A lot of people think government can do great things but is stifling urban life in America. Urban libertarians, or liberaltarians, are still evolving, but they generally oppose restrictions on new housing and on the creation of small businesses. They want to address the housing shortage in major cities (caused by the renewed popularity of walkable neighborhoods) by easing height and density limits, by loosening requirements that developers provide parking spots and open space, and by getting rid of zoning laws that prohibit the mixing of residential and commercial uses. They want to boost entrepreneurship by reducing licensing requirements for hair stylists and the like, and by allowing more businesses to serve alcohol or to stay open later at night.
Urban libertarianism is an example of ideological nimbleness. Its counterpart is the movement among Democrats and Republicans alike to scale back the “law-and-order” policies that have led to expensive and community-destroying levels of imprisonment, and have violated the civil rights of those merely suspected of breaking the law. In both cases, former political foes have found common ground.
The Manhattan Institute’s Aaron M. Renn has mixed feelings about urban libertarianism. Writing in the City Journal, he seems pleased that “People identifying as urban progressives increasingly find their own goals stymied by laws and regulations, and they’re demanding that these restrictions be overturned or limited.” But he’s irritated that people who want to allow higher apartment buildings don’t necessarily go for the whole Ayn Rand package: “Call it a libertarianism of convenience. What these part-time freedom lovers don’t understand is that, absent a wider culture of liberty, calls for selective liberty will probably go unheeded.”
Renn’s piece is titled “Libertarians of Convenience,” which is a redundancy for almost all Americans. Only a tiny percentage of voters take the reflexive view that government should be limited in all aspects of life. Suburbanites who favor low taxes, for example, may be quite happy with zoning laws that require at least one acre per house or prohibit people from renting out spare rooms.
So it’s no surprise that, as Renn writes, “Urban progressives’ enthusiasm for deregulation proves to be highly selective…indeed, in many policy areas, they’re pushing for greatly expanded regulation.” Alongside calls to deregulate food trucks, he writes, these progressives are pushing for minimum-wage increases, trying to ban plastic bags, and requiring housing developers to provide parking spaces not for cars, but for bicycles. This thinking is unsustainable, he argues: “What the urban Left doesn’t recognize is that the regulatory mind-set is nearly impossible to turn on or off, depending on what you like or don’t like.” He cites an independent bookstore in San Francisco that shut down and blamed the city’s minimum-wage law. Government eventually kills all you hold dear, urban hipsters!
Nonsense. What Renn sees as hypocrisy is pragmatism, a pragmatism that all but the most ideologically pure rely upon. There’s nothing hypocritical about wanting to reduce red tape for a bookstore that wants to sell coffee (it shouldn’t have to get the same permits as a sushi bar) and wanting that same bookstore to close if it violates labor laws. There is no moral inconsistency in allowing a developer to build an apartment building higher, and closer to the sidewalk, than what had previously been allowed—but still requiring that developer to provide recycling bins and make the building accessible for the physically disabled. Turning the “regulatory mind-set” on and off is the essence of public policymaking. Come to think of it, it’s the essence of parenting and the essence of managing employees.
Providing enough affordable housing in big cities has long been an intractable problem. Direct action by government has not worked very well. Rent control discourages the creation of new housing and the improvement of existing units; and public-housing projects have been poorly maintained and have stranded lower-income families in unsafe neighborhoods. It’s a positive sign that many “urban progressives” have recognized these failures and want to work with once-demonized private developers. It’s also encouraging that big-city activists want to make it easier for small-business owners to thrive in their communities. But there’s no need for city residents to abandon all principles of fair labor practices or almost universally accepted standards of public health and environmental protection. Ideological rigidity is what’s incompatible with the innovative spirit of urban life.