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Barack Obama and Jerry Brown Get It Right on Zoning

Walter Russell Mead

A New York Times report on the ruinous social and economic impact of local land use regulations features two unlikely liberal advocates for free market principles:

A group of politicians, including Gov. Jerry Brown of California and President Obama, are joining with developers in trying to get cities to streamline many of the local zoning laws that, they say, make homes more expensive and hold too many newcomers at bay.

To most people, zoning and land-use regulations might conjure up little more than images of late-night City Council meetings full of gadflies and minutiae. But these laws go a long way toward determining some fundamental aspects of life: what American neighborhoods look like, who gets to live where and what schools their children attend.

And when zoning laws get out of hand, economists say, the damage to the American economy and society can be profound.

Unfortunately, Brown and Obama don’t follow this logic far enough to see that many of the blue model regulations Democrats defend act in precisely the same way. From rent control to professional guilds to occupational licensing to public sector unions to the higher ed accreditation, a morass of outdated blue model regulatory policy functions to protect privileged insiders by penalizing outsiders trying to make their way in.

This doesn’t mean America needs to embrace Ayn Rand-style libertarianism, but it does mean that the cost of regulation in many areas is higher than many Democrats realize, and that the costs fall disproportionately on poor, minorities, and the young.

When social change is really needed in America, it has a way of coming through in both parties. Ted Kennedy was a big supporter of airline deregulation, and the Civil Rights Act was bipartisan. If Barack Obama and Jerry Brown take up the cause of zoning reform, it’s an encouraging sign that, for all our problems, America’s bias toward a fair and open society and opportunity is still alive and still kicking.

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