All Commentary
Sunday, April 1, 1973

A Reviewer’s Notebook – 1973/4


Bernard H. Siegan’s Land Use Without Zoning (D. C. Heath and Co., Lexington Books, $10) is one of the most difficult compendiums of intensely analytical prose that this reader has ever encountered. To get past the detail to the generalizations entails hacking one’s way with a machete through an undergrowth that offers briars, burrs and thorns on every branch. But when one has come out into the clear one has the feeling that Mr. Siegan has accomplished something that will stand as a landmark for the rest of our century.

Mr. Siegan got into his subject during years spent as an attorney specializing in real estate problems in Chicago. He was impressed with the fact that the land planners who have been responsible for the idea that you can zone a community for beauty and gracious living almost never succeed in acting as the disinterested judges which they fancy themselves to be. They are necessarily in politics up to their ears, with pressures beating in upon them from all sides. In suburbs where life styles have already been fixed they may not do badly, for in such circumstances they are merely called upon to endorse patterns that are part of an accepted status quo. But in big cities where life styles vary and the needs of commerce are many, there can be no standards by which every proposal can be measured.

Market surveys costing thousands of dollars may be necessary. Who has the wisdom to decide on priorities? There are questions of compatibility, property values, traffic, existing use, Utopian expectations, future growth, conservation, nuisances, the need for schools, and general economic feasibility. The whole thing becomes a political struggle, and those with the biggest clout at the polls or in the councils of the dominant political party must win. The strongest, it is perhaps unnecessary to add, are not always the ones with the most cultivated esthetic sensibilities.

The Houston Example

Having witnessed the trials of the zoning planner in Chicago, Mr. Siegan looked about him for a city that has managed to get along without zoning laws. He found one in Houston, Texas. The University of Chicago Law School gave him a research fellowship in law and economics, and he was off to Texas to make some empirical studies on the spot. His investigations not only took him to Houston, where “planning” is left to the professional subdivision developers, but to Dallas, a community that depends on zoning both for its suburbs and its downtown business sections. What he found is presented in massed detail that can be extremely bewildering. But when one has finished with the intricate statistical columns and the graphs one realizes that zoning is one of the great “liberal” hoaxes of our time.

The fact is that Houston and its suburbs, which have always rejected zoning boards and the eternal struggle for “variances” and amended rules, do just as well as Dallas, and even a little better. In Dallas they tell you where you can and cannot put up a high-rise office building; in Houston there are no geographical restrictions. So what happens? The Houston skyline is just as orderly as the one in Dallas. The Houston business section is contained in one big self-created “district.” In Dallas there are two “districts.” The effect of architectural comeliness is more or less the same in both cities. And neither yields to the other in convenience.

Restrictive Covenants

Beyond the business area Houston tends to be a “single-family” town. The residential areas, many of which have restrictive covenants of a voluntary nature (you accept the space rules put into the contract by the developer), are neat and orderly. Gas stations and shops have not invaded the back streets; they couldn’t make a go of it economically if they did. Land values have proved effective in separating business and industrial real estate from the single-family lots. Houston is an industrial town, but both its heavy and light industry stick close to the major truck arteries, the railroads, and the docking facilities. The city has not been “Manhattanized,” which means that the apartment houses have not taken over even where one might expect people to go in for apartment living. As for billboards, they are where thousands of motorists need them for information.

The citizens of Dallas, who have accepted zoning, can’t boast of any amenities (aside, maybe, from Nieman Marcus) that may not be found in “anarchic” Houston. Dallas is a single-family home town, too. But the virtues of regulation provide nothing that Houston’s voluntaristic approach does not offer in comparable profusion and at less cost.

Can one draw a generalized conclusion from the fact that rents in Houston are lower than in Dallas? Mr. Siegan obviously thinks that one can. The conclusion would seem to be that Houston offers more variety for less rental money than Dallas without debasing its land value structure by charging less for home acreage. Mr. Siegan’s tables are complicated, but this is what they seem to tell us.

The Voluntary Urban Pattern

Other generalizations follow from Mr. Siegan’s study of the two Texas towns. The absence of land use restrictions is financially rewarding to a community because it allows for a greater development. Where the negative action of zoning curtails construction and drives business and employment away, the real estate tax collections suffer. There is less money to pay for parks and schools. This, says Mr. Siegan, is an extremely high price to pay for forcibly maintaining the urban pattern which, as the experience of Houston demonstrates, can be preserved by voluntary means. The best fiscal zoning, so Mr. Siegan insists, is no zoning.

