Time and money and housing: Part II

Thomas Sowell
Posted: Sep 01, 2005 12:00 AM

The ability of the human mind to rationalize is one of the mysteries -- and the marvels -- of the ages. A recent e-mail from a reader in Santa Barbara, California, was a classic example of a widespread rationalization of the severe home-building restrictions which have made California home prices a multiple of home prices in the rest of the country.
First, this reader reminds me that "money isn't everything." That is certainly true -- and especially when it is someone else's money.

 "We have fought very hard to prevent developers from profiting from the beautiful community we have worked so hard, and for so many generations to create and preserve," he says.

 In other words, the people who have lived in Santa Barbara a long time, and who therefore have not had to pay the outrageous housing prices that their home-building restrictions force newcomers to pay, are on a higher moral plane than "developers" -- practically a cuss word in coastal California.

 The fact that developers, like most people, want to earn money is regarded as sinister by some and the fact that the money is called "profit" makes it different from money that is called something else. It is amazing how many of those who consider themselves "thinking people" respond automatically to words the way Pavlov's dog was conditioned to respond to certain sounds.

 What developers want means absolutely nothing economically unless other people are prepared to pay for what they offer. In other words, developers are just intermediaries who represent the demand for housing by vastly larger numbers of other people.

 In the housing market, as in other markets, there are always people who want to use the same resources for different and conflicting purposes. There is nothing unique in the housing market when there are two sets of people wanting the same things and there is not enough to satisfy both.

 The Constitution of the United States gives them both equal rights, no matter how much nobler some of those people choose to believe they are.

 Our Santa Barbara reader says that the purpose of home-building restrictions is "to try to preserve natural beauty and avoid the congestion and obstructed views of an urban environment," such as that of Los Angeles.

 Avoiding "congestion" is hypocritical nonsense. Since the number of people is the same, whether or not there are housing restrictions, keeping them out of Santa Barbara just transfers the "congestion" elsewhere.

 As for "natural beauty," nobody wants to live in ugliness. Some of the most beautiful places in California are places where people live. What the morally self-anointed want is to use the power of government to impose their conception of beauty on others, regardless of what the Constitution says about equal rights for all.

 Although much is made of the disadvantages of a crowded urban environment, there is much less to that argument than meets the eye. Like everything else in the world, high-density urban environments have costs as well as benefits and different people weigh the two differently.

 Urban environments have high density because some people prefer the economic, cultural and other benefits made possible by high density. It has nothing to do with the bogeyman of "overpopulation." American cities were more crowded when the population of the United States was half of what it is today.

 Those who don't want to live in cities don't have to -- but that is very different from saying that they should have a right to forever preserve where they live the way that it has been in the past.

 People who own a home in a community do not own the community. They paid only for their own property -- and so did those who would sell to a developer. It is amazing how often lofty talk is used to try to deny others the same rights one claims for oneself.

 The fact that some people are on the inside looking out does not make them more important than people who are on the outside looking in -- and it certainly does not make their self-interest noble, even if it makes their rationalizations vehement.