April 25, 2008

Freedom, Contracts, and Zoning Laws

Alex Tabarrok writes:

Competitive law appears to increase efficiency but it’s less clear that competition among governments gives rise to a libertarian world.  Homeowner associations, for example, often impose stricter zoning regulations than cities.  You could say that the system as a whole is more libertarian, but no one lives in the system as a whole.

Maybe liberty comes not from choice of government but from forcing people who are unlike to live together.  Isn’t the real reason the First Amendment has any force not that people agree on the value of freedom of speech but rather that they disagree on who they want to shut up?  Is religious freedom a product of agreement on the value of religious freedom or is it a product of disagreement on who is going to hell?      

Still I hope for the best and congratulate Patri.  Seasteading has come a long way.

First, I’ll stop and grin at the photo he unearthed.  Then on to the logic…

Many commenters made responses which I’ll sum up as "but a contractarian system is libertarian".  I think this is correct, but partly misses the point and requires more amplification.  It think it is meaningful to look at a system, even a consensual, contractarian system, and ask "How much liberty does it have?".

For example, one might imagine different consensual systems giving rise to different levels of liberty due to personal preferences, initial conditions (if there are multiple equilibria) or technologies.  Worlds with and without the internet and strong encryption might both have consensual political systems, yet different levels of liberty.  So there is nothing inherently wrong with questioning the liberty provided by even a purely consensual system.

In this case, however, I think there is a pretty good argument that increased choice will increase freedom.  Zoning laws are very local, which means that lots of other people wanting different zoning laws than I do doesn’t decrease my liberty, since I only need to find one zone I like to live in.  So as long as it doesn’t take a very large group to make a new zone, I am likely to get zoning laws pretty close to want I want.

While it’s reasonable in theory to talk about people with different views getting together and choosing freedom so everyone can have what they want, I don’t think it fits the evidence if you look at laws of all types.  In practice, if you look at modern democracies, you instead see a lot of "tyranny of the majority" and one-size-fits-all solutions imposed on large groups of people.  For example, the majority of the tax burden is at a federal level.  Local control and choice of locality should substantially decrease that problem.