James Stacey Taylor on local government

I highly recommend reading this blog post by James Stacey Taylor at BHL on local government. I couldn’t agree more with Taylor’s central claim–that local government matters, and that anyone interested in politics should spend some time observing or participating in it. But I think I disagree with the specifically libertarian inference Taylor draws from the experience he describes with the Hopewell, New Jersey Planning Board. (I spent a decade living in the same general vicinity as Taylor, and like him, used to teach at The College of New Jersey. So I have a first-hand sense of the issue he’s describing.)

Taylor seems to infer from his experience that we ought to have less local government rather than more. I agree that when it comes to Planning Boards, we ought to limit their powers. I also agree that local government ought to be more evidence-based and transparent. But I don’t think the general lesson–less government–is the right one.

For one thing, I don’t think Taylor’s experience is really unique to local government. You find the same sort of behavior everywhere, including in the “organic, voluntary” activity he favors. Just imagine that the patch of land he describes was handed over to private developers without the intermediate step of having to pass through the Planning Board. Is there any reason to believe that developers wouldn’t have wanted to create a mini-city in the middle of what is now an open field? If there’s money to be made, they’d do it, and as for unintended consequences, if they could shift the costs to someone else, they’d ignore them and insist on the privacy of their non-existent data.

You might say, “They shouldn’t be allowed to shift the costs to someone else.” Correct. But that requires extensive government enforcement of laws that demand the internalization of externalities. Put it this way: would Taylor advocate the outright abolition of local Planning Boards? Having spent a fair bit of time observing them (in New Jersey), I would say “no.” They need to be put in their place, not abolished.

Second, I wonder whether Taylor would agree that in many cases, the unregulated parts of our lives could use more regulation. Regional differences may be at work here. Taylor lives in west-central New Jersey. I live in northeastern New Jersey. Patterns of life are quite different in the two places. But consider aspects of life that a northeastern Jerseyite would want regulated more tightly by government.

My first pick is traffic. I’ll just assert the proposition: we need more, and stricter, enforcement of traffic laws. We need to force people to slow down, to get off their cell phones while driving, to yield at yield signs, to stop at stop signs (or lights),  to use their turn signals before they turn, to pay tolls, and not to honk their horns for purely expressive reasons.

Second pick: noise ordinances. Most towns have noise ordinances on the books, but many towns treat their noise ordinance as though enforcement of it were a frill or luxury. I see violation of a noise ordinance as a rights-violation fully on par with battery. Just imagine living next to a construction site and being woken up every damn morning by construction activity that’s begun before it’s legally permitted to begin (or that continues well into the night). Or imagine living next to a golf course where the landscapers habitually start work–with mowers and blowers–at 4:45 am, three hours before it’s legally allowed. You call the police and they act as though they have better things to do than enforce the law. My inference: we need more government.

Incidentally, it’s an interesting thing how one is to enforce noise-related violations within a private contract. Right now, my upstairs neighbors are making enough noise to wake the dead. That violates the lease agreement we’ve all signed with the landlord, which involves a promise to one another to keep the noise down. But how do I get that “legally enforceable” promise legally enforced? I could go to the landlord. He’ll ignore me. I don’t have standing to take my neighbors to landlord-tenant court. I’m not a landlord. But the lease’s being violated is a clear-cut rights violation. It’s a breach of contract. What’s happens to rights violations like this? The answer is that in the name of less intrusive government, they go unenforced. But the result is a diminution in some people’s quality of life. (Lovers of quiet are, to paraphrase Ayn Rand, America’s most persecuted minority.)

Third, idiosyncratic example: parking. For most of my adult life, I’ve lived in apartments where parking was tight. In one case, I rented a garage on the rental property so as to guarantee having a spot. In other cases, there was assigned parking. What do you do if someone parks his car in front of your garage (ignoring the NO PARKING sign as though it wasn’t there), or parks in your assigned spot (and you’re not willing to park in someone else’s)? If you complain to your landlord, you’ll be told, reasonably enough, to call the police. But if you call the police, the bizarre answer you will get in New Jersey is: “Sorry, we can’t do anything about it. You’re on private property.”

Pause on the absurdity of that answer. If someone were breaking in to your apartment, and you called 911, it would make no sense for the police to say, “Sorry, we can’t do anything about it. The break-in is taking place on private property.” But I’ve repeatedly had the “sorry, can’t help you” experience when I’ve called the police re parking. As it happens, the police’s “sorry, can’t help you” response involves a misstatement of state law (I’ll spare you the details*), but the fact remains that as written, state law is simply too weak on this issue. It puts too much of the onus on the victim of the rights violation to rectify the situation and not enough on the person who’s blocking one’s garage or parked in one’s assigned spot. Again, my inference: we need more, activist government in the name of rights enforcement.

I would defy any anarcho-capitalist to produce the non-governmental version of the resolution of disputes of the preceding variety. I had the opportunity to see what such attempts at “resolution” might look like when I spent time in the West Bank city of Bethany, which effectively lacks a government. (Officially, it is in Area B under the Oslo Accords, under joint Israel-Palestinian control. But de facto, it lacks a government.) Bethany is practically a controlled science experiment in anarchy. Suffice it to say that things really didn’t turn out the way anarcho-capitalists claim they will. Bethany is a case of “the Wild West” in the Near East–or maybe the Wild West in the Wild West Bank. (Incidentally, I don’t mean to be saddling Taylor with anarcho-capitalism. I have no idea what his views are on that. I just mean to be saddling anarcho-capitalists with Bethany. And yes, it’s that Bethany, the one where Jesus was buried. Burying him was one of the things that the Romans “did for us,” by the way. I’m not sure Jesus would have been buried under anarcho-capitalism.**)

Give me long enough, and I could extend this list pretty much indefinitely.

