Imagine: Living in a Socialist America (Run by Republican Aristocrats)

I met these Democratic candidates for Readington Town Committee over breakfast the other day, and asked them what differentiates them from the Republicans who dominate politics around town. Without blinking an eye, they said that as Democrats, they favor a pro-development, pro-business platform against the local Republican machine, which is running against development and against business in the name of “Open Space.”

Image result for elizabeth fiore denise esakof

According Esakoff and Fiore, thirty percent of Readington Township is already open space, large swatches of it off limits to most people, but the Republicans want more: because you can never have too much of a resource that lots of people are excluded from using.  Huge swatches of “preserved farmland” lie in Readington Township alone, acquired at 50-100% “State Cost” i.e., through purchases by the county or the municipality, or through purchase by State Agricultural Development Committee fees.

Having heard this, Alison and I went for a lovely drive around town, taking in the beginning tendrils of autumn while driving past acres and acres of “Preserved Farmland“–all of it behind gates, fences, motion detectors, cameras, and minatory signs warning away the inquisitive and the trespassory. From the State Agricultural Development Committee:

New Jersey’s farmlands are the foundation for a strong agricultural industry and a way of life for generations of farm families. Scenic landscapes of green, productive fields are an important part of what makes New Jersey a desirable place to live and work. Farmland preservation clearly is an important investment in our economy, our farming heritage and the overall quality of life for each and every New Jerseyan.

There are valuable incentives for landowners to participate in the Farmland Preservation Program. The program can help them meet their financial goals, providing them with the capital to expand their existing operations; eliminate or reduce their debt load; or further their estate or retirement planning. Participants in the program also are eligible to apply for cost-sharing grants to fund soil and water conservation projects. In addition, they enjoy limited protection from government acquisition of land through eminent domain; public and private nuisances; and emergency restrictions on the use of water and energy supplies.

The Farmland Preservation Program is administered by the State Agriculture Development Committee (SADC), which coordinates with County Agriculture Development Boards, municipal governments, nonprofit organizations and landowners in the development of plans that best meet the needs of individual landowners.

Who knew? It all gives new meaning to the lyrics to that old ditty, “America”: “O Beautiful, for spacious skies/For amber waves of grain…” You could almost punctuate that last line with a “ch-chhhing!”

The whole thing strikes me as something between a game and a scam. You can, at any rate, make a game of it, as I often have: find a splotch of green space on the map, drive to it, and see if you can get in.  Fat chance. You’d have an easier time accessing an Israeli settlement. Open space may be a public good, but it’s undeniably private property. The invisible hand works in mysterious ways.

Put simply, the whole thing looks like a land grab rationalized by a state-subsidized ideal of gentleman farming right out of the eighteenth century (“the right to farm” is what they call it). Not that very much actual farming is taking place on these “farms.” But then, that’s what gentleman or yeoman farming is: “produce inefficiently, sell locally–at others’ expense,” might be its maxim. Eventually, I suppose, the exclusions involved in this sort of exclusionary zoning just become an end in themselves: better that no one is using a resource than that anyone is. It’s sort of a utilitarianism-in-reverse: “So act as to bring about the least amount of good for the smallest number.”

The Democrats want to balance the budget by making Readington more business-friendly; the Republicans are so averse to business development that they’re willing to forego the revenues that would arise through tax-ratable commerce, and drive the town into debt in the process. It’s the reverse of the usual ideological template, so don’t expect many people to figure it out any time soon.

The Democrats’ solution? Create a “Readington Economic Commission” to weigh the economic pros and cons of land use regulation so as to ensure that any new regulations satisfy minimal cost-benefit conditions. I’m almost afraid to say this, but I think the idea is that they’re prepared to nix regulations that impose high costs while conferring low benefits. I was tempted to ask whether such measures would pass muster with the Center for Progressive Reform, but decided not to say anything: not everybody gets my brand of humor.

The humor consists in the fact that Republicans nowadays seem to be agreeing with “progressive” regulatory zealots of old against “neo-liberal” Democrats defending a form of de-regulation.  Except that no one can quite say any of that, the ideological situation and general “optics” being so damn unexpected and weird. What to say when there’s no script to follow?

Equally amusing is the contrast between the dogmatic nonsense one so often hears, versus the reality one discovers over a half-price breakfast at the Whitehouse Station General Store. Ask anyone about it–libertarians, the mainstream media, the Chamber of Commerce, the democratic socialists themselves–and you’ll hear a lot of stuff about the Democrats’ turning into the “party of socialism,” coupled with talk about the imperative to keep the Republicans “the party of capitalism.” But then go out into the world and spend some time with Democrats and Republicans, and you’ll encounter–or at least I encounter–something completely different. What to do about the fact that the Democrats are turning into the party of capitalist enterprise, while the Republicans turn into the party of national socialism?

