All Commentary
Monday, September 1, 1986

On Building Codes

Mr. McGeorge is an eleventh grade student at Hellgate High School, Missoula, Montana. This article is adapted from his winning essay in a contest sponsored by the Montana Council of Organizations, on the relationship between land-use regulations and private property rights.

Has government regulation improved the quality of life? In the case of housing, I think not. Uniform building codes, planning and zoning ordinances, along with subdivision laws, provide a blueprint for land use. It seems to make sense on paper—nice, broad, well-lit streets with middle and upper income houses in logical relationship to services such as schools, shopping malls, and recreation areas. But something happens along the way.

Imagine you are driving along the beautiful California valley of my father’s youth. The rich diversity he once knew now has been replaced by row upon row of pink, blue, and brown tract houses crowded into the valley.

Why are there no houses in the surrounding hills? Because the local government prevents that—citing steep terrain, difficult drainage, and the expense of providing services. Why are the houses in the valley so close together? With the upgraded requirements for sewers, streets, wiring, and so on, the houses had to be close together to make building economically possible.

What do the residents do as a relief from the uniformity and blandness of their environment? Aside from watching TV, they can drive over the mountains to Solvang, an imitation Danish town with narrow, winding streets, sidewalk cafes (prohibited by the health department of my father’s home town) and the diverse charms that tourists love.

And what about people who can’t afford the well-built houses in the valley? Do the poor live in smaller, less well-built homes? No, they don’t. There is no way to build houses they can afford and still meet the requirements of the building department. The very poor wind up living on the streets, in the culverts, and under the overpasses.

Are such regulations improving the quality of life for all levels of society? Unfortunately, they are not.

When we speak of freedom of speech or religion it is generally understood that the American way will not tolerate dictation from the state. In the instance of property rights, however, we let the state—and by the state I mean city, county, state, and federal governments—assume socialistic powers. We have done this in the hope that our lives would be better. We have given up our freedom hoping to reap the benefits of regulation. We have lost on both counts.

Let’s combine Adam Smith’s idea—open competition among free individuals—with Alexis de Tocqueville’s idea—the moral development of these free individuals. Let open competition among free individuals do the regulating, and we can regain our freedom and our prosperity.