Anyway, I’m grateful to Taylor for a thoughtful post which broaches some interesting and important issues.

*Postscript, added later: The link in the text goes to the section of New Jersey’s state code governing private property and non-consensual towing. But here is the written response I got from the local Police Department after complaining about their refusal to tow vehicles that were blocking my egress from my garage.

The area of the garages at [name of apartment complex] are private property. The owners of the property basically give authority to building management to maintain the lands. If management feels a vehicle is parked on their property (that does not belong or parked improperly) [they] will call the Police. The Police will issue a summons (management will be called to court as a witness/complainant). The Police cannot tow the vehicle, because it is on private property. Management actually calls for the tow truck. The main road of the complex is considered quasi-public. In this area, the Police can summons and tow.

It’s worth wondering how any of this convoluted legal analysis is supposed to help someone whose garage is blocked but needs to get the car out of it to go to work. I ended up taking a taxi to and from work at a cost of over $100. That happened several times before I made my complaint to the police. In fairness to my local PD, they’ve been pretty responsive about other things, including my insistence that they paint a stop line at an ambiguous intersection so that it was crystal-clear where to stop. From an email to me from the local police chief: “Stop line placed on Watchung roadway. —Chief Goul.” Thanks, Chief.

**Postscript, added later: On second thought, the last two sentences before the asterisk are ridiculous assertions which I’ll leave in the text but now disown. Tradition has it that Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimethea, who wasn’t in any relevant sense a Roman. I only wrote what I wrote as an excuse to throw Monty Python into the mix, but it’s totally inaccurate and potentially offensive–to Christians, anarcho-capitalists, and above all Christian anarcho-capitalists–so I hereby repent and take it back. I concede: Jesus might well have been buried (and for that matter, crucified) under anarcho-capitalism.

5 thoughts on “James Stacey Taylor on local government

  1. My two cents… In principle, private externality-type costs can be accounted for in a system of liberty rights (though, due to enforcement-efficiency considerations, realistically sometimes regulation – best thought of as a restriction on individual rights of mutual non-interference – is necessary). Hence, noise ordinances (and the moral need for better enforcement, perhaps). By contrast, public externality-type costs cannot be integrated into a system of liberty rights and do not have the same kind of normative basis. In these sorts of cases, the condition that constitutes the harm (or imposition) is a general social condition – like the traffic congestion that would develop if one were to develop a field into a living/shopping complex. I don’t see how to deal with things like this other than via regulation (which is, again, best thought of as a restriction on the scope of liberty or non-interference rights). This is what is accomplished by things like city planning boards. Of concern to me here are: (a) restricting the scope of private non-interference rights by appeal to actions contributing to making the local quality of life worse (not by appeal to specific impacts, such as specific impacts on public services), (b) appealing to public harms that are neither certain enough nor costly enough to justify the restriction on liberty rights, and (c) the foregoing considerations, along with the (probably legitimate) need for case-by-case determinations, making bias and abuse likely. (This last concern concerns all regulation, not just regulation for the sake of achieving important-enough general social goods.) You appeal to quality of life considerations at one point in your post… (I suspect city planning boards do a pretty good job of internalizing the public costs with regard to specific impacts such as increased traffic congestion (in the process,. If you did away with city planning boards, I think many general social conditions of importance – and the general quality of life – would suffer. It would be a real mess.)

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    • I agree with the spirit but not quite the letter of your comment. I suspect the disagreement (if there is one) arises from how we conceptualize “externalities.”

      I divide externalities into negative and positive, and then sub-divide the negative ones into rights-violative and non-rights-violative. I draw the latter distinction differently than do Rothbard- or Nozick-inspired libertarians or Rand-inspired Objectivists. But I think there’s some such distinction to be drawn, and government is limited to regulating the rights violating negative externalities. My disagreement with Taylor is that I think he underestimates how much government is required for that.

      Anyway, on my view, there’s no distinction to be drawn between private and public externalities, so that affects how I’m reading you. My worry about your view is that it goes too far to the activist-government extreme. A view that allowed local government to regulate all negative externalities would really just amount to localized totalitarianism. Examples: In Bergen County in New Jersey, we have what they call “blue laws,” which prohibit trade on Sundays. The covert motivation is religious (sabbatarian), but the overt one is to regulate traffic congestion. Traffic congestion is a negative externality, but I don’t think it’s rights violative. Likewise, noise is a negative externality (at some point a rights violative one) but in New Jersey, when the problem of “noisy youth in the streets at night” reaches a certain threshold, people always feel tempted to impose curfews. But that’s wildly disproportionate.

      Another New Jersey example: in certain middle class neighborhoods, it’s considered a negative externality for a house to look declasse (e.g., car out front on cinder blocks, couch on the porch, clothesline out back, too many people living in a dwelling, etc.) So it’s illegal. Meanwhile, in lower class neighborhoods, it’s considered a negative externality to “gentrify” the neighborhood, so it’s considered acceptable to “tag” a building that does so (or regulate the gentrification out). Examples of this sort can be multiplied indefinitely, and I think they all involve overextensions of legitimate government authority (or vigilante authority in the graffiti case). So I’d say that local authorities need to be stripped of the authority to regulate in such cases (or in the graffiti case, it shouldn’t be regarded as acceptable to tag a building because you regard its existence as a negative externality).

      I suspect we agree on these examples, but I think we also need a principle that explains why planning boards aren’t entitled to regulate in these cases (or graffiti “artists” aren’t entitled to play vigilante roles). But I may be misreading you–it’s possible that we’re just agreeing.

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