The only people who really benefit from zoning are the planners themselves. They make careers of it, which pays off in ego trips if not in money. The planning they do, however, is more improvisation than planning, for zoning laws are invariably the resultant of pressures exerted on planning boards by a medley of politicians, owners, courts, do-gooders, do adders, and general busybodies.

Speaking of land use legislation, Mr. Siegan says the planning of large areas is repugnant to the intelligence. Any state agency is bound to have only the most cursory knowledge about local conditions. Just evaluating the potential uses and demands for a fraction of a mile within a metropolitan area may cost thousands of dollars. In the end, as Mr. Siegan shows, one comes out with less than the free market will provide if one lets things alone.

Will our zone-crazy country take Mr. Siegan seriously? I am told that some 4,000 copies of his book have been sold, but surely it needs translation into a less complicated idiom if it is to have the maximum effect. Mr. Siegan explains himself most lucidly in interviews, which means that he is quite capable of doing the necessary simplification if he so chooses.

 

SELECTED WORKS OF ARTEMUS WARD Edited with an Introduction by Albert Jay Nock (New York: AMS Press, Inc., 1972, 295 pp., $7.50) (Available from the Nockian Society, 30 South Broadway, Irvington, New York 10533.)

Reviewed by Robert M. Thornton

Charles Farrar Browne, who used the pen name Artemus Ward, was born in 1834, at Waterford, Maine, and died in 1867. He was a reporter on the Cleveland Plain Dealer, edited Vanity Fair for a short time, and gained a reputation as a humorous lecturer. Ward was much more than this, Nock contends; he was “the first really great critic of American society…. In fact,” Nock continues, “the only one who seems to me to stand with him is another victim of popular misbranding in our own time, Mr. Dooley. In our appreciation of both these men it is interesting to see how far our instinct outruns our intelligence; we think they affect us by the power of their humour, when nine times out of ten what actually affects us is the power of their criticism — and here, no doubt, we have the reason why their names persist. For instance, there is no great humour in Ward’s oft-quoted observation on the fanatical extravaganzas of Abolitionism; what really interests us is its exact correspondence with history’s verdict upon them.”

Ward had the ability to keep a clear and steady view of things as they are. He was a Unionist, a friend of the Administration, yet his greatest praise of Lincoln was for remaining “unscared and unmoved by Secesh in front of you and Abbolish at the back of you, each one of which is a little worse than the other, if possible.” Ward once said of writers like himself that “They have helped the truth along without encumbering it with themselves.” As Ward saw America, writes Nock, “its god was Good Business; its monotheism was impregnable. Of man’s five fundamental social instincts only one, the instinct of expansion, had free play, and its range was limitless. The instincts of intellect and knowledge, of religion and morals, of beauty and poetry, of social life and manners, were disallowed and perverted.”

Ward had the true critical temper — an easy, urbane, unruffled superiority to the subject of his criticism. “Its influence dissolves rancour; by its aid one surveys the hardness and hideousness of Baldwinsville in a truly Socratic spirit, with no resentment, and with no evangelical desire to expostulate with the citizens of Baldwinsville upon their waste of life.”

This book was first published in 1924, and it is good to see it back in print.

 

Foundation For Protest: A Father’s Letters to His Grown-Up Children by Frederic W. Overesch (516 West 34th St., New York, N. Y., Vantage Press 1972) 121 pp. $4.95.

Reviewed by Paul L. Poirot

Fritz Overesch spent most of his first seventy years in advertising and market communications work and wants to share some of the things he has learned about the blessings of freedom and the miracle of the market. Let his words tell the story:

“It seems to me that these Laws of Creation, so well defined by Moses on the basis of past experience, pretty well govern the voluntary behavior of human beings —regardless of religious faith or lack of it — regardless of economic theories — regardless of political philosophies. But human beings, born with free will and free choice, can choose whether or not to obey them….

“The foundation for my protest is based on past experience and the mistakes of past generations recorded in 4,000 years of history. Consequently, my protests are not against those in the Establishment who fail to solve our current problems, but against the members of the Establishment who continue to repeat the mistakes of the past — which caused the problems in the first place….

“From all the years of recorded history, it seems self-evident that the greatest miracle of Creation is that human beings were born to be free. And in all the Laws of Creation which accompanied the orderly nature of Creation some were designed to govern the behavior of human beings so they could be free to fulfill their purpose in this great universe.

“Once we stop violating the Laws of Creation — once we start working in harmony with those Laws, we shall make the same kind of progress in the improvement of human behavior as we have in the field of science.”  


  • John Chamberlain (1903-1995) was an American journalist, business and economic historian, and author of number of works including The Roots of Capitalism (1959). Chamberlain also served as a founding editor of The Freeman magazine.