In a shrewd essay, Roderick Long despairs of reaching what he calls “the aristocratic left.”

There are some left-wingers whom I call the “aristocratic Left,” and whom I despair of reaching. These are left-wingers who have a particular vision of an idyllic society and are prepared to hammer into place anyone whose preferences or behavior don’t align with the vision; in effect they see other people as their property.

We now have the additional task of dealing with the aristocratic Right, with all the worst features of their left-wing brethren–but adding insult to injury with their red baseball caps, state-subsidized farms, and country music. No nation can subsist for long on a diet of Luke Bryan, locally grown produce, and #MAGA, but the American Right is willing to try.

Anyway, as far as I’m concerned, the Readington Town Committee campaign is a no-brainer: Esakoff and Fiore have my vote. “The Republicans,” they said, “have made development a four-letter word.” LOL. Well, that may be, but that’s not the kind of thing that’ll deter me. By comparison with either the Democrats or the Republicans in Hunterdon County, I’m a pro-development fanatic. “Development” may have become a four letter word for the aristocrats of left and right, but four letter words kind of seem called for, and are in any case my favorite kind.

12 thoughts on “Imagine: Living in a Socialist America (Run by Republican Aristocrats)

  1. To add to all the general ideological and terminological confusion, the variation between these parties in local politics is pretty astounding. I have lived in pretty right-wing states for most of the past decade and a half, and while I’ve always been an independent, I’ve also always voted almost exclusively for Democrats. But that’s in Texas, New Hampshire, and now Arizona; I strongly suspect that I would not be so far to ‘the left’ if I lived in Massachusetts, California, or Vermont. Yet the Republican parties in the three conservative states I’ve lived in are pretty different; Arizona’s are more ‘fiscal conservatives,’ Texas’ are more ‘social conservatives,’ and New Hampshire’s are more like crazy libertarians who hate taxes more than they hate awful roads. That’s just at the state level, too. I’ve known very little about local politics anywhere I’ve lived, but what I do know makes it even harder to generalize or predict. I’m not sure it’s really true, but I’d like to think that partisanship just matters less locally. Sounds like in your case, though, it matters quite a bit, and the difference is just that the two parties are taking positions more or less the opposite of one might expect from the usual ideological labeling. I’ve been too cynical and pessimistic lately, so I’m going to try to take your story as an uplifting one about how it is still possible for people to adjust their political ideas to their perceived interests rather than simply hopping on a partisan bandwagon and shouting obnoxious slogans about it.

    On the actual issue of development and open space, what would your take be if the land were instead being used for public parks and actual agriculture, preservation, and other uses with public benefits? I confess that I’m enough of an aristocrat that when I hear a proposal to privatize public land for business development, I immediately envision strip malls and office parks full of businesses where low-paid menial laborers sell frivolous things. But I can at least acknowledge that that’s a prejudice that might be amenable to persuasion. (Not that I’m actually taking a view about land use in Readington; I’m just curious to read more of what you think about it and trying to lighten the burdens of existence by making fun of myself).

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    • Local politics is where the action is: I learned that from MacIntyre. He actually had a slightly different reason for stressing local politics than I do, not that I entirely disagree with his: he was an anarchist (he regarded the national state as an illegitimate institution), and regarded national politics as inherently corrupting, because it involved the confluence of Big Money, Big Power, and an essentially spectatorial attitude toward politics. Meanwhile, local politics, though influenced in many ways by state and federal politics, was closer to the politics of the polis. (I’m referring to him in the past tense only because my dealings with him were so far in the past; he’s still alive and active!)

      I sort of agree with Big Mac on all that, but what I’d add is that local politics structures or affects our lives in basic, crucial ways that usually matter more than the doings of Big Name actors at the federal or state levels, including the President, on whom so much gratuitous attention is lavished. Land use planning, property issues (including property taxes), education, criminal law enforcement, the basic functions of civil law, and basic services (fire, rescue, library, sewer, water, and transportation, including road maintenance) are all local functions. And that’s not to mention all that “quality of life” regulation on the books, from building inspection and permits to noise ordinances to the “aesthetics” and “optics” of a given neighborhood (can you hang clothes on a clothesline? can you park cars on blocks on the driveway? can you put a couch on the front porch?). And let’s not forget that local politics governs the summum bonum of human existence–parking.

