decide that it has non-social value? What will it take to convince you that the kids are listening to this Hendrix guy because he’s doing something that nobody’s done before and it’s wicked fucking cool, aesthetically speaking? I think there’s much more at play than the fact that it gives kids a platform to stand up against their parents on, or that it provides a heirarchy (of being Hendrix fans) which they can compete for status in without interference from the dominant group (of adults).

      And if you grant that, you need to accept that there are going to be Kanye fans in China and Ethiopian restaurants in Argentina, and that these won’t be in these places because there’s an obscure racial tension driven signalling game at play. That’s not to say that there isn’t such a game, but that it’s not really what drives cultural development. But you’re asking for the game to take presedence, and I think that’s dangerous. Not it terms of how much more people would suffer, but because I put quite a lot of importance on caring about things for their own sake.

      1. nameless1

        Well basically it is that people keep talking about nature and nurture. Where the two meet, how much room is left for individual differences, really? Where else can our values come from?

        Consider Girardian mimesis, which is sort of how strongly people are influenced by groupthink. Hendrix’ music may be very good but if you happen to spent all your life in a snobbish bubble where everything that is not classical music is just seen as mere commercial pop, you will convince yourself to dislike it. You will go e.g. something like “mere technical, instrumental talent on one instrument cannot compete with composing works of multiple instruments, the guy may have made an excellent cellist in the New York Philharmonics, but it is the piece and the conduction (?) that really matters”. Or something else, I just tried to run a bit of a classical music snob Turing test.

        Pretty much all our history is evidence to this. Somehow people who are religious tend to be follow the religion they are born in, they rarely go and find another one. And ministers, priests, rabbis, who actually learn a lot about it and may suspect that another religion may be a bit more logical in this and that, still tend to spend their career in the religion they were born in. And yet conversions happen. And deconversions into atheism. And somehow most of the cases they follow a clear pattern. Your king turned Protestant, suddenly P. is higher status. You got conquered by Ottomans, suddenly Islam is higher status. All the college professors are atheists, so…

        I am not talking about any kind of racial tension, but surely the high status of US pop culture affects Chinese Kanye fans and Ethiopian restaurants were cool amongst San Francisco elites a decade before they got cool in Argentine.

        If you will it is not as much status competition as mimesis, imitation, it is just that we usually tend to imitate the higher status stuff. Or in other words, status can be defined precisely as influence over people, influence over what they are going to imitate.

        Again, the main thing is that when nature and nurture come together – you are in a group with strong cultural values and perhaps at some level genetically selected for values like that – how much room there is for truly subjective, self-generated, free-will type values? Where do they come from?

        Or to put it from a different angle, there is absolutely no evidence that what people value has anything to do with the objective value of the thing, even if we admit there is such a thing. Hendrix may be objectively cool but it has almost nothing to do with how people value his stuff. We have a huge history of groupthink, fashion, social pressure and suchlike making people value the durndest things really and ignore really cool things right in front of their noses.

        I have this acquaintance from Istanbul who is an atheist, drinks beer, does not care about (Muslim) religion and religious rules at all. And he still won’t eat bacon. Rationalizes it with pigs being disgusting animals who eat all kinds of shit. He knows perfectly well that factory farms don’t feed pigs all kinds of shit, at least there is little difference with factory farmed chicken and beef. But he was just raised that way.

        1. Hoopyfreud

          Again, the main thing is that when nature and nurture come together – you are in a group with strong cultural values and perhaps at some level genetically selected for values like that – how much room there is for truly subjective, self-generated, free-will type values? Where do they come from?

          How much room is there for Jimi Hendrix, and where does he come from?

          There are moments and movements that are not imitative of high-status ones, but are wildly successful. How is this possible? There’s an argument which I tried to preempt above that goes, “the influence market is oversaturated, so the kids find something to make a new one around,” but I don’t buy it. When I ask where Jimi Hendrix came from, it’s not just about how he got popular, but why he pursued his music. Why was a young man sitting in the army barracks writing home for his guitar? Related question – why did the grandfather of horror suffer malnutrition in a Providence apartment? These aren’t imitative acts, and they’re not the kind of thing that’ll get you status. So, whence the art?

          1. carvenvisage

            How much room is there for Jimi Hendrix?

            In this case, that would be all of the space outside “nodrumia”. [sic]

      2. nameless1

        Also, please see e.g. “What IR theory adds to contempo-rary cultural theory in this regard is that what people think they be-lieve at a given moment is dependent upon the kind of interactionritual taking place in that situation: people may genuinely and sin-cerely feel the beliefs they express at the moment they express them,especially when the conversational situation calls out a higher degreeof emotional emphasis; but this does not mean that they act on thesebeliefs, or that they have a sincere feeling about them in other everdayinteractions where the ritual focus is different. IR theory gives the con-ditions under which beliefs become salient, by rising and falling inemotional loading. ”

        BTW I am hereby nominating Randall Collins’ Interaction Ritual Chains for a review by Scott.

    4. DavidFriedman

      I have a lot of libertarian instincts but I don’t consider myself precisely because it is a too deontological, deductive thing.

      That is one variant of libertarianism, but not the only variant—the sorts of problems raised here are ones that have been discussed among libertarians for many decades. I pointed out the problem with justifying ownership of unproduced property such as land in a book published more than forty-five years ago, the problems with the hard line deontological version of libertarianism in the second edition nineteen years ago. The version of the second edition webbed on my site got over four thousand hits last month and I pretty routinely speak at libertarian events, sometimes discussing some of these problems.

      Bill Bradford, editor of Liberty, discussed a lot of them over the many years for which Liberty was a major libertarian journal.

    5. Nootropic cormorant

      I find your aesthetic justification distasteful, but I am in full agreement with your relativism. If we regulate the way communities can regulate themselves, we are in effect enforcing our culture, and the result will be a monoculture.

  58. Jon Gunnarsson

    From a libertarian perspective, it all boils down to property rights. In your Nodrumia example, the Nodrumia Corporation developed previously unowned land and is therefore the rightful owner via some sort of homesteading principle and has the right to exclude people who play the drums at night. Similarly, Vegetaria Corp could exclude meat eaters from their town, Nopopia Corp could exclude Catholics, Noalbia Corp could exclude white people, Noprimia Corp could exclude people whose last name consists of a prime number of letters, etc.

    Most towns or cities were not set up in this way and the local government is not the rightful owner of all the land in question. This is even more true in the case of national governments. The US federal government, for example, certainly doesn’t have any legitimate claim to the entirety of its territory according to libertarian theory. Democratic proceedings and conquest are not legitimate ways of acquiring property.

    1. Big Jay

      Which is kind of a problem in libertarianism; ultimately every private property title in the US traces back to a British colonial charter, a land grant by the Spanish crown, that time when Jefferson bought half the country from Napoleon (whose ownership claims over most of it were lean and conquest-based), etc. If states don’t have legitimate claims to land ownership, then nobody else does either.

      1. Jon Gunnarsson

        Yes, land ownership is a problem in libertarianism, but then it is also a thorny issue under most other moral frameworks. From a libertarian perspective, property rights in land do not trace back to the property titles granted by various government. Land is originally unowned and is brought into ownership by homesteading, by improving the land in some way and bringing it into cultivation.

        By that standard, most land in North America was unowned when the Europeans arrived; only a small fraction of the land had already been homesteaded by the Indians. So most of the land settled by the incoming Europeans legitimately came to be owned by these settlers, who could then sell it or pass it on to their descendants.

        1. Big Jay

          1) Your understanding of pre-Columbian Indians seems a little outdated. You might want to look into the history of the Mississippian cultures and such.

          2) My ethical views lean toward social construction, so property really isn’t a thorny issue for me. I think it’s kind of amusing how some philosophies will go to great lengths to try to find a rational basis for social constructs that were not, historically, based on reason in the first place.

          1. albatross11

            Well, it’s based on reason, just not the kind used to justify things now.

