It’s okay to abridge property rights for single-family zoning?

In this interesting Atlantic piece, Greg Shill points out several of the ways city, state, and federal law encourage driving and punish not driving. These include “Land-use law, criminal law, torts, insurance, vehicle safety regulations, even the tax code,” Shill writes. “All these sources of law provide rewards to cooperate with what has become the dominant transport mode, and punishment for those who defy it.”

Randal O’Toole takes issue with this assertion in a policy brief, in which he claims that the laws arose from people’s love of driving, not the other way around. Shill thinks that single-family zoning and other policies were written to “conform to the interests of Big Oil, the auto barons, and the car-loving 1 percenters of the Roaring Twenties.”

But O’Toole sees these laws as democracy in action. “If anything, the laws [Shill] claims forced Americans to drive were written as a result of the fact that driving had become the dominant mode of transportation.”

But as Shill pointed out on Twitter, “Writing private preferences into law isn’t libertarian & it sure ain’t freedom.”

O’Toole also writes, “When cities wrote zoning codes, they generally zoned an overabundance of land for multifamily housing because developers and realtors thought they could make more money from multifamily than single-family.” 

I’m not sure where this information is coming from, because O’Toole doesn’t cite anything. But it doesn’t square with anything I know about zoning. I do know that at least 70% of San Francisco and Los Angeles is zoned for single-family homes only. 

Greg Shill calls O’Toole a “prominent Cato advisor,” and apparently in 2012 the Cato Institute published his book American Nightmare: How Government Undermines the Dream of Homeownership.  O’Toole calls it “the ultimate anti-urban planning book.” 

What the hell, Cato?

Property rights are kind of at the core of libertarianism. And zoning, if you’re not aware, deprives people of the right to build what they want on their property. Zoning *is* a property rights infringement. Now, I totally understand that we libertarians shouldn’t be ideologues. Maybe sometimes you need to bend your principles for the greater good. But single-family zoning? It’s okay to abridge property rights for single-family zoning? 

I honestly don’t get it.

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