Smart Growth Versus Individual Ownership:
Address to the
Address to the
Congratulations on your historic and overwhelming victory over county-wide zoning in
the April election. It is fair to say that an 82 percent "no" vote sent something of a
message! More importantly, by your actions you have shown that local democracy is
still alive in America.
I want to take this opportunity to talk to you about the threats to individual ownership
that exist at this time. A radical agenda is being advanced, under the name "Smart
Growth," that could threaten the prosperity of the nation. For that reason, I have
entitled my presentation, Smart Growth versus Individual Ownership: The End of the
True to the charter of the LaSalle County Land Owners Association, I will be non-partisan this evening. I will quote a great Republican from Illinois, a great Democrat
from Illinois, and even a great communist from the thank God former Soviet Union.
For most of the last 150 years, property has been considered evil by many groups, especially socialists and communists. The early communists developed a theory that private property was unnatural, and that it did not exist in primitive civilizations. All manner of evil was theorized to have had its roots in private property. There was only one problem. History did not confirm the view. History shows that private property arises very early. As the French historian, Coulanges pointed out that the anti-property history underlying communism was false:
The widespread belief derived not from historical evidence but from the climate of opinion prevalent in late nineteenth century Europe
And look what desolation resulted from this flawed analysis --- nearly a century of
communism in Russia and nearly 50 years in eastern Europe.
The anti-property crowd had their chance, and proved beyond the shadow of a doubt the bankruptcy of their philosophy. The Soviet Union produced nothing but bondage and poverty for its people. Why? Because where there is not exclusive private ownership, no one cares. As Polish commentators pointed out during their transition from communism:
what everyone owns, no one owns
But it didn't stop there. All across Europe, socialists nationalized industries and
established expensive welfare states after World War II. And there, they paid in lower
standards of living, excessive taxes and high unemployment. Much of the last 15 years
has been spent trying to undo the mistakes of Socialists for whom history was a
But look at what has happened in America, which respects private property less than it
should, but more than any where else. We have achieved by far the greatest prosperity
of any nation. Our gross domestic product, measured in purchasing power, exceeds
that of all countries except Luxembourg, a major European financial center
approximately the size of Fresno (For those of you not familiar with Fresno, it is a
medium sized city in California). The source of our prosperity is the way we treat
As Mikael Gorbachev put it, after he started to figure things out:
... wealth has to be created before it is redistributed.
But we need to understand that all that goes by the labels of free markets or capitalism
does not work. Efforts to convert communist and Latin American countries have often
failed. There is a good reason, which has been identified by the Peruvian economist
Hernando DeSoto. It is that clear, exclusive and predictable property rights do not exist.
Wealth is a result of individual ownership, and individual ownership must be predictable
and secure so that it can perform its role of expanding wealth. That is the difference in
America and the other prosperous nations. And so, it is not just selfish motives that
justify individual ownership --- it is the health and prosperity of society itself. The most
important reason for supporting property rights is that the larger community benefits so
It call comes down to freedom --- the freedom to control ourselves and our property.
There is a popular, but misguided view that freedom exists only where there is equality
of results. Nothing could be more wrong. America does not promise equality of results,
and the Soviet Union, which did, could not produce it. People are different. Why does a
Michelangelo work for years and little monetary reward to produce beauty that we still
enjoy centuries later? Why does a Sam Walton establish a chain of stores that lowers
our prices, creates wealth and earns him a great fortune, instead of working to produce
beauty? It is because people are different. All that government can and should do is
promise equality under the law, equality of opportunity. Society needs both its
Michelangelos and its Sam Waltons.
And so, defining freedom is very simple.
Freedom is the right to do what you want with what you have.
And from that proceeds a fundamental principle of freedom:
Absent a material threat to others or the community, people should be allowed to do what they like.
Don't think for a moment you can give up effective control of your property and still be
its owner. It doesn't matter what it says on the deed. If government controls your
property, you don't own it, the government does.
This brings me to the present threat to individual ownership and prosperity. It goes by
the name smart growth, and was invoked by proponents of county-wide zoning here in
LaSalle County just a few months ago.
Under the guise of environmental protection, advocates of smart growth propose all
manner of new restrictions on private property. This is not to understate the necessity of
protecting the environment. It is however, to perceive the difference between hysteria
The advocates of smart growth would draw urban growth boundaries outside of which
no development can take place. They would force us to live closer together, in higher
densities. And they would stop building highways, discourage automobile use and try to
get us into public transit.