            Justification: We improved the land over what the savages were using it for, so we own it.

            Reason: We had numbers and technology on our side, they didn’t, so now they’re gone and it’s ours.

          2. Matt M

            Eh, I think it’s a bit more than that. The Natives and the Europeans had very different ideas of what improving/homesteading/ownership meant/required.

            AFAIK, the Natives did respect some sort of property rights in terms of hunting grounds. Which were significant and important for semi-nomadic tribes of hunter/gatherers. Meanwhile, the Europeans looked on those lands, being in the state of nature they were, as unimproved and thus “unowned.”

          3. Big Jay

            @albatross11: Reason: We had numbers and technology on our side, they didn’t, so now they’re gone and it’s ours.

            I agree that’s why it happened, but saying that that the resulting property right is “based on reason” is perhaps not plausible. My dog can chase the neighbor’s dog off the yard, but I do not consider Spot to have articulated a coherent political philosophy by so doing.

    2. Brad

      There are situations very similar to NIMBY entitlement *even where the federal government is the actual owner of the land*. Consider the Bundy ranch and the arguments made therein. I plenty of people arguing that the people that happen to live near a particular parcel of federal land have more rights to say what should be done with it than other Americans.

    3. Leonard

      Democratic proceedings and conquest are not legitimate ways of acquiring property.

      Seeing as the historical origin of every significant state is conquest, this would seem to make libertarianism rather moot. “I have this wonderful philosophy of government that only happens in fiction.”

      1. John Schilling

        What -isms or philosophies are there which do assert that conquest is a legitimate means of acquiring property?

        Pragmatically, pretty much everybody will make themselves comfortable with “…and we did a hard reset of property rights in 1776/1917/1948/whenever, everything since then is legitimate, everything prior will be ignored until enough time has passed that we can get away with a cheap apology”. Libertarians can do that too. But if you’re only going to allow governments whose philosophies would have allowed every land transfer their territory has experienced back to the dawn of time, what does that leave you?

        1. Guy in TN

          The difference is that libertarians are relying on what happened in 1776 (or some date in the past) as the justification (or objection to) the current arrangement. The critics of libertarianism aren’t the ones bringing up the past, the OP (Jon Gunnarsson) did.

          I personally don’t care about what happened in the distant past at all. It plays no role in my justification or objection to government policy. So for me, hand-waving the past away is no big deal. But if you’ve built your political philosophy on specific factual claims of historical events, you no longer have the privilege of hand-waving the past away.

          Admitting that existing property isn’t based on homesteading is no big deal, if you don’t care at all about homesteading (like myself). But if you’ve based your justification of existing property on a historical homesteading narrative, then admitting that homesteading didn’t actually happen is logically fatal.

        2. ilikekittycat

          Rationally, that leaves you with the abolition of the state and radical revision of the current notion of property.

        3. Wrong Species

          That’s the problem with libertarianism. They try to take the moral high ground with their absolutist philosophy and insist anyone who says otherwise condones theft. But suddenly they get squirmy when their absolutist philosophy has results that they don’t like.

        4. John Schilling

          The difference is that libertarians are relying on what happened in 1776 (or some date in the past) as the justification (or objection to) the current arrangement.

          No, they really aren’t. When libertarians say that Bob and Alice should be allowed to play the drums in their garage or sell their house to a high-rise development or whatnot, that’s about 60% “Can’t we just take it as stipulated that Bob and Alice own the house right now?”, 35% “Bob and Alice paid good money for that house, they have a title certificate, and they’ve been living there for twenty years, now can we just agree that it’s their house?”, and maybe 5% some chain going back to 1776.

          Which is the same way everybody else does it, but for some reason there’s a crowd that only rejects the “let’s stipulate that Bob and Alice own their house” when it’s libertarians making the claim.

          1. Matt M


            The vast majority of libertarians would also be entirely open to hear a dispute, even if it goes back to 1776, provided sufficient evidence existed to clarify when the land was wrongfully stolen, whom it was stolen from, and whom the legitimate heir is.

            Ancap adjacent figures as extreme as Tom Woods and Walter Block have said that reparations for slavery would be acceptable on an individual case-by-case basis if and only if legitimate evidence could be presented.

            So it’s not so much a blind faith that everything which occurred in the past was just and proper (clearly it wasn’t) as much as it is an assertion that the burden of proof lies on those questioning current property claims to demonstrate who specifically the “rightful” owner is, and why.

            Commies are great at pointing out how current arrangements might plausibly be unjust, but very poor at suggesting how the right owner might be identified. It’s usually something like “Current situation is unjust so clearly the government should confiscate everything and redistribute it to politically favored groups.”

          2. Paul Zrimsek

            Note also that Matt M has not even reached the hardest question: even if you can locate someone who’s a moral stand-in for the victims of the original theft, how do you decide who it is that’s obligated to compensate them? The property has probably changed hands multiple times in the meantime.

          3. Matt M

            I believe conventional wisdom is that in the event of actual property, the current owner is required to hand it over, regardless of what happened in the meantime.

            If you steal my watch and sell it to Brad, and then disappear, and I can prove it’s my watch and was taken without permission, Brad is required to return it to me. He can then attempt to seek redress from you if he wants. That said, I could not seek any punitive damages from Brad, as his actions did not harm me personally, all I am entitled to from him is the return of my property.

            When it comes to things like reparations from slavery, the most sensible proposals I’ve seen are something like “figure out what the going rate for unskilled labor at the time was, add up the hours someone was enslaved, and that’s the amount of compensation the heirs of the slaveowner are required to pay to the heirs of the slaves.”

          4. albatross11

            I’m pretty sure the debts of your parents (grandparents, great grandparents, etc.) don’t pass to you. At most, those debts could eat any inheritance you had, but if your father dies with $100K in gambling debts, you aren’t obliged to pay them. And if your father dies with $100K in unpaid debts from a lawsuit, similarly, that has nothing to do with you, as long as you’re not trying to inherit from him.

            Any reasonable computation of debt from slavery would be more than essentially anyone had inherited, so the most you could do would be to steal the inheritance of folks who had the wrong ancestors. Presumably only after going through a chain of inheritance from the slaveholders down and making sure there was a coherent chain.

            Doing this would look exactly like stealing money from some appealing targets based on a sketchy justification of the moment, and I suspect would be widely seen as such by most people. Though it’s quite possible you could get some kind of media/Twitter groupthink thing going on in which 90%+ of all prestige media was explaining how it was *totally just* that some guy just had his house taken away for the evils done by his great-great-great grandfather, and everyone should cheer this great stride for racial justice, and anyone who disagreed was a dirty racist.

          5. Matt M

            Well, that’s why I started by discussing actual property.

            Because in the case of a stolen family heirloom (like a watch) I believe the courts would order you to return it, even if you got it as inheritance from your deceased father.

            Why this isn’t true for actual cash money (in terms of debt or whatever) seems unclear to me. Perhaps because taking out a debt is not seen as an injustice in the first place – the terms of the agreement are considered to be for the life of the participants only. But in instances of injustice, this would not be the case.

            Just as a buyer of merchandise bears some responsibility to verify that he is buying from someone who justly owns the item in question, knowing that if it turns out he doesn’t, he will have to return the item, it seems somewhat reasonable to suggest “Let the inheritor beware” has some validity as well. If you inherit a fancy plantation house that you know was only built and maintained through the perpetuation of a great injustice, you should probably consider that at some point, the aggrieved parties may come to collect, just as if you buy merchandise you suspect might be stolen, you accept some of that similar such risk.

          6. Pdubbs

            @Matt M

            Why this isn’t true for actual cash money (in terms of debt or whatever) seems unclear to me. Perhaps because taking out a debt is not seen as an injustice in the first place – the terms of the agreement are considered to be for the life of the participants only. But in instances of injustice, this would not be the case.