      I haven’t done a study to figure out how partisan local politics is (in the sense of lining up with the partisan fault lines of national politics). In my experience, it’s partisan in the other sense you mention: different parties coalesce around different local interests which bear only a family resemblance to the line taken by the national party. So if nationally, the Republican Party styles itself as the party of capitalism, its local instantiations will devote themselves to aristocratic plutocracy. And if nationally, the Democratic Party styles itself as the party of the downtrodden, its local version will become the party of business, understood as a persecuted minority. (I don’t mean that last phrase to be snarky or ironic; there are places where business is a persecuted minority. But unless you’re Ayn Rand, you’d never put it that way. And if you’re a nice suburban Democrat like Denise or Elizabeth above, you wouldn’t be caught dead putting it that way.) I’m inclined to think that whatever version of the Median Voter Theorem applies to the real-world ends up leading to results like the preceding.

      Let me respond to the other part of your comment in a separate box. I’ve become a very methodical blogger lately, at least in my own mind.


  2. So having said that I was going to “respond to the other part of your comment in a separate box,” I’m now going to break your heart by punting on the question. Instead, I’ll do what I characteristically do, which is to offer a promissory note that extends so far into the future that what it really ends up doing is to induce you to forget that you ever asked the question. Asking a question like “What do you think about land use?” is like signing a 99 year lease with the U.S. government. It looks straightforward, but isn’t.

    I know this sounds like an overstatement, but to properly answer your question, whether we’re talking about land use in Readington or anywhere else, I’d need a worked-out theory of property, and a worked-out theory of how property interacts with government at every level of government. That’s the Holy Grail that I’ve spent a lifetime seeking without success. I can only report negative findings: I don’t agree with any existing account.

    For a long time, I thought I agreed with the libertarian account, and maybe at some very high level of generality I do, but libertarian accounts tend (whether subtly or not-subtly) to presuppose anarchy, and I reject anarchy. So libertarian accounts of property turn out to be less useful than I thought they were. They also tend (subtly or not-subtly) to have a deontic character or involve overtly deontic commitments, and even apart from my rejection of deontology, a deontic theory of property strikes me as category mistake. There are days when I am tempted by the left-liberal denial of natural property rights, or (even) the conservative reduction of natural property rights to Burkean conventions. But these are topics more properly discussed with a therapist or confessor than in public on a blog.

    So as you can see, I am resolutely not answering your question. I will get as definite as this: for awhile I’ve tried to get at an answer by reflecting on Locke’s account of the move (with respect to property) from the State of Nature to civil society. What happens to our natural property rights in the transition from the one place to the other? Do they vanish? Are they transformed? How does Locke differ from either Hume or Kant on that? Answer: I don’t really know.

    I’m not going to evade your question entirely, though. From the very abstract, let me get very concrete. I used to live in Bloomfield, in metropolitan east Jersey, near Newark and New York City. I now live in Readington (or rather, in the Whitehouse Station district of Readington) in west-central Jersey, a place designed to be within an hour’s drive of the metro area, but designed to look as though it was central Pennsylvania or southern Michigan.

    As I’ve said 30% of Readington is open space (the precise figure is 29.7%). I won’t dig them up right now, but there are studies conducted by the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers that show that open space measures in west Jersey push up the price of housing elsewhere in New Jersey, including east Jersey. And remember that Open Space is just one of a large cluster of anti-development tactics, where “development” refers primarily to the development of housing (but secondarily to business, since where you have housing, business follows).

    The cumulative effect of these tactics or policies is to take land out of circulation on the market, give it to private individuals in perpetuity, and push up the price of development and business generally. In other words, west Jersey–Trump Country, Horse Country, the world of Town & Country–gets “quality of life” at the expense of the hoi polloi in east Jersey: low density housing, less traffic, more quiet, less crime, open space, agricultural subsidies, wonderful parks, and, let’s face it, a largely white population. (Readington is 90% white; Bloomfield was 60% white.) Obviously, I don’t mean to imply that a largely white population really means higher quality of life; I mean that many people think it does.

    I am unapologetically hostile to the whole thing. They’ve got a good thing going out here, and I guess now I do, as I live here. But the good thing comes at the expense of a lot of people elsewhere. And the sad thing is that the attitude of the latter people is not to change things, but to do their best to move out here–where no one wants them.