And for what? The advocates of these new restrictions on private property have an
obligation to prove that their draconian strategies are justified. They have not done so.
Like the communists and socialists of old, they have misread the facts. You saw it first
hand here in LaSalle County, when your planning people tried to scare you into
believing that metropolitan Chicago was about to engulf you. Their population
projections for the next 20 years missed by 14 times --- 14 times. That would be like
NASA like shooting for Mars and hitting Venus instead.
Regrettably, similarly superficial research is the foundation of much of the fear peddled
by advocates of smart growth.
They tell us that we are running out of farm land because of urban development. But
not according to the US Department of Agriculture, which says that urbanization is no
threat to agricultural production. Indeed, during the last 50 years, seven times as much
farm land has been taken out of production in the United States as has been urbanized.
The reason --- greater agricultural productivity. If you want to save farm land, the
policy prescription is obvious --- outlaw mechanization.
We are told that there is not enough open space, that urbanization is sprawling all over
the countryside. But if there is sprawl, it is open space sprawl. Since 1950, one and
one-half acres of new rural parks have been established for each acre of urbanization.
Hardly a crisis.
We are told that densifying our cities will make traffic congestion better. Talk about fairy
tales --- who believes that cramming more people and more cars into a smaller area will
make things less crowded? Go to Europe, where they have had smart growth for years
--- higher densities, limits on development outside the cities and much higher transit
ridership. If the smart growth advocates have it right, traffic should be better there. But
anyone who has tried to drive across even a medium sized European city knows, traffic
is much worse.
People will use transit that takes them where they want, when they want at a speed that
is competitive with the automobile. The problem is that transit does this virtually only to
the nation's largest downtown areas, which have barely one out of ten jobs. The
automobile does it for 100 percent of jobs. The automobile is a great liberator and a
generator of prosperity. The automobile has democratized mobility --- it provides low
income people virtually the same mobility as those with high income.
And then there is the matter of global warming, which the smart growth advocates think
they will address by packing us more densely into cities and transit. Let's get this right.
Our experts cannot reliably predict next week's weather, yet we are ask to believe
that the experts can predict the weather 100 years from now?
There is also a call to responsibility. We also told that by moving to the suburbs we have impoverished the central cities. It is not quite so simple.
The cities have schools that don't teach.
Justice systems that do not punish.
Public services that do not serve.
Taxes that are higher than necessary
and, don't forget, political corruption.
That's why so many people with a choice have moved.
Things may be changing, however, There are encouraging signs on the horizon as
some of our largest cities begin to rebound under improved leadership. The
improvements that have been wrought by Rudi Guiliani in New York are legendary, and
Rich Daley has turned around Chicago.
But, in the final analysis, the cities were the authors of their own demise. People with a
choice have not been willing to send their kids to schools that don't educate and expose
them to neighborhoods that are not safe.
The fact is that, with respect to the cities, the smart growth advocates have
responsibility all wrong. We are not the servants of government, government is to
be our servant.
Then there is the matter of regional government. All across the country there are people that want to destroy local democracy and move its functions to higher levels of government. You saw that here with the push for county wide zoning. You see it in Illinois with the campaign to eliminate township governments. Well, people would rather be governed by people they know than by people they don't know. To paraphrase that great Illinois Republican, Abraham Lincoln:
Government of the people, by the people and for the people is government that is closer to the people.
Smart growth advocates want to impose urban growth boundaries, so that there is no
new urban development except where the planners mandate. But land is like gasoline.
When OPEC limits gasoline supplies, the prices go up. And, when planners limit the
supply of developable land, the price goes it. This can be seen in Portland, Oregon,
which has adopted the nation's most anti-individual ownership land regulation. Housing
affordability over the last decade has fallen more than double that of any of the other 80
largest urban areas in the nation.
You may recall that banks used to "red-line" entire neighborhoods, barring loans to
project with what they perceived to be riskier situations. Urban growth boundaries
promise to replace red-lining with green-lining. By not allowing markets to operate with
respect to land development, millions of households will be denied the American dream
of home ownership. This is particularly perverse for a number of reasons, not least
because home equity represents the largest source of wealth accumulation for many
middle income households. Indeed, if Portland's planners had been in charge, Abe
Lincoln's family would not have been allowed to build that log cabