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Thursday, July 19, 2012

Planning and Freedom

Two principles of economic justice, liberty and equality, can be destructively misstated.

  1. End regulation (including taxation) and an unrestricted Free Market will bring bounty to the human race.
  2. Central planning controlled by the State will bring bounty to the Whole human race.

The first is the credo of American libertarianism.  The second of Soviet communism.

When I was working in housing and community development in Fresno, housing developers fought the concept of planning for sustainable communities.  Tea partiers even condemned the notion of sustainability as a UN communist conspiracy.  They would have the market rule.  As population grew, cheaper agricultural land was bought up and tract housing was built which demanded new water and sewage lines and highways.  The Central Valley, social observers predicted, would eventually become the bedroom community for Silicon Valley, Southern California, and the San Francisco Bay Area.

A far sighted Fresno City planner and a councilperson, recognizing that the South East area would be the next to go, decided to consult with a premier new urbanist planning group to create a plan that would encourage concentrated higher density, transit oriented development, and saving prime farmland. Developers allied with certain council persons fought the plan as too expensive.  They of course do not consider the deferred long-term costs of maintaining new infrastructure, cleaning up air and water damage, loss of farm land.

When we organized fourteen cities to participate in the federal administration sustainable communities initiative, representatives of the Building Industry Association fought city participation as allowing federal meddling in local decision-making and therefore a threat to liberty.  

For libertarians, all government intervention, especially if it focuses on the poor or excluded minorities, is communistic. Libertarians, like Marxists, propose a "withering away of the State. They would just get at it differently--one through the free market where the Whole is merely the sum of its parts (unrestrained self-interested individual initiative), the other through totalitarian dictatorship by a leader of a Party that claims to represent the People.

Urbanization is happening. 70% of the world live in urban centers and soon it will be 95%. The City, according to Brazil Governor Jaime Lerner, is not the problem; it is the solution. Well, it can be--depending on how we urbanize. Are we urbanizing in a way that creates divisions and slums, that destroys farmland and forests, fouls water and air, discourages mobility, makes the cost of energy and climate change unbearable, that isolates citizens to the vagaries of unchallenged self-interested opinions?  Or are we planning sustainable communities?

Theologian Paul Tillich taught that there is no freedom without boundaries. Hannah Arendt showed that it was only when Athens built its walls, that there was an open, safe place for citizens to engage with one another in commerce and politics.

Indeed, most free-marketeers affirm government's role in building a strong military to protect corporations, commerce, property from pirates, terrorists, and other countries. They just do not see government's role in promoting fairness especially if their own profits are threatened. There is of course no such thing as an absolutely free market. There simply are no markets without rules and laws, codes of conduct, protected places, people, and enterprises, and organization. The question is for whom do the rules, codes, protections, and organization work best.

The point is: planning is not an enemy of liberty, it is essential to it. But how that planning is done is crucial--democratically through publics or dictatorially by a State dominated by parties run by those who have the most wealth and military strength.

Ironically, in a government dominated by those with the most wealth, the rhetoric is "free market" and less government; the reality is mighty government planning on behalf of the wealthy who have all the advantage in the so-called free market.  Deregulation and tax breaks just become regulation and taxes that favor the rich.

How does my theory of ethics guide me in this?

  • It guides me to discover in our tensional existence that it is not liberty over equality, or opportunity over results.  It is both-and now, always.  
  • It guides me to consider the effects of planning and development on others, on our social order, on our earth, on our future.
  • It guides me to understand that those with the most advantage have the most opportunity; and if we really believe in equal opportunity, we will attempt to equal the advantage--especially to those for whom previous unjust conditions put at a disadvantage. 
  • It guides me to look at the situation from the point of view of the poorer and more excluded members of our species (what Catholic Social Teaching calls a "preferential option for the poor"). 
  • It guides me to encourage the organization of the less advantaged so that they are informed and included in the planning with power.  


I think this ethic has great relevance in the present political campaign.  But more on that later.

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