    My bedrock view is: 30% open space is enough. It’s bad enough that so much of it is inaccessible, opaquely administered, and in the hands of inefficient, subsidized farms. (Note by the way that farmland preservation is a form of privatization.) But suppose it wasn’t. Suppose that the 30% open space all become public parks that I could enjoy. That wouldn’t change my attitudes all that much. 30% is still enough if it’s coming at the expense of people in places like Paterson, Newark, East Orange, Irvington, Trenton, and Camden.

    And it is. People in places like Readington will talk a big game about the “pathologies” of the black urban populations of New Jersey’s cities (the cities I just named). What they refuse to do is acknowledge the fact that they’ve had a hand in creating those pathologies, or at least the situation that gives rise to them. By restricting the supply of land, they’ve driven up housing prices (including for rentals), so that people in east Jersey are crammed, cheek by jowl, into expensive housing in dense traffic/population areas, yet paradoxically distant from desirable employment. West Jerseyans have resisted measures for inclusionary zoning and affordable housing for decades. In other words, they’ve made life harder for people in east Jersey, then condemned the pathologies those people express as a result of the situation they’ve been put in.

    The whole thing is justified or rationalized by their fear of “encroaching development.” But anti-development people have no problem driving to malls outside of their enclaves and shopping there until they drop. What they oppose are not malls or the frivolous things sold in them per se, but the proximity of those things to the paradise they’ve created for themselves here in Horse Country.

    If you privatize public land, there is no doubt that you will get strip malls, low paid workers, and frivolity. But if that is what people want, they should face their own wants honestly and openly. They should not want those things en masse, then demand their exclusion from the little enclaves they inhabit. I don’t like the proliferation of strip malls any more than any aristocrat would. But I’m just enough of a Jacobin asshole to want one in my own backyard because I know that my neighbors don’t want it there, and have tried to pass legislation banning them around here. I hated the proliferation of 7-11s and Dunkin Donuts (sorry, “Dunkin”) back in Essex County where I lived. I wanted to blow them all up–the cigarettes, the lottery tickets, the high calorie food. But if this is what New Jerseyans demand, it’s dishonest to say “Not here!” And as for menial workers, they have to work somewhere. Better that they have employment even to the detriment of “our quality of life” than that we sweep them under the rug because we have aesthetic objections to the places where they work.

    But I’m not defending a blanket policy of privatization per se. I’m not that radical, especially where I don’t understand how institutional mechanisms and incentives work. The point I would make is not primarily one about the development of business but of affordable housing. The more open space we reserve, the harder it is for people to afford housing. At the breakfast Alison and I attended with Esakoff and Fiore, there was a woman whose attitude was: if you can’t afford to live in Readington, you don’t belong here. She was a proponent of open space: 30% wasn’t enough for her, because nothing was. Her first resort would be to set aside 40% of Readington as privatized preserved farmland, but if push came to shove, she’d settle for 32% public space, as long as no one could develop on it. And the rationale for “let no one develop on it” is: I like the status quo of low density, wildlife, and the grit and grime of east Jersey staying where it is. Let it stay where it is, regardless of the effects on those who have to suffer them.

    So my real answer to your question is not so much an answer to your question, but an answer to a more tractable question I know how to answer. As far as I’m concerned, the preceding attitude is The Enemy and it has to be fought. Voting for Denise and Elizabeth is a very mild, moderate way of fighting it, and believe it or not, I prefer mild and moderate ways of doing things to bad-ass ways of doing things, at least in politics. But whatever there is to say about land use planning, about optimal master plans, about the structure of natural property rights once you emerge from a Lockean state of nature, the attitude I just described is wrong, and has to be fought until it’s defeated. You can’t have the good life by professing indifference to what your having it actively does to the welfare of other people. It’s one thing if you enjoy good fortune and others don’t, but it’s another thing if your putative “good fortune” causally explains why others suffer what appears to all the world as “misfortune” but is actually injustice. I’m the last one to begrudge anyone their quality of life. I live out here, too, and it’s a better place to live than Bloomfield was. But I’ll be damned if I’m complicit in a scheme premised on injustice. Let justice be done though the streets be lined with strip malls.

    Which reminds me–I have to go. My dry cleaning is reading at the strip mall nearby.

    P.S., This is a useful account of the relevant issues. Very moderate, too!


