No-cost decision-making

Posted: May 06, 2004 12:00 AM

 Those who imagine that collective decision-making by government officials is better than individual decision-making in a market economy should have been present at a recent meeting of the Planning Commission for the city of San Mateo, California.

 A man who has been trying for more than three years to get permission to build a group of six condominiums was back before the Planning Commission again to hear how they wanted to micro-manage the construction before they would let the condos be built.

 Since these six units were expected to be housing senior citizens, the developer tried to arrange the layout to minimize the ability of outsiders to get inside, so as to provide some security for the people living there. That aroused the ire of a pony-tailed commissioner, who delivered a little speech about how the way to deal with crime is not to wall it out but to confront it at the source and beat it back.

 Can you imagine elderly residents confronting young hoodlums and beating them back? Can you imagine enough police being around to scare crtiminals off? For that matter, can you imagine a middle-aged man spouting sophomoric 1960s rhetoric?

 Yet the wall that was meant to provide security to people living within this little development may have to come down, so as to allow what some commissioners called "street presence" -- apparently one of the fashionable notions in which you can indulge when you are spending other people's money and risking other people's safety.

 Another commissioner, a soft-spoken lady, said that she just thought that the landscaping ought to be "nicer." Who could be against nicer? Only someone who wanted to know how much nicer, at what cost -- ultimately at what cost to those who will be living in the condos.

 If it is nice enough for those who will be living there, why are third parties to decide otherwise? If the builder thought that making the landscaping nicer would be worth the cost in terms of a higher price for the condos, nobody on the Planning Commission would have to tell him how nice to make it. But what if the potential buyers do not consider it worth what it would cost to meet the commissioner's notion of nicer?

 Then there were the inevitable complaints of existing homeowners in the area that these six condos for elderly people would add to the traffic in the area and create "parking issues" when they had visitors.

 It is hard to imagine how much traffic will be created by six elderly couples hot-rodding up and down the street. And since these six condos have twelve parking spaces of their own, it is hard to imagine how parking spaces on the street will be regularly swamped by crowds of revelers.

 Then there was an impassioned little speech by another current resident about "privacy issues," spiced with a reference to the Constitution of the United States, which apparently guaranteed privacy, though the Founding Fathers somehow forgot to say so. 

 Because the condos facing his house would be two stories high, having windows from which people could see him was apparently considered a great imposition. Presumably the gentlman has shades on his own windows that could provide privacy and he did not have to do anything out in the yard that he did not want neighbors to see.

 Yet the commissioners seemed to think that there were too many windows in the plans for the condos, or windows in the wrong places. That would have to be changed to get their votes.

 Both the commissioners and the neighbors are in a position to impose high costs on others at no cost to themselves. Self-indulgence is virtually inevitable under these condiitons.

 All this self-indulgence is taking place in northern California, where "affordable housing" is a political mantra -- and a practical impossibility, due precisely to blithely piling on costs to anything that the pols would deign to allow to be built.

 Collective decision-making has had such a bad track record around the world that, by the end of the 20th century, even socialists and communists were turning more decisions over to the market. But apparently the word has not yet reached San Mateo.