            I think this has to do with the fungibility/non-uniqueness of money. If your [precious family heirloom] is stolen, no matter how many proprietors it goes though it’s identifiable, and so makes sense* to return to [proper heir], even if it’s in possession of someone who isn’t the original thief.

            If your $100,000 is stolen, two generations from now it’s impossible to identify who to reclaim it from because money is intentionally indistinguishable from money. If I inherited $100,000 of your stolen money, paid out $10,000,000 of rent, taxes, college tuition, goods, services, etc. in my life, and passed $100,000 to my heirs on death, who has “your money”? If it was a something like a watch, you could find who had it (maybe I sold it, gave it away, or my heirs got it) because the object is distinguishable. If you take my heirs’ inheritance, it seems unjust. In all likelihood only 1% of the money my heirs got was originally yours. If you try to take it in proportion from everyone I’ve ever given money, it’s radically impractical. This position gets even worse if you consider events like bankruptcy (where at some point I may have had “no money” and thus not been in possession of your stolen money, but still managed to pass something on to my heirs).

            I also think this identification standard holds up to the real world. While courts wouldn’t order me to return $10,000 of inheritance if I electronically inherited $10,000 from a parent who stole $10,000 at some time in the past, if said parent robbed a bank and left a literal sack of cash with $10,000 of bills with the serial numbers of the stolen money, I’m pretty sure I’d have to give that back.

            *makes sense in the form of being a workable idea, not a good one. Although being willing to size stolen property from people who didn’t steal it is important for not making it trivially easy to launder stolen goods, and incentivizing good transaction records, taking a thousand dollar [object] from someone who committed no crime seems similarly morally dubious to taking a thousand dollars from them.

          7. Beck

            @ Matt M

            “figure out what the going rate for unskilled labor at the time was, add up the hours someone was enslaved, and that’s the amount of compensation the heirs of the slaveowner are required to pay to the heirs of the slaves.”

            If you inherit a fancy plantation house that you know was only built and maintained through the perpetuation of a great injustice

            I think you may be overestimating how many descendants of slave owners are sitting on the veranda of the family manor house sipping mint juleps.

            A lot of planters were ruined during Reconstruction, so the inheritance they passed to their children was …nothing. Even if the first generation passed something on, there’s likely to have been some generation between the war and now that inherited nothing, or nearly nothing, from the family and so derived no benefit from their ancestors’ slave ownership.
            Seems a little harsh to hang a reparations bill on some guy that grew up in a trailer out in the sticks in South Carolina just because his name happens to be Pinckney.

          8. Paul Zrimsek

            For actual property, I expect that conventional wisdom more or less follows existing law, which includes the idea of adverse possession and statutes of limitation. Omitting these may make things tidier (usually a major consideration when dealing with libertarians), but it hardly seems just except in the case where the buyer is closely enough linked to the thief to be considered a fence.

            With land you have an additional unappealing factor: the innocent buyer usually can’t hand over the land without also handing over whatever non-stolen improvements have been made to it.

          9. idontknow131647093

            Possibly more important than calculating what reparations for slavery would/should be where the cutoff is. Why only slaves? Why not calculate back to the time of Alexander, or try to determine why certain groups were forced out of Africa prehistory?

            Indeed, the entire enterprise is silly, so its best just to assign the rights as currently held and let natural processes re-distribute it according to merit.

          10. Guy in TN


            Which is the same way everybody else does it, but for some reason there’s a crowd that only rejects the “let’s stipulate that Bob and Alice own their house” when it’s libertarians making the claim.

            That Bob and Alice legally own the house is merely a descriptive claim, not even in dispute.

            It’s when libertarians switch to making normative statement about what that they think ownership should be, that they invoke initial appropriation. And don’t take my word for it! I quote the OP, Jon Gunnarsson:

            Land is originally unowned and is brought into ownership by homesteading, by improving the land in some way and bringing it into cultivation.

            You personally may not advocate for a normative theory of ownership that relies on homesteading as initial appropriation, but at least one person in this thread does.

            @Matt M

            So it’s not so much a blind faith that everything which occurred in the past was just and proper (clearly it wasn’t) as much as it is an assertion that the burden of proof lies on those questioning current property claims to demonstrate who specifically the “rightful” owner is, and why.

            Given that the status quo is non-libertarian, Libertarians aren’t quite in a position to say “actually, you need to change my mind”. The regulatory state is already set up and in motion, unconcerned with its supposed burden of proof.

          11. Garrett

            One of the other problems associated with calculating the cost of being a slave and who the reparations would go to is calculating the offset benefits. Should US citizenship be counted as an acquired benefit which would offset the stolen wages? What about food/medical care/etc. provided to the slaves? Should the costs there offset the salaries due?

        5. Big Jay

          What -isms or philosophies are there which do assert that conquest is a legitimate means of acquiring property?


      1. Jon Gunnarsson

        If that were true, I wouldn’t care. What I do think is that it does make a big difference because a town or community established by a legitimate, property-rights-respecting process will likely have better rules and a better culture than one set up by government fiat. A private developer is incentivised to take into account and to properly weigh the interests of prospective buyers / tenants, which is not the case for politicians or bureaucrats.

        1. Matt M

          Yeah, one of the weirdest criticisms of libertarianism I’ve heard is “Eventually, your system would be just like the current state.”

          Well great, so you’re saying that the worst case scenario is “Things will be like they already are” but for some time before that they will be better? And that’s supposed to convince me not to try this?

          1. Wrong Species

            No, the criticism is “eventually it will coalesce in to a government, but before it does it will probably be a hellhole”. Most people don’t believe that ancapistan is even possible but grant that for the sake of argument that it is possible. Then it will just revert to states.

          2. Murphy

            It’s not a bizarre criticism at all.

            “Eventually, your system would be just like the current state.”

            but unfortunately it took us hundreds of years of horrific human suffering and abuse to reach this point.

            Much like many of the tiresome rules about wearing safety goggles etc on the factory floor are there because someone got maimed horribly or died…. various legal traditions and protections are there because something horrific was happening, people or the system being abused in some way 200 years ago until something was put in place to stop it.

            It took hundreds of years for the traditions and protections that we enjoy to build up. And you want to tear that all down and hope that it all turns out ok? Consider the people who’ll get screwed for the next quarter millennia while your new system builds up the precedents and callouses that allow it to not just be a giant torture machine for most of it’s citizens?

            lets try another example…

            Imagine you have a big piece of software with a big complex code base. Some fresh faced kid turns up to his first job out of uni and on his first day of work declares that you should throw it all out and start again using approach X,Y and Z.

            The jaded old bastards sit down with him and go through the reasons why because of reasons A B and C his idea for using those approaches will, most likely, lead to a system with all the same problems.

            Is the right response to that to say “And that’s supposed to convince me not to try this?”

            because it ignores all the other ways things can turn out, the project has a good chance of failing utterly disastrously like many projects do, it has a good chance of ending up in a vastly worse state and it’s likely to destabilize the whole firm in the meantime.

            If you’re going to mess with the system that keeps everyone alive then you need damned good odds that your change will actually improve things. If the most likely outcome is everything being screwed up for a long time before a return to the same status quo as before …. is risk with no reward sane?

            As one of scotts old posts points out, tearing down the old system is 1% of the work. Hoping that once government is out of the way the world spirit will more fully manifest in the form of a libertarian utopia is not a safe assumption.

        2. Wrong Species

          This is a really weird comment because you originally said that in Scott’s example, everything was ok because there was legitimate ownership first. In his scenario, the town ends up looking exactly like a government in everything but its founding. So how exactly would that “town” have better rules/culture compared to the similar looking one that had an “illegitimate” founding one hundred years later?

          1. Jon Gunnarsson

            There’s a difference between describing what rules ought to be followed and justifying why those rules ought to be followed. My original post did the former while my response to you did the latter.