    • Your more tractable question was really closer to the one I was asking. The more theoretical stuff is interesting, too, but in this case I’m more curious about the ground-level issues. You’ve obviously got a strong case for opposition to the existing arrangements. If you’re right about the leading motives for supporting it, those are of course bad motives, though I can appreciate the psychology behind them. Much more depends on how powerful the effect of the land use restrictions are on housing prices elsewhere, and how direct the relation between them is. If it’s as powerful and direct as you suggest, then the case against the policies seems strong given that the good they’re doing and the people they’re doing it for seem negligible by comparison. I suspect that my question seemed more theoretical than I intended because it was about the hypothetical scenario in which the land was being put to different use. Given that it’s inaccessible and unproductive, even its narrowly aesthetic value seems hardly sufficient to justify the policies if they have these effects. I wonder about a few broader issues, though — here I am getting more theoretical already — both of normative principle and of economic and social dynamics. Normatively, I begin to get uncomfortable with the comparisons involved once we start thinking about whether the bad indirect effects of a policy on some people outweigh the good, more direct effects on others; in the case as you describe it, the comparison seems fairly easy, but in other nearby possible worlds perhaps it would be much less so, and even in the actual world it might be a little more complicated. The economic / social question is just what role other background conditions play in making it such that land use policies in Readington contribute to economic and social problems in Essex County. If some of the policies there make a greater contribution to those problems, when and why does it become the responsibility of people in Readington to forego benefits to their own citizens in order to avoid contributing to problems in Essex County? Does the proximity of the two locales matter? Does it matter that they are parts of the same state, rather than geographically close but in different states? Why and how much do these things matter?

      Those questions are not meant to cast skeptical aspersions on your view about the actual policy in place. They’re just questions to which I have no straightforward answers but think it would be good to have answers to. But they’re also pretty far into the theoretical territory in which you don’t claim to have settled answers either. I appreciate your intellectual honesty and openness about that. It seems pretty rare in politics these days, even among philosophers. It’s things like that that make me think to myself, “how was Irfan ever an Objectivist?”


      • I had to chuckle at your last question, which is ambiguous as between, “How did an honest person ever get mixed up in so dishonest an enterprise as Objectivism?” and “How did someone with so weak an attachment to the standard dogmas–I mean doctrines–of Objectivist politics ever decide to call himself an Objectivist?” Both questions have clear answers, but different ones.

        The answer to the second question is that I didn’t get interested in Objectivism primarily for the politics. I was drawn to the ethics, then the epistemology. The politics was a much harder sell, and ultimately, I was never really sold on it. Psychologically speaking (causes here, not reasons) I think I was probably drawn to Objectivism as a religion-substitute, since I turned to Objectivism shortly after apostasizing from Islam. The real draw was an egoistic ethic which held out a secular version of the view that virtue could be proportioned to happiness.

        Actually, that leads to the answer to the first question. I got interested in Objectivism in college. There was no Objectivist organization at Princeton, so I had to go and seek one out elsewhere. I opted for David Kelley’s Institute for Objectivist Studies (IOS) simply on geographic grounds: it was closer by, in Poughkeepsie, New York, than the Ayn Rand Institute, which was somewhere in California.

        Operating on the mistaken impression that IOS was simply an Objectivist version of the Institute for Humane Studies (IHS)–I mean, they differed only by one letter–I started going to IOS’s summer seminars, and slowly got sucked into the “Objectivist movement,” which revolved around libertarian politics more than anything else. (Granted, IHS was a specifically libertarian think tank, but one with a conspicuously academic orientation, and with so many weirdos running around it that you could safely get the impression that it was more academic than libertarian, hence safe for people like me.)

        The early Objectivist seminars were so intense and enjoyable that it became easy to conflate “my experience of the IOS summer seminars of 1991-1994” with “Objectivism,” and “the Objectivist movement.” It took years of reflection to realize that the seminars weren’t intense and enjoyable qua Objectivist, but because there were some cool people there who happened, often for very bad reasons, to call themselves Objectivists. So that’s how I became an Objectivist.

        As I said earlier, some of this material really belongs in therapy or confession.

        More on land use later. I wanted to go for the low-hanging fruit first.

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        • I think I meant: how did such an intellectually honest person ever attach himself to Objectivism, given that that movement is full of rigid dogmatists unwilling to allow that Rand/Peikoff might not have all the answers and might even have been partially wrong? So both of your answers are suitable! (And yes, I’ve long since realized that part of the answer is that Kelleyan Objectivists are a different breed; but in my experience they are not that different a breed…)

