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Sprawl, Car Culture and the Interventionist State

photo of Kevin Carson

Kevin Carson
24th September 2011


[excerpted from "The Waste Production Economy," Center for a Stateless Society, 2010]

The main force behind urban sprawl is disregard of the cost principle. Local governments build subsidized freeway systems and ever further outlying bypasses in order to “relieve congestion,” only generating new congestion as the new roads fill up with new traffic from the new subdivisions and strip malls that spring up at every exit. As the saying goes, trying to relieve traffic congestion by building more roads is like trying to lose weight by letting out your belt.

Suburban developments commonly receive subsidized utility connections at the expense of ratepayers in the old, inlying parts of town.  One of the most egregious examples I’ve seen is in the neighboring town of Fayetteville, Arkansas, where citizens voted in 2006 to pay an extra penny in sales tax to expand the sewer system to accommodate the increased burden imposed on it by new subdivisions built by local real estate kingpin Jim Lindsey—rather than simply charging Lindsey a higher sewer hookup fee to cover the cost of expansion.

In addition, zoning prohibits mixed-use development, and thereby inflates the need for transportation to get from the cul de sac to where one shops and works. The neighborhood grocery store has been zoned out of existence, along with all but the most informal and unobtrusive of home businesses. Affordable housing in the downtown commercial district (e.g. walkup apartments over shops), likewise, is prohibited by zoning.

The practical result of government promotion of monoculture development is that for most of us there are two communities:  a community in which we work and shop, and a bedroom community in which we are stored.  There is a separate utility and road infrastructure for each one, and a transportation infrastructure linking the two of them.  It’s a safe bet that a substantial majority of the automobile industry and its suppliers (not even counting planned obsolescence), and of the roadbuilding industry, is waste production.  (Of course that’s not counting the waste time—hardly distinguishable from labor-time devoted directly to waste production—spent in commuting.)

In a society where transportation and energy were not artificially cheap, new urban development would likely take the form of the pre-automobile railroad suburbs:  compact, self-contained new communities with their own commercial centers.

*   *   *

At the local level, one of the central functions of so-called “health” and “safety” codes, and occupational licensing, is to prevent people from using idle capacity (or “spare cycles”) of tools they already own, and thereby transforming them into capital goods for productive use.   Such regulations mandate minimum levels of overhead (for example, by outlawing a restaurant run out of one’s own home, and requiring the use of industrial-sized ovens, refrigerators, dishwashers, etc.), so that the only way to service the overhead and remain in business is to engage in large batch production.

You can’t do just a few thousand dollars worth of business a year, because the state mandates capital equipment on the scale required for a large-scale business if you engage in the business at all.

In the absence of licensure, zoning, and other regulations, how many people would start a restaurant today if all they needed was their living room and their kitchen? How many people would start a beauty salon today if all they needed was a chair and some scissors, combs, gels, and so on? How many people would start a taxi service today if all they needed was a car and a cell phone? How many people would start a day care service today if a bunch of working parents could simply get together and pool their resources to pay a few of their number to take care of the children of the rest? These are not the sorts of small businesses that receive SBIR awards; they are the sorts of small businesses that get hammered down by the full strength of the state whenever they dare to make an appearance without threading the lengthy and costly maze of the state’s permission process.

Zoning laws, likewise, criminalize low-overhead enterprise by compelling the microentrepreneur to pay expensive rents on a free-standing building in the commercial district instead of operating out of her home.  The rent, like capital outlays for mandated industrial-sized equipment, can only be amortized by large batch production.

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