            I think Scott is wrong if he believes that his town would end up exactly like a government. I’m not sure he does believe that though since he offers the example of Irvine and seems to attribute its success to being a city that was planned by private enterprise. Of course this falls well short of the libertarian ideal, but then perfection is denied us this side of the Garden of Eden.

          2. Murphy

            if company towns are anything to go by… it may look a little different but very likely largely in bad ways.

  59. alyssavance

    “This confuses me, because I don’t think it’s illegal for a private citizen to build a high-density city, assuming she can afford enough unincorporated land and the construction costs.”

    Hahahahahaha no. Unincorporated land is zoned by the county, which will usually have much more restrictive rules than the city. For example, to pick a random place in the US, land is very cheap in Webster County, Iowa, population 37,000, which has an endless expanse of corn fields and little farming villages and not much else. One might think that one could do whatever one wanted here if one owned the land, but nooooope:

    Look at the maps: in virtually all of the unincorporated land, everything is banned except for farms. And in many Western states, the undeveloped land is owned by the federal government:

    or the state government, or held in parks or non-profits or trusts of various sorts, which generally have blanket bans on any kind of construction or commercial use of the land.

    1. Scott Alexander Post author

      Could you move to Webster County with a few of your friends, incorporate your own city there, and then make whatever zoning laws you wanted?

      1. Alex Richard

        Requirements vary by state; it’s common but not universal for cities to be required to have a minimum size (200-300 seems common), or to require approval from some higher body:

        Iowa in particular appears to lack size requirements:,_Iowa,_Iowa

        No specific source on this, but from general/background knowledge creating a city involves fairly substantial overhead: there are various bureaucratic jobs that need to be filled, and ongoing legal requirements (e.g. holding elections, per the state law; or filing budgets or whatever for the city). Also, at least in Georgia, where I grew up, the county doesn’t provide services to incorporated cities; so creating a city would require you to figure out how to replace the services provided by the county.

        1. Douglas Knight

          Those sound like pretty minimal requirements to me. If you want to build a city, you want to bring in 300 people. Of course part of building a city is supplying services. Filling formal jobs and budget sound like small potatoes compared to actually running a city. If you want to build a dense village, you’re out of luck, but that isn’t the hypothetical.

          Doesntliketocomment may be correct that it is difficult to get to 300, but I don’t think that this is true in most rural counties.

      2. Doesntliketocomment

        Yes, but the zoning laws already on the books might make that difficult by reducing the amount of housing available. In addition to limits on construction, you might not be able to rent space or even allow them to live in your house for free.

      3. DavidFriedman

        It partly depends on how much people at the state level disapprove of what you are trying to do. The FLDS mess in Texas started with a state legislator from the area the FLDS was moving into introducing a package of legislation explicitly designed to target the FLDS. That ultimately led to the seizure of three hundred children by the state child protective authorities. The final result was for the state appeals court and then the state Supreme Court to rule that the seizure was entirely unjustified and that various of the factual claims used by the CPS to justify it were false.

        The FLDS did not try to reoccupy their property.

        That’s an extreme example, but I suspect that someone trying to create a libertarian charter city in the state of California might encounter analogous problems.

      4. newsroot

        Isn’t that basically what the Rajneeshees tried to do at Rajneeshpuram? It did not go well.
        “Go find some empty land and start a city” isn’t realistic because it isn’t 1864 anymore. Every acre of land in the United States is under the jurisdiction of an existing local government, and those local governments are not keen to give the required approvals to a bunch of outsiders who plan to turn their community into San Francisco.

    2. Jacob

      In theory this is a good point, in practice I think it just means “lobbying” (aka bribing) the right county officials to let you do what you want. Which just raises the amount of money a private citizen needs. “Construction costs” should include “permits” which also includes bribes. Though we really should be quantitative about this; if the monetary barrier is high enough that means few/no people can do it.

  60. Deiseach

    The billionaire has strong incentives both to make the city as populous and dense as possible, and to make it the sort of place where rich people want to live and businesses want to operate.

    The problem here, and it’s one that YIMBYs share with NIMBYs, is that to make it the sort of place where rich people want to live you will need to provide “nice things”. (This may not be the same as what attracts businesses). Rich people will not want to live in zillion-story tall apartment blocks in cramped units where the walls are so paper-thin you can hear the next door occupant turning over in bed, they will want (fairly) spacious well-built units with good views. They will also want all the amenities that make people enthusiastic about big city living – the vibrant cultural scene from high to pop culture! places to meet, hang out, and organise small clusters of the weird/off-beat types! trendy restaurants, bars and clubs for entertainment! those wonderful quaint authentic ethnic shops and eateries that make you so glad immigration and multi-culturalism is a thing! green places like parks, zoos, public gardens, and so forth! “As populous and dense as possible” may be in conflict with these desires.

    All these things are wastes of space. The people in Scott’s last post complaining bitterly about lawns meaning a limitation on the amount of available housing space and being immoral have to accept that their favourite shops, hang out places, Thai-Tierra del Fuego fusion sushi pizzerias, great little clubs where up-and-coming bands get their starts and so forth are also wastes of housing space: any building not either “Large Conglomerate Engine of the National Economy where the worker drones work” or “pods where the worker drones go to eat and sleep between work shifts” is inefficient and wasting maximum population density space.

    If they want people to give up their lawns, they have to accept giving up their art galleries and clubs. People who like big city living like the range of possibilities available there that are not available in small towns, not being all on top of one another like battery hens.

    1. Scott Alexander Post author

      Plenty of billionaires live in NYC and SF. And if the people running the city are smart, and they know people won’t move there without art galleries and clubs, they’ll permit art galleries and clubs.

      1. eccdogg

        Right, there is a really good example of a city also like Irvine outside of Houston called The Woodlands. I travel there often for work. It was mostly owned by The Woodlands Development Corp and has not until recently even been incorporated as a city.

        It has intentionally created all kinds of green space, walking paths, drinking spots, an amphitheater, and a market street type area because that is what people want.

        They also have several high rises even though they are a long way from downtown Houston.

        The place is a bit boring and unnaturally sterilized (think Disney World), but I kind of think that is what people want as well.

        1. Swami

          Lived in the Woodlands for 7 years back in the early 90’s. Best community I have ever experienced, and I have lived in ten states.

          I agree that the solution for places like SF are in forming new charter cities which do things better. This will create a dynamic where places which continue to resist growth will have to live with the loss of people and business and taxes to those which do.

          I simply cannot believe a group of Silicon Valley businesses has not formed an association to solve the problem by relocating in mass.

          1. AG

            That’s because the CEOs have enough money to financially bulldoze their way through any quality-of-life problems, and don’t care if their lesser-paid employees have to deal with it, so long as the supply of people to replace any who do remains high.

            So you have a vicious self-selection effect: Tech companies need to appeal to VCs to make it big, so tech CEOs must be the kind of people willing to live near VCs to get their company off the ground, and then they have enough money to live well in the area, so there’s no need to move away, and there is no path for a large tech company to arise with a CEO who doesn’t want to live near VCs. And the nature of tech means that grassroots growth is untenable, because another startup with the same idea that lives near the VCs can easily steal their thunder because they have the VC support.

          2. Matt M

            I’d also suggest that any Silicon Valley CEO who tried this would immediately get hit with a massively huge negative PR campaign and would probably be ostracized from all the polite society cocktail parties.

            Imagine how the local SF crowd is going to react to what will be reported in the media as “Private, for-profit cities specifically designed so that rich white tech workers can avoid minorities and the poor.”

            If you place this city within a day’s driving distance of SF, you’ll have organized professional agitators messing with you all the time.

            Didn’t Amazon or Google or one of those companies once float out the idea that they’d provide their own private police service? Nobody said “Hey, good for them, it’ll make their own employees safer AND will allow the state to shift more resources towards protecting the rest of us!” Nope, it was all treated as evidence that the horrible right-libertarian dystopia had finally arrived.