          If I had ‘discovered’ Objectivism at a certain time in my life, I might have become an Objectivist; in my late teens I was a pretty staunch individualist and something of an incoherent libertarian. As it happened, I only took a serious look at Objectivism once I was in graduate school and became friends with an Objectivist. I found much to appreciate in the ethics and epistemology, but much to criticize, as well, and so I was never really tempted to the dark side. Had I been, though, the politics would have turned me off. If the politics hadn’t turned me off, the character of ‘the movement’ would have. I of course have known a number of Objectivists whom I do not dislike (though I haven’t known most especially well), but, well, there’s a reason the ‘Randroid’ slur exists. The idea of Objectivism as a religion-substitute makes good sense on a number of levels. Unfortunately, one of those levels is the dogmatic sectarianism and cultishness. It always surprises me when Objectivists do not see how similar their groupishness is to Christian groupishness; to an outside observer of Objectivism with insider’s knowledge of Christianity, the parallels leap out immediately. I suppose some of that is a function of the more admirable way that Objectivism is quasi-religious: it’s a philosophy for living your life, not just a set of abstract ideas and arguments, and it’s supposed to apply to your whole life, not just some compartment of it. I find that part attractive; I just don’t approve of the doctrines, the sectarianism, or the odium theologicum. I suppose we’re not likely to find the former without some of the latter.

          In any case, I continue to affirm the description of you I gave in my first post on this blog: Irfan transcends ideology. How else does an erstwhile Objectivist end up as a registered Democrat in New Jersey? (I know, I know, Republicans…)

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          • It perhaps will not surprise you that I was unaware of the Kelley-Peikoff dispute until well after I had been part of the Kelley camp. This despite the fact that I “joined up” in the summer of 1991, and the events had taken place in 1989-90. Always the last to know…


  3. I want to mostly punt on the answers to your policy questions, but let me say two things very quickly.

    On the relationship between Readington-like land use policies and the price of housing in counties like Essex, I have in the past read studies indicating a causal relationship, and have had conversations with economists and lawyers who insist that there is one specifically in the case of north Jersey. That there would be such a relationship also follows from basic microeconomics plus a few background facts about the housing market: north Jersey is in an intuitive sense a single housing market, and any restriction in the supply of a resource in demand will tend to increase its price. This letter refers to a report by James Hughes, an expert on housing in New Jersey, and a proponent of restrictive land-use policies:

    Here’s a pretty standard libertarian analysis (not specifically of New Jersey) that claims that there is a connection:

    And here’s a debate on the issue between libertarians and left-leaning types:

    I’m more sympathetic to the libertarians than to the progressives in this debate. I don’t think that the progressives really come squarely to grips with the trade-off between restrictive land-use policies and affordable housing. There’s too much of a desire to “have it all.” I also find it problematic that they see no need for a principle that governs how zoning is to be used: they seem to think that you can use it for just about anything under the sun. The combination of those two beliefs inclines me toward the libertarian side.

    That said, the libertarians seem to be operating on the presumption that strong property rights can be justified, even if no one in the literature has ever justified them, at least on conception that rules out land-use regulation. In particular, they don’t come to grips with the fact that libertarian theory can’t seem to deal with the most plausible cases of risk that gave rise to zoning in the first place.

    The other thing is that I don’t this is the right characterization of the relationship between restrictive land-use policies in west Jersey versus effects in east Jersey:

    The economic / social question is just what role other background conditions play in making it such that land use policies in Readington contribute to economic and social problems in Essex County. If some of the policies there make a greater contribution to those problems, when and why does it become the responsibility of people in Readington to forego benefits to their own citizens in order to avoid contributing to problems in Essex County? Does the proximity of the two locales matter? Does it matter that they are parts of the same state, rather than geographically close but in different states? Why and how much do these things matter?

    Readington’s land-use policies aren’t just background conditions that “make it such that” there are economic and social problems in Essex County. These are policies specifically devised to keep people out of Readington. It’s a secondary consequence, perhaps unintended, that they drive up the price of housing in east Jersey. But that isn’t the primary issue. The primary issue is the presumption that Readington’s municipal authority extends so totally to the land under its jurisdiction. Taken to an extreme, the presumption would be that all land within the town’s boundaries is literally owned by the municipality, and that it can veto virtually any land use regardless of ownership considerations.

    They don’t quite go to that extreme, but that’s the tendency toward which they incline. No principle seems to determine what they regard as within their authority, or outside of their authority, to regulate: the attitude is, “Let’s just regulate whatever we can get away with regulating, to the ultimate end of keeping as much of the municipality undeveloped as possible.” “Quality of life” becomes a catch-all mantra that implicitly asserts a “property right” to some ethereal quality that no one can define, but that functions as a legal wall that keeps outsiders out. It is impossible within the milieu of suburban Jersey politics to ask, “How does quality of life become a property claim by the sheer assertion that ‘because x affects ‘our’ quality of life, ‘we’ get to control x.’?” The assumption just is: well, in this town, we enjoy a certain quality of life and intend to keep things this way, and if you don’t like it, you can move, but we have the right to do what needs to be done to maintain our quality of life.

