All Commentary
Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Preservation at the Expense of Liberty

Bad tradeoff.


“Everything passes. Nobody gets anything for keeps. And that’s how we’ve got to live.”

–Haruki Murakami

I feel lucky to live in Brooklyn Heights.  It’s been called New York City’s first suburb.  It offers easy access to most parts of Manhattan, thanks to the convergence of several important subway lines, and the view of Lower Manhattan from here is one of the most spectacular in the City.

Not surprisingly it’s one of the most desirable and expensive neighborhoods to live in.  Along its periphery, warehouses and office buildings are constantly being converted into residences, to go along with townhouses in the neighborhood proper that were built in the early 1800s, as developers try to keep up with a demand that has remained strong even in a slack housing market.  In my opinion the Brooklyn Heights district is one of the most charming, and probably the prettiest, in all of New York.  So what’s to complain about?

Urban Renewal and Landmarks Preservation

Three things.  First, in 1939 the area just east of the neighborhood underwent the largest urban renewal project of its time, razing 125 buildings over 21 acres and creating “Cadman Plaza,” the first of many so-called “super-blocks” built in major cities across the United States in the mid-twentieth century.  Later, between 1947 and 1954, local authorities constructed the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE) along the northern and western borders.  Then in 1965 Mayor Wagner signed a law that made Brooklyn Heights the City’s first historic district (there are currently 100 such districts in New York) and eventually gave rise to the important Landmarks Preservation Commission.

Cadman Plaza and the BQE effectively cut the Heights off from the hurly-burly of commercial development in neighboring districts.  The Landmarks Preservation Commission has made it very hard and very costly to change the existing built environment, which of course is the point.  Trying to preserve the “character” of a community, even at the local level, means blocking the majority of proposed changes in land uses and enforcing specific design requirements.  So keeping those good looks and charm has come at great cost.

The Producer City versus Consumer City

Urban economist Edward Glaeser distinguishes a “producer city” from a “consumer city.”  In his scheme people in the former are net producers of wealth while people in the latter are net consumers of it.  I’m not overly fond of this distinction because consumption also produces value as long as subjective benefits outweigh subjective costs – that is, when exchange is voluntary.

But I think he may be onto something, and so I sometimes make the distinction between “producer neighborhoods” and “consumer neighborhoods”:  between those that successfully mix commercial and even industrial activities with more residential ones, and those, for example, that are predominantly residential.  The former have lots of things that attract people into the area, what Jane Jacobs called “primary uses,” while the latter have one dominating use and much “secondary diversity” that only serves those drawn into it by that dominating use.  Brooklyn Heights is clearly the latter.

No one comes here to take in the dynamic culture or to seek lucrative economic opportunities.  Living cities and districts, because they are places of trial and error, tend to look messy and a bit raw.  They aren’t superficially pretty or charming.  They are enticing but dangerous.  Failure is definitely an option, but so is spectacular success.  People who move to the Heights today are mostly those who have succeeded elsewhere, perhaps just across the river on Wall Street, and want a place to spend the fruits of their success.  (Like Dubai on a smaller scale.)

Wabi-sabi

It’s very hard to know what is worth preserving and what it would be better to let go of even in our private lives.  Should we keep an extra pair of running shoes (“They’re still good!”) or throw them out?  Should we renovate the kitchen or not?  It’s hard enough for each of us individually to make those decisions – sometimes we’re right, sometimes we’re wrong – but at the level of the community, the polity, the nation, well, we’re in way over our heads.  It’s in the nature of things – wabi-sabi:  nothing lasts; nothing is finished; nothing is perfect.

In the face of this ignorance, the person in the best position to know, however imperfectly, whether a particular building is worth preserving, and who has the most direct interest in getting the answer right, is its owner.  (That’s why, in the case of a public building such as the old Penn Station in New York, preservation decisions are so problematic.)  When it comes to entire neighborhoods that are not wholly owned by a single entity, such as the 50 acres of Brooklyn Heights, the knowledge to make such a decision is simply not available.  That’s why in political discourse, when influential persons or public authorities say that X is worth preserving, what that really means is that X is worth preserving in the opinion of those persons or authorities.  But if you try to preserve a living thing you are in danger of taking the life out of it.

What Can and Can’t Be Preserved

Lovers of liberty treasure the principles of a free society – such as private property, free association, and the rule of law – that unleash the competitive forces that economist Joseph Schumpeter famously described as “gales of creative destruction.”  The world has seen more change in the past 200 years owing to these principles than in the previous 200,000.  Per capita wealth and health have skyrocketed (as this terrific video by Hans Rosling shows), and there is tremendous mobility and fantastic creativity even as the population of the world has increased exponentially.

Those principles, I believe, are worth preserving through conviction and tireless but peaceful persuasion.  Using political power to preserve any cherished way of life — trying to stay the uncertain dynamic that washes through social institutions, norms, and conventions — is not only futile but ultimately destructive of liberty.  That goes for preserving a historic community as much as preserving current marriage practices; keeping the natural environment pristine as much as maintaining age-old religious practices; or freezing a particular income distribution as much as insisting on keeping certain “undesirables” outside our borders.

Whether initiated from the political left or right, trying to do so is deeply anti-liberal.


  • Sanford Ikeda is a Professor and the Coordinator of the Economics Program at Purchase College of the State University of New York and a Visiting Scholar and Research Associate at New York University. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.