          3. Nornagest

            Didn’t Amazon or Google or one of those companies once float out the idea that they’d provide their own private police service? Nobody said “Hey, good for them, it’ll make their own employees safer AND will allow the state to shift more resources towards protecting the rest of us!” Nope, it was all treated as evidence that the horrible right-libertarian dystopia had finally arrived.

            Activists have kind of a cultural startle reflex towards private policing, and not for entirely bad reasons. I’d expect the iCops to behave more like campus cops at a university than like 1930s strikebreakers, but you try explaining that to someone who’s convinced that every executive in Silicon Valley is just itching to start wearing a top hat and monocle and blowing cigar smoke in the faces of the downtrodden.

          4. albatross11

            Are there decent-sized communities that provide security for their residents mostly with private security guards? I’m sure this happens for gated communities and some high-rise buildings, but I don’t know about larger areas.

            Note that in this case, you’ve got people who don’t have the same set of legal protections that police officers get. This is probably an advantage, since as I understand it there’s a lot of case law (as well as practical bias in the justice system) that gives misbehaving policemen a lot of leeway, and probably doesn’t apply to private security guards.

            Also note that this doesn’t mean that there are no policemen who can come to enforce laws. If there’s serious trouble, the private security guards in the gated community are going to call the regular police. But for smaller problems (like running off people who don’t belong there), they’re fine.

            There are substantial areas of the country where calling 911 means a sheriff’s deputy will be there in an hour or so. Mostly, those places have low crime and lots of armed residents, so there’s not a huge problem there, but it’s a situation where you can imagine having private security to provide a faster response.

          5. Matt M

            Are there decent-sized communities that provide security for their residents mostly with private security guards?

            Of course there are.

            But they largely escape media scrutiny because most of them weren’t founded in The Current Year by celebrity techbro billionaires.

            My point isn’t so much “you can’t form charter cities” as it is “there is a VERY plausible explanation as to why celebrity techbro CEOs haven’t done/aren’t doing this”

          6. eccdogg

            I believe The Woodlands has private security guards. They patrol around on horseback. They don’t have city police because they aren’t a city or at least weren’t. I think they are incorporating now because Houston tried to annex them.

            There are county police however.

    2. Chalid

      I think the key difference here is well-run park or museum or other amenity makes the city a more pleasant place to live for lots of people, whereas a big backyard primarily benefits the owner. An extremely dense place ought to emphasize amenities that lots of people can share.

      NYC parks, museums, weird experimental restaurants, etc are *crowded* so they’re clearly not wastes of space.

        1. Hendi

          Yes this, the idea that rich people don’t want to live in apartments is facially absurd. There are huge swaths of New York (Park Avenue, 57th Street, etc.) made up almost entirely of buildings with 100+ units and where those units regularly sell for tens of millions of dollars. And there’s not a lawn in sight.

          Sure rich people don’t want bad apartments, but YIMBYs are clearly not proposing to build blocks of Soviet quality studio apartments. If anything, one of the arguments that NIMBYs typically employ in these fights when they happen in gentrifying neighborhoods is that proposed developments are too nice and are unacceptably luxurious.

          The more I read about this the more I think this will all shake out quite naturally when the Baby Boomer generation, who grew up at a time when apartments in center city locations were the worst possible real estate, start dying off and being replaced with millennials, who are coming of age at a time when a nice condo or brownstone downtown is the most expensive of all possible housing (a situation much closer to the historical norm, fwiw).

  61. cDave

    Land isn’t fungible.

    Nodrumia 2 won’t have the sea views or be in the best position for connections to other cities.

    1. eqdw

      I myself have often wondered why people don’t start more new cities more often. A more political-realist friend of mine will frequently retort: All the good spots for cities are taken.

      Most major cities that exist right now exist where they exist for good reasons. Either they’re proximate to certain natural resources, they’re natural schelling points for rural farmland, they’re on major rivers, they’re on parts of the coast with good shores and harbours, etc.

      1. Wrong Species

        I don’t really buy that. It’s not that uncommon for people to just build cities out of thin air. Look at Chinese special economic zones or basically any Middle Eastern city that became prominent in the last thirty years. You don’t need a “natural” schelling point. You just need a schelling point. But building a new one from scratch is tough without either some government or large corporation. Once it gets going though, then it works out on its own.

      2. durumu

        I don’t really think this is a good point at all. El Paso, Texas is the 22nd most populous city in the US. The county right next to it, Hudspeth County, has fewer than 4,000 people spread across 4,571 square miles of land. If El Paso can have more than 600,000 people in it, I see no reason why someone couldn’t buy a couple hundred square miles of dirt cheap land 2 hours away and build a similar-sized city.

        1. Incurian

          In El Paso, there’s also a populous city on the other side of the Mexican border, and quite of bit of Federal infrastructure.

      3. Mark Atwood

        The US northwest coastline has many multiple dozens of spots that are either empty or have at most a very small town that have:
        * an existing deep harbor
        * a waterway
        * a nearby rail line
        * a nearby freeway
        * not far from a major electric grid line
        * great views, great weather, great climate

        The reason they are not now cities is because Vancouver, Bremerton, Seattle, Tacoma, Portland, and etc, already exist, and it’s easier to expand the ports there than build a new one.

        Some of them even already have foundations and docks, left over from unfinished military buildouts from WW2.

        My state has has more year-round deep ocean ports than the entire Soviet Union did, and we only use 3 of them…

  62. Furslid

    Libertarian thinking on the Nodrumia example. If nodrumia wanted to ban drums because they had a moral opposition to drumming, there would be a problem. They want to ban drumming because of the noise on other people’s property.

    The drummer could convince their immediate neighbors to change their contracts. If their drumming was audible within 200 yards they could convince property owners within 200 yards to modify their property rights. If the drummer can convince each property holder to change their contract to “No drumming for me, but I will not take action against drumming from this studio.” this would be an acceptable solution.

    We see similar arrangements on an ad hoc basis in various cities. There are businesses that produce very unpleasant externalities surrounded by business that tolerate externalities well without producing as many externalities buffering these businesses from property owners who do not tolerate these externalities.

    Using externalities seems necessary to use libertarian ideas to limit property rights in this way. It prevents some of the more offensive contracts (no pork, no Catholics). More importantly, it answers the question “Who must consent to make changes to this agreement.”

    1. Deiseach

      If the drummer can convince each property holder to change their contract to “No drumming for me, but I will not take action against drumming from this studio.” this would be an acceptable solution.

      For the drummer, not for the people who wanted to move because the all-night drumming was driving them batty. There’s a funny example of this going on right now in Dublin; Krispy Kreme opened a franchise here that was open 24 hours but has now been forced to limit its opening times, as the residents in neighbouring apartments were being driven demented by drivers beeping their car horns at all hours of the late night/early morning.

      So I think if you tried to modify property contracts here to permit beeping car horns 24 hours a day, the aggravated residents would tell you to go take a running jump 🙂

      I’m also a little wary of people going “plainly moral considerations are unacceptable, the only good reason is one involving the ol’ doh-re-me”. What if it wasn’t a drummer, would you be happy with changing the contract to “No drug-rape parties for me, but I will not take action against drug-rape parties from this studio”? EDIT: There may well be a libertarian argument in favour of “Well, I like drug-rape parties!” and hey, if you want to live in a town that has regular drug-rape parties that’s your prerogative, and I won’t even object if a set of people want to get together and establish Drug-Rape Party Town, but I don’t see why one person, or even a small group, get to inflict their preferences on an already-established larger group in matters like this.

      You get this happening where people try to change groups that do not cohere with their preferences, and while I can have a certain amount of sympathy for a drummer who wants to live in Nodrumia, I don’t feel the same for someone who wants a group to completely change their principles but is not going to be one of that group themselves – you get this in religious matters where, for example, you have people having opinions on the Catholic Church should totally permit women priests, but they’re not Catholic themselves, they’re not going to join/come back to the Church if there are women priests, and it in no way affects their own lives except they want to change everyone else to think the way they do about things. In that case, I feel quite comfortable saying “No, why should Nodrumia change its “no drumming” rule for someone who isn’t even going to live there themselves, is not a drummer, and has no involvement with this except that they think drumming is just fine (but if a drummer moved in next door to them and was hammering out Ginger Baker’s Greatest Grooves at three a.m. they’d be getting their solicitors to write a snotty letter sharpish)”.

