Re: For the greater good: the game theory of zoning
December 30th, 2018
Jake Auchincloss emailed me about my recent post For the greater good: the game theory of zoning and made the constructive point that a homeowner's mindset is "situation-dependent, not ingrained". At the end of the post, I had written that "Individualists and Regionalists are odd bedfellows". Jake pointed out that there may be tension at the abstract level of the Individualist-Localist-Regionalist framework, but that in practice people don't operate at that level. He helped me realize that I'd been getting a bit into the theoretical weeds with that statement, and his dose of on-the-ground experience in Massachusetts reminded me that most of the individuals involved in housing policy don't actually identify by the categories I laid out in the original post; they are simple game theoretic descriptions of different "players" payoffs.
In short, I came to agree with him. The tension I mentioned in that one line is theoretical and rarely bubbles up in practice. These identities don't really describe how most folks on the ground think about themselves. They're useful when thinking about the specific "games" involved in housing policy, but they don't carry over to how people behave in other circumstances.
Here are the relevant excerpts from that email thread...
Many homeowners are 'individualist' when they want to add an accessory unit and 'localist' when their neighbor does. And because of the fundamental attribution error, homeowners are surprisingly bad at recognizing that disjunction.On this point:Individualists and Regionalists are odd bedfellows. In practice they can form a coalition to defeat Localists, but they tend to disagree on other things, and the same power they may muster here to constrain local behavior can also be used in other realms to vanquish other Individualist aims. As a result it can be scary for Individualists to cooperate with Regionalists.I'm not sure I fully understand and/or am bought in. In my experience, individualists and regionalists are not awkwardly paired. Regional imperatives for more density, as you say, tend to support individuals' aims for highest and best use. So do regional approaches to infrastructure, like water and transportation. I can't really think of examples where that alliance hits the rocks because of different approaches to adjacent issues.
... you could imagine that what's best for the region is building a new rail line to stitch together sister cities. For the sake of illustration, imagine that the department of transport owns all of the necessary land in a strip except a single property, and that private owner does not want to sell. The Regionalist would say that it's not only acceptable but right to exercise imminent domain and force a sale; the Individualist would say "hell no", insisting it's their individual right to own property, that it's unacceptable for the state to tell them what to do with their land. You can imagine how this tension could extend to other areas of concern too, beyond just land use and urban planning.A coalition between Individualists and Regionalists has become increasingly popular as the housing crisis in California becomes more acute. (This may generalize to other places, though I can't speak to those.) This takes the form of state-level legislation that forces the localities to cooperate, and it works pretty well. The problem is that the Individualists may making a pact with the devil, because these actions could set a precedent that state/regional power can overwhelm the choices of communities and the individuals that comprise them for the sake of the greater good. I don't mean to take sides here, because I don't really identify with one camp or the other (or at least I differ from day-to-day!), but I think it's an important tension to note if we want to keep the coalition together. The great fear of the Individualist is that the coalition they currently have with Regionalists could backfire on other aims they have where the Individualist and Regionalist priorities come into conflict (e.g. imminent domain).A few caveats:
- Of course precedent may not work this way at all—maybe these issues are sufficiently modularized so that it doesn't change the outcomes of things down the line—but I think that's a gamble that the Individualists in the coalition are taking, and it could blow up on them.
- Also each of these categories—Individualists, Localists, and Regionalists—are massive simplifications. Each person falls into different camps for different issues, because there are lots of different ways to slice the problem. Many people don't even look at politics through this lens. Some people might use this lens in some cases but not in others.So sure, on the margins of where most major US cities are at right now, Regionalists and Individualists are well-aligned when it comes to allowing development on individual plots of land. In that case, what's good for the individual landowner is good for the region too, because we need more development. But these goals are not always aligned.
What I was responding to is not so much the theory you propose about possible tension between regionalists and individualists, but rather whether that tension really does spill over into other issues besides land use. You mention that land use might be sufficiently distinct that the politics is self-contained, and that indeed has been my experience in Massachusetts. Attitude towards development seems to be orthogonal to almost any other issue -- there's no predicting how someone is going to feel about it based on their attitude towards other issues. (I'm sure that's not totally true, but it really does feel that way. Democrat? Republican? Old? Young? Affluent? Well-educated? There just doesn't seem to be a variable that defines a coalition, except of course proximity to a proposed development. Adjacency makes NIMBYs of everyone.)
You raise a good point that the tension may not spill over into other issues. I tend to approach things from a consistency lens (i.e. if you say you believe X for such and such reason, then that implies you also believe Y), but that's not actually how politics often pans out. Most people are not hardline Individualists or Regionalists or otherwise; more often, the pick the one that matches their interests for a particular issue and/or the aesthetic that they like. So yes I think you're right that in practice this tension doesn't often spill over into other realms, even if logically it "should". (I say that descriptively, not prescriptively.)
Keep in touch!