    It does matter that we’re talking about two halves of the same state, because state funds go toward subsidizing a lot of these measures. The farmland preservation program is a program of the State of New Jersey. It claims, with a straight face, that all New Jerseyans benefit from the farmland subsidized by the State, despite the fact that this farmland and/or open space is held by a bunch of yeoman farmers in western Jersey for the covert (but obvious) purpose of keeping outsiders out of western Jersey.

    In other words, people in eastern Jersey are paying taxes toward a program designed to keep them paying higher housing costs where they live, but more importantly designed to keep them from moving to western Jersey. That may sound paradoxical, since I just moved from the one place to the other. But not everybody enjoys the good fortune of my (or Alison and my) circumstances. What I would really love is for the people who support these policies to try to sell them to, say, people in Section 8 housing in East Orange or Irvington. It would be an unintentionally hilarious conversation. “You benefit from our farms…the ones we don’t farm on….but that no one can build on…that drive up the cost of your rents and ensure that you’ll never move out to where we live…See these photos? Aren’t they pretty? You can visit any time by pointing your browser to…

    Wait. You don’t have a computer? What do you mean you don’t have a computer? Everybody has a computer!


    • Looking back over the bit you quote from the state’s description of the preserved land program, I realize that I’m confused about whether and to what extent these are actually operative farms we’re talking about. The Agricultural Development Committee refers to productive fields. Are they productive? There may be good objections to the program even if they are, but if they’re not, then doesn’t the state’s rationale for the program fail by its own standards? Admittedly, agricultural productivity isn’t the only good mentioned, but rural beauty and whatever economic consequences it brings make for a much weaker case than rural beauty, its economic consequences, and agricultural productivity.

      I suppose my general, non-libertarian background assumptions here are: a program like this might be justified, even if it contributes to housing price problems, if it contributes in some significant way to public goods. That is to say, I wouldn’t find any general objection to a state-funded land restriction policy persuasive on the grounds that state restrictions of land use violate property rights as such. But in this particular case, the policy doesn’t seem to be contributing in any meaningful way to the common good of the people who are funding it, and it seems to be contributing to problems for some of those same people. I don’t think the basic point about supply and demand is quite enough to show that there aren’t other factors contributing more significantly to high prices, or that the right response is not to address those factors, if there are any, rather than to take aim at the farm preservation program. But it seems clear that the policy does contribute, so the burden would be on proponents of the program to show that there are in fact such factors, that they can be addressed, and that addressing them will be adequate. Even if all that could be shown, though, I’m still confused about just what good the program is supposed to be doing. I can get behind farm preservation when we’re preserving actual farms, though there are plenty of questions and problems about that, too. But if what we’re preserving are instead just ‘open spaces,’ then it’s pretty hard not to come down on the side of the socialists, err, I mean democrats, er…the people you’re siding with.

      I of course have no skin in this game, but it’s interesting to think about, and though I’m sure local politics leaves plenty of room for the usual bullshit of politics, by comparison with most of the controversial national issues it all seems so…tractable, as though it might actually be possible to make some significant progress by engaging in reasoned discourse. Maybe.

      If I can ever convince myself to feel like I actually live somewhere rather than just being a temporary visitor, I might actually take the time to become reasonably informed about my own local politics. Now that we’ve finally made the annual exit from the torturously hot season, I might be able to have thoughts and feelings about Arizona that do not come back to needing to get out of here before I melt.


      • Well, one thing worth remembering is that we have both Open Space laws and Farmland Preservation laws (and Historic Preservation laws…). Open Space laws dictate that land will be left “open” in the sense of having no economically productive use. It’s often claimed that such open space has some environmentally crucial use, but the arguments are typically presented in such a way as to conflate aesthetic and what most people would regard as strictly environmental concerns bearing on the literal degradation in some scientifically specifiable sense, of the environment. And in such cases, I guess I would say: if the issue is such an imperative, why can’t people pool their resources and buy swatches of land, rather than rely on the state to set it aside?

        The Sierra Club does buy land in Jersey, and elsewhere, but the assumption seems to be that purchase is inadequate to the task of preserving open space. But a look at a map of New Jersey, the most densely populated state in the country, should raise questions about the legitimacy of state set-asides of land. How much is enough? The whole of the Pinelands–most of southern Jersey–is off limits to development and in state hands. Could the state in principle just declare that all development should come to a halt? That’s a question that progressives (and now, Republicans) are very, very reluctant to ask or answer. But it demands an answer.

        I don’t know what the exact requirements on farmland productivity are. I actually spent a fair bit of time in my childhood on a 70 acre farm in Hunterdon County. The owner rented out some portion of his land to farmers who grew cow corn and wheat. But the vast majority of the property was not cultivated. Does that count as “productive”? (And that was an ordinary farm, not farmland preservation land.) In principle, land might count as agriculturally productive if some produce were grown on it. There are people in New Jersey (my parents’ neighbors are one) who qualify for farmland subsidies or tax write-offs by putting a couple of chickens on the property. Apparently, a chicken or two, and a few dozen eggs or so, counts as a productive agricultural use.

        The owners of preserved land make it hard to take a look at their holdings–in the language of criminal procedure, they do what they can to ensure their privacy interest by treating it as curtilage rather than public space–but much of the so-called preserved farmland that I see around here is uncultivated. The point is, even if the letter of the law demands that preserved farmland be “productive,” the bar can be set pretty low to satisfy that.

        It certainly can’t be the case that one is entitled to public subsidies and the use of the monopoly power of the state over resources simply because one’s enterprise might in principle make a positive contribution to the common good. That principle is far too broad. (I could explain why, but it seems obvious to me.) The McCormick-Taber Seminar in Philosophy qualifies under that principle, but it seems a reductio to say that we ought to be entitled to subsidies or tax write-offs.

        Put it this way. Suppose I acquire a 100 acre farm in Readington and make a go of being a farmer. And let’s say that I actually have some expertise in agriculture. Now suppose I fail. So I decide to sell the property to a buyer who wants to use the 100 acres for some non-agricultural purpose. Ex hypothesi, set aside any bona fide issues of safety or boundary-crossing externalities (pollution, run-off, parking issues, sewer vs septic, etc.). Those problems tend to have straightforward logistical solutions, even if there’s always an issue regarding who pays for them. Can the authorities simply demand that the sale not happen because the land in question–that I putatively “own”–is zoned for agricultural use, and that’s that?

        Let’s say the buyer wants to build a cemetery. Is it really an argument in good faith to say, “Well, a cemetery is an unproductive use, because it uselessly contains dead people, but a farm is a productive use. Now granted, Khawaja’s farm failed on this particular plot. But it was productive while it lasted, right? And maybe it failed because Khawaja is just bad at farming. It could still become a productive agricultural use if a better farmer came along. And if one did, it could supply the local supermarket with overpriced produce hyped as “local produce” despite the fact that it tastes exactly like the same produce from more efficient farms elsewhere. So let ‘us’ find another farmer. If the likes of Riesbeck were to come along, he’d make it productive. Therefore ‘we’ decide that Khawaja can’t sell his farm to the cemetery people.” Now imagine that they block the sale to the cemetery and grease the wheels of a sale of the property to Riesbeck, who then makes a go at some slightly different kind of farming.

        This could in principle go on for decades. But however long it goes on, it strikes me as the epitome of bad faith. And yet it’s the kind of thing that happens all the time around here (the example is drawn from a real case), and it’s incentivized by farmland preservation, whether or not the enabling legislation comes out and admits to it. The irony is that though I support them, even Esakoff and Fiore don’t object to any of this in principle; they only differ by degree from the Republicans in their skepticism about it. The Republicans are all for it; they’re hesitant. That’s how Jersey politics works.

        I hasten to say that I’m operating here at the level of endoxa derived from living here for decades, not hard-core social scientific episteme. But it was known for decades at the level of endoxa that New Jersey’s zoning laws had racially discriminatory tendencies, and yet that claim was roundly denied for as many decades until it was proven beyond any reasonable doubt through litigation in the Mt. Laurel decisions of the 1970s and 80s, cases that are at least as important as Brown vs. Board but not widely known. Having only read the legal/social scientific literature on land-use regulation (a fortiori on land-use regulation in New Jersey) in a cursory way, that’s the context within which to understand my comments. I don’t claim to know that land-use operates the way I say it does in the strongest sense. But I think it’s a coherent and highly plausible view awaiting confirmation or disconfirmation from those who know better.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. At the APA Meeting in New York this January, I noticed a session on a book I’d not heard of and thought it might be of interest to some readers here. Perhaps someone here has already read it. It is titled EXEMPLARIST MORAL THEORY. I don’t know if I’m going to the Meeting yet, but I may well buy this book. I’ll try to add a link for it here:,204,203,200_QL40_&dpSrc=srch


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