      You are going to butt up against the twin problems of “this is discriminatory behaviour that is unfair, it should not be permitted” and “this is the foundation of the group and the external person wants to change it in order to destroy the group” wherever people congregate together and include some and exclude others.

      1. brmic

        you get this in religious matters where, for example, you have people having opinions on the Catholic Church should totally permit women priests, but they’re not Catholic themselves, they’re not going to join/come back to the Church if there are women priests, and it in no way affects their own lives except they want to change everyone else to think the way they do about things.

        What if:
        – They used to be catholic but left the church over this issue among other things
        – The believe it would drastically lower the amount of sex abuse within the church and (a) consider that a general, objective good and (b) want their neighbours’ and co-workers’ kids to be safer than they presently are at the catholic institutions they attend.
        – Believe this is sex discrimination which is only legal for historic reasons and should be outlawed.

        Basically, people are allowed to have opinions about stuff even if it is not directly immediately relevant to them. Or analogous to the characteristics of institutions described in the post, we could say there’s a continuum were among other considerations, personal involvement, gets you more of a right to care about the preferences of others.
        Or, you know, maybe I just feel how I feel about female catholic priests, but am better at coming up with rationalizations that other people.

        (For the record, this does have a component I care about: catholic hospitals/schools and same sex relationsships, where the catholic stance in some cases effectively barrs open homosexuals from finding work in an area and where unlike with priests the need of the religious community to control this aspect of their employees lives is not obvious/existent. I do get to care because the institutions are partly financed through my tax money and I want the community to stop handing over control of these institutions to discriminating agents.)

        1. woah77

          The issue I see is when an outsider is attempting to force their morality on a community that exhibits behaviors they dislike. A community of atheists, with no immediate presence of the Catholic Church nor any desire to invite such a presence in, should not have any pressing influence on the Catholic church. To use the example of Scott’s post: The people of Nodrumia should have no say over Prodrumia because they aren’t about to invite Prodrumia into their community.

          Having a say over an external group should require a strong relationship, like the community influence Catholic hospitals can have when they’re the only hospital for 10 miles. If a county hospital is right next door to the Catholic hospital, then attempting to influence the Catholic hospital is petty and frivolous, as an equally good choice exists next door.

      2. Furslid

        Diesach, the neighbors being driven batty is precisely why they would have to agree to any change. For the Krispy Kreme example, if they were able to get all the residents to agree that they didn’t care about car horns then being open 24 hours wouldn’t be a problem. Krispy Kreme (or the drummer) would probably have to pay the neighbors or make some other concession to get them to agree.

        The date rape parties is not analogous. I actually can’t legally prevent parties where date rape occurs/might occur being thrown by my neighbors. I don’t have the standing. The victims of any rape would have to be involved in any legal action to stop them. This is the same reason why people can’t demand their neighbors stop any other immoral behavior.

        As a side note and a practical matter, in some situations people expect and demand different standards of consent. What if the definition of date rape being used included “Noone who has had any alcohol can give informed consent to sex.” Would you still accept their demand of no date-rape parties? Would it be horrifying if there was some party that invited people on the condition that they agreed that they would accept their consent as legitimate even after a few drinks.

      3. idontknow131647093

        IMO you are additionally discussing nationalism (to some degree) and what should be permissible actions to preserve a national character.

        When I term it like this, it will offend a lot of pro-NIMBYs, but I have no qualms thinking that preserving character is sometimes a legitimate political goal, even if that is sometimes considered uncouth. However, I also prefer a system with dynamic property rights.

    2. Janet

      Libertarian thinking on the Nodrumia example. If nodrumia wanted to ban drums because they had a moral opposition to drumming, there would be a problem. They want to ban drumming because of the noise on other people’s property.

      But surely, the only thing that should matter to anybody else is what rules you’re putting on them– your internal mental state is irrelevant to the matter. Take, for example, John Locke’s argument on religious toleration, where he argued that the state should make no distinction between whether a man slaughters a cow as a pagan sacrifice, or simply because he wants to eat a steak. The religious (or moral) reason the man experiences in his conscience is irrelevant; if he’s allowed to slaughter a cow for no reason, then he should be allowed to slaughter it for a religious (or “moral”) reason, and vice versa.

      Likewise Nodrumia: what matters is the rule they impose (no drumming), not whether they have a religious reason (drums are a tool of Satan), or just a personal preference (drums annoy me and my friends). Maybe all the Nodrumians have different reasons– one has tinnitus, one had a bad experience with the Church of the Fundamental Groove growing up, one is a super light sleeper, one doesn’t really care but won’t rock the boat, etc. Doesn’t matter to the drummer! What matters is that they stop somebody from drumming, who wants to drum.

    3. Andrew

      There are other complications too. What if a group of people form a “township” because they want to emphasis a shared cultural value? Assuming they went to the effort of (legally) acquiring the land and setting up the township, how much say do they get about who can participate? To what extent should they be able to enforce cultural norms?

      * Can they restrict certain activities (e.g. drumming)?
      * Can they force everyone to – at least publicly – approve of some particular cultural value (e.g. basketball, libertarianism)? (This is basically the previous question expressed as an affirmation rather than a restriction).
      * Can they prevent those who are unwilling to give assent from becoming “members” of the township?
      * Can they at least prevent those who want to induce change from participating (e.g. no mormon missionaries)?

      Now, if there’s a unified “moral” (I use the word vaguely) standard across the wider society, then that will provide outer and inner boundaries on what can be prescribed and proscribed (yes, you can prohibit drumming; no, you cannot require everyone to be a natural brunette (or dye their hair)). But that requires that these principles both exist and are relatively consistent.

      I’m not sure a libertarian position can answer this question, since it involves drawing boundaries in a lot of grey areas. Essentially, it’s asking “how big does your group have to be until you no longer have the freedom to not associate with people / things you dislike?” and “how objectionable do those people / things have to be?”. I’m not sure any belief system that doesn’t codify for a fairly rigid definition of “acceptable” can provide a detailed answer to these questions. (And once you start codifying for a rigid definition of “acceptable”, you’re rapidly drifting away from libertarianism).

  63. shakeddown

    The problem with YIMBYs moving somewhere is
    (a) there’s a power imbalance: People who vote in local elections and go to zoning meetings are disproportionately old/retired as opposed to young, and homeowners as opposed to renters.
    (b) there’s a coordination issue: it’s easy for a neighborhood to unify around not wanting to change (they all presumably moved there because they like the way it is), but hard for a neighborhood to all decide to want to change at once. And even harder for a bunch of people who don’t live near each other to band up and decide to build up a new city.
    (c) There’s a prisoner’s dilemma issue: Even people who want densification don’t like living near construction. I’d back construction near me if it meant there was a lot of construction going on, but not if I’m the only sucker in the state who has to deal with construction noise.

    (a) and (b) can kinda be solved by a billionaire using concentrated wealth as a bludgeon for coordination, but it’s hard (Even Peter Thiel doesn’t have as much money as a city full of upper-middle-class people).
    Throughout these arguments you’ve been weirdly resistant to incrementalist arguments. Yes, it’s hard to fix all of California’s problems at once, but incrementalist progress is very doable. Seattle and Portland managed to dent their rising housing costs. Plenty of cities around the world have managed to lower it much more. And California already passed at least some laws to make it easier to build – it’s not as huge a stretch as you imagine.

    And it’s not a sum-zero game. Suburban-style housing in cities with a lot of mid-rises is actually cheaper in absolute terms than it is in the bay area (though more expensive in relative terms, since all housing is cheaper). So it’s not like YIMBYs would ruin your nice quiet Oakland neighborhood. They’d just make it cheaper, and if you did want to visit the city it’d be easier for you to see it all at once.

    1. Scott Alexander Post author

      As for the first part, this seems like a fully general argument against democracy and private property. Maybe there’s an imbalance in that voters who support certain tax laws are more likely to vote in elections; does that mean the country should no longer be able to set its own tax laws? Maybe it’s hard for Google workers who don’t like Google’s policies to coordinate to start another search company; does that mean the federal government should set policy for Google? I agree these are both real problems, and that figuring out good solutions are important, but I’m not sure we’ve generally agreed as a society that we’re allowed to use force to solve them when they come up. Or at least they seem to be the sorts of things we use eminent domain for, and rightly consider that a last resort.

      As for the second part, do you think this is the kind of disagreement that we should settle by making a bet over whether California (or San Francisco) housing grows at a certain rate over the next few years? It seems like you think I am being overly pessimistic when I say this is unlikely to happen, whereas I think I would stand by my pessimism.

      1. shakeddown

        For the first part, I think there is a general argument here. Democracy kinda balances levels of eminent domain – the state government stops city government bullying individuals too much but also allow city government to act and so forth. This balance is kind of complicated and depends on the issue – my point is that this is a case where things are naturally set up to disproportionately empower local government, so we should lean more to the side of letting the state restrict the city than we usually would (and this seems to work out better in practice)in practice).

        For the second part, I’d be willing to make a bet, say, that the bay area approves more new housing in 2020 than it did in 2016. (Is there a certain percentage of increase that would clear a bar?)

        1. Scott Alexander Post author

          I think it’s very possible (maybe probable) that they approve more new housing than in 2016. Even if all I knew about SF was that it restricts housing a lot, my prior should still be 50-50 that one year is more than another.

          What are your probabilities that:

          1. Over the next five years, SF housing growth averages the 2.5% that the article linked in the original post estimates it needs to be “affordable” in twenty years?
          2. Over the next five years, SF housing growth averages the 1.5% that the article linked in the original post estimates it needs to keep housing prices from increasing further?

          Mine are vaguely in the realm of 5-10% for the first one, and 25% for the second, though I am mostly guessing here and hearing anyone else’s estimates would update my numbers quite a bit. Do we have much disagreement here?

          1. shakeddown

            At least somewhat – I’d put it at 15-20% for the first one, and about 45% for the second. I’d take a bet at 2-1 odds that SF averages over 5800 new housing units (about 1.5% of current stock) per year over the next five years.

          2. Scott Alexander Post author

            I’ll bet you $100 at 2:1 that it’s under 5800, and another $100 at 7:1 that it’s under 9600 (which would be 2.5%).

          3. shakeddown

            I’m willing to take that. Do you mean 100 vs 200/700 or 100 vs 50/14? where do you want to register this?

            (I’ll note that this isn’t 100% isomorphic the original point of contention – the original question was whether this is more or less effective than charter cities – but even a world where charter cities are the better solution isn’t likely to have them within a reasonable timeframe for a bet, and we already have a point of disagreement we can bet on, so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯)

  64. cathray

    Whatever argument you’re trying to make really suffers from the bad setup. Libertarians would argue that playing the drums all night in such a way that other people are disturbed by it, is actually infringing on their property rights. Thus libertarians would argue that the person may sell to a drummer but the drummer may not play their drums if other people are by that prevented from enjoying their property the way they always did: by sleeping peacefully at night.
    And secondly, imagine, if the board of nodrumia would not stop by merely banning drums, but would ban pets next, and then computers and bicycles, and what not. The problem is never the contract, even a “social contract”, that you did not explicitly sign. The problem is the open nature of the suggested social contract where the board can add any rules later on, and that is where contracts find their limit: you should never be even able to sign away your liberty into arbitrary slavery. In theory we have constitutions to limit this arbitrariness. However, given the current states of governments constitutions are no protection whatsoever, because the very same people elect the people who are protecting the constitution that the constitution is supposed to protect from. And *that* is what libertarians oppose.

    1. Furslid

      Loud and disturbing drumming isn’t necessarily a property rights violation. If it was, then someone could move next to an airport and demand they keep the noise down. Most libertarians would answer “It’s an airport, you knew it would be loud when you moved there.” The theory is pretty complex, but basically amounts to “People have the right to prevent new externalities but have to accept existing externalities.”

      1. Conrad Honcho

        Go full AnCap. The sound waves entering the neighbors’ property without authorization violates the NAP, and justifies the use of tactical nuclear weapons against the drummer in response.

        1. nobody.really

          Plus, drummers are a known risk for spontaneous combustion; see the documentary This is Spinal Tap. So naturally neighbors need to regulate them.

        2. sentientbeings

          The ownership of nuclear weapons is sometimes a point of contention among libertarians and is relevant to this post, since much of it centers around what are effectively zoning rights.

          One “solution” is that if you own a large area of land, you could own a McNuke. You could also sell plots to other folks later, but you’d have to disclose your nuclear capability and come to an agreement about its ongoing status post-sale.

          You couldn’t buy/build a nuke in an already-inhabited area, because owning it would be equivalent to brandishing a weapon, a threat, which is not licit.

          At least, that’s one interpretation.

      2. nobody.really

        [S]omeone could move next to an airport and demand they keep the noise down. Most libertarians would answer “It’s an airport, you knew it would be loud when you moved there.” The theory is pretty complex, but basically amounts to “People have the right to prevent new externalities but have to accept existing externalities.”

        There’s an actual case like this. As ever more retirees moved to Sun City, Arizona, the suburbs expanded out to where a smelly hog farm operated. Sun City filed nuisance claims against the hog farm–and won. But I think the city had to basically buy out the hog farm, so it looked kinda like a condemnation result (recognizing and compensating a defendant landowner) rather than a nuisance result (rejecting defendant landowner).

        Moral: Just as logging is the protected industry in the Pacific Northwest, retiree farming is the protected industry of Arizona. Don’t expect mere property rights to stand in the way.

    2. Scott Alexander Post author

      It sounds like your expanded concept of property rights could also be used to ban me mowing my lawn, or me building a house that changes the view out your window. I think you’re right that we do take these things into account, but I think they’re fuzzy and controversial enough that once we’ve done so we’re in the world of having to negotiate a social contract beyond just respecting obvious property rights.

      As for the second part, good news, you can move to the nearby town of Noarbitrarychangesinttherulesia!

      1. Furslid

        It could be used to ban you mowing your lawn at 3 am or adding a statue shaped like a giant middle finger. Without a specific contract, there’s a socially expected level of externalities that you’re expected to accept as a house in a residential neighborhood. It does move beyond obvious property rights, but property rights are a concept that only makes sense in human society and human societies are really complicated.

      2. Sebastian_H

        Isnt this response another in a long example of “there are embedded societal norms such that if you try to reduce things to very strict legalistic or philosophical propositions they end up looking silly”? It’s map/territory all over again. Property rights are abstractions into maps of a ‘this is mine, that is yours’ territory.

      3. Cecil Harvey

        With respect to mowing the lawn, in my suburb, there are specific hours under which lawn mowing are OK — weekdays between 7am and 7pm, weekends between 8am and 6pm. It ensures that neighbors aren’t waking people up too early, or disturbing peoples’ dinner too late. To me, it’s a reasonable compromise.

        The recent ban on leaf-blowers is a bit ham-fisted, especially since it didn’t carve out an exception for electric, which is less noisy and non-smelly.

    3. nobody.really

      More generally, the drummer hypothetical reflects Alexander’s stumbling upon the traditional property law concept of “nuisance.” “Nuisance” doctrine reveals that, CONTRARY TO THE VIEWS OF LIBERTARIANS, traditional property rights entails some level of control on the behavior of your neighbors (and some level of being controlled by your neighbors). As others observe, identifying the specific bounds of nuisance is difficult, and largely reflects social norms.

      The vagueness of property norms is reflected in the “fence in/fence out” battles. Early in US’s Westward expansion, cowboys would drive herds of cattle across unfenced lands. If you wanted to keep the cows out of your land (say, your crops), it was your duty to put up sturdy fences. But as the West was settled and more farmers moved in, the laws would gradually change to say that it was the cowboy’s duty to keep control of his cattle–to fence his cattle in–not the farmer’s duty to fence the cattle out. And so the West was won (by the farmers).

      If people felling trees causes your minks to freak out and eat their young, do you have a nuisance claim against them? Perhaps–unless you live in the Pacific Northwest where logging is a big part of the economy. In that case, the loss is your fault because you picked such a high-strung animal to raise.

      And we haven’t even gotten into fights over view, air quality, lateral and subjacent support, mining and minerals, water supply, etc.

      Moral: Property rights–even real property rights–are not fixed and simple. They are defined by culture and change with culture. That is, they are about as arbitrary as any other kind of law.

      1. Picador

        Thanks for this. I just made a similar comment, then deleted it when I saw this.

        I think that reification of property rights by libertarians is one of the real weak points of their philosophy, at least as it is popularly understood. Property is a bizarre and arbitrary concept, contra Locke. As you say, it can mean practically whatever local norms want it to mean.

      2. DavidFriedman

        “Nuisance” doctrine reveals that, CONTRARY TO THE VIEWS OF LIBERTARIANS

        I am a libertarian. I discuss these issues in considerable detail in Law’s Order and elsewhere in my writings.

        What you mean is “contrary to the views of those people, libertarians and others, who have never thought carefully about the details of legal systems.”

      3. Chris Hibbert

        Robert Ellickson in “Order without Law” talks about how those rules varied from place to place. In areas first settled by farmers, the rule was often that cattle owners were responsible for keeping their cattle out of the produce, while in areas where cattle had roamed unhindered before farmers settled, you had to fence in your property if you wanted to keep cattle out. He has lots of examples with different rules.

        He also talks about how it was frequently the social norm that one didn’t go to the local officials to enforce the rules, because the neighbors didn’t agree with the distant government about what the rules were. Your neighbors were much closer and had much more impact on your quality of life, so it was worthwhile learning and following local norms.

    4. rydog

      This setup is intriguing because it express a paradoxical problem within libertarian thinking but suffers from an inaccurate distinction between public law versus private contract. Libertarianism puts primary value on the right of individuals to enter into private contracts, i.e., the free market system. The conflict here is between competing policies in maintaining a free market- 1) you want people to be able to freely enter into contracts for whatever they want today and 2) you also want to maximize the freedom of future generations to freely use their property at a later time otherwise if people’s property are subject to all kind of property restrictions made by former parties this would bog down the free market.

      To resolve this conflict we have laws made by the government (public law) that try to set the balance between current freedom versus later freedom. We also distinguish which kinds of things should be considered a property right and which property rights can be bought and sold. For example, at the national level we decided that humans cannot be property. Thus, it is not possible for any person to enslave other or even themselves. At the state level, CA recently created laws defining the rights of data ownership. The nature and extent of private contracts are subject to the laws of the land. There are no freedom from noise property rights. Noise would generally be considered a nuisance and would have to be taken care with a tort claim rather than through a property rights claim.

      There actually many other issues with how the problem was set up and framed from a legal perspective that don’t recognize how property rights and zoning laws have evolved to manage these kinds of problems already. Working with the set up presented, I think a true libertarian would say that Nodrumia (if it actually is a corporation and not a town) can’t put restrictions on the SALE of property but it could continue to LEASE the land with such restrictions. This may seem like a legalistic distinction but the implications are actually extremely important. Nodrumia retains ownership and all the risks of being a landowner in the latter case. Libertarians would probably want to avoid deadhand control of property with conditions on the sale of property but would be fine if there is an ongoing contract (a lease) between the parties.

      If Nodrumia were an actual town, it could definitely enact zoning laws that restrict the ongoing usage rights of certain land areas but zoning laws (since they are made by a government entity) would be subject to slightly different policy considerations and constitutional restrictions than private property and contract law. Libertarians would probably be against zoning laws since they are generally framed as a taking of rights by the government.

      1. DavidFriedman

        I think a true libertarian would say that Nodrumia (if it actually is a corporation and not a town) can’t put restrictions on the SALE of property but it could continue to LEASE the land with such restrictions.

        Anglo-American common law has long recognized the validity of easements and licenses in the context of real property–i.e. land ownership. What is being transferred is a bundle of rights with regard to a piece of land, and it is possible to remove some rights from the bundle before transfer. I see no reason why that is inconsistent with a libertarian view of the subject.

        Your point would be valid, at least in the context of the common law, if we were talking about other forms of property. If I sell you my car with an agreement that you will never change my lovely paint job that agreement is binding on you as a contract but it is not binding on the person you sell it to. But if a previous owner of my land gave the city of San Jose an easement over the strip of it currently occupied by part of the width of Williams Rd., as I presume one did, I am bound by it and so do not get to set up a toll booth.

        1. durumu

          I’m not very well-versed on this subject, so sorry if this is a dumb question:

          Could you sell me your car with an agreement that I will never change your paint job, with a recursive clause that anyone that I transfer the car to must also never change the paint job, and anyone they transfer it to, and so forth?

          1. John Schilling

            Legally, I think you could do that. But if you sell the car to Alice under that condition, and Alice sells the car to Bob for cash, no strings attached, your only legal recourse would be to sue Alice for damages for her breach of contract.

            In the case of real estate, and only real estate, a court will tell Bob “no, sorry, you have to paint the house the way the covenant says it will even though Alice never mentioned that as she took your money”. Also in the case of real estate only, there are detailed records of what covenants apply to what properties and it is generally expected that Bob or his agent will check before buying rather than just taking Alice’s word for it.

            If there were sufficient demand, and sufficient sympathy for the people making the demand, there’s no reason society couldn’t establish a more reliable and less cumbersome system of maintaining e.g. automotive paint schemes in perpetuity, but for something only a few people care about you get the breakable kludge of a simple contract.

          2. idontknow131647093

            You could, but the most common answer in the law would be that you can only recover damages against the person with a contract with you.

            There are a lot of reasons for this, but it boils down to justicibility and protecting future buyers. Deeds for land (and easements) are recorded with the county, and bona fide purchasers who check the records and find no easements against the property are not bound by such easements. There is no such mechanism for cars.

        2. rydog

          Your point is valid about what is possible and the available contractual possibilities. I should have said: I think that some libertarians would say that Nodrumia (if it actually is a corporation and not a town) shouldn’t be able to put future restrictions on the sale of property and it should either lease or enter into a homeowner’s agreement with its new occupants if wants to enforce the noise restrictions.

          Without going too deep on property rights and the different kinds of arrangements that could be made, I was trying to make the point that easements and the like that live on with the land restrict the future freedoms of individuals to use their land and freely enter into new contracts. This is the tension in libertarianism that I was aiming at and presumably the issue that Scott seems to be concerned with. I didn’t intend to say that those rights don’t exist or are unavailable but that libertarians might generally prefer that such arrangements should be much more limited since they would bog down the free market over time. However, there are very good “free market” arguments that people should be able to enter into such arrangements in terms of allowing people to maximize the value of their property.

          At the end of the day, even libertarianism must allow for some overarching property rights laws enacted by the government to define which kinds of arrangements are permitted and for how long they last. The government defines and sets the boundaries of what constitutes the “free market” for private actors to make their arrangements.

          1. DavidFriedman

            At the end of the day, even libertarianism must allow for some overarching property rights laws enacted by the government to define which kinds of arrangements are permitted and for how long they last.

            Some libertarians are anarchists. Government isn’t the only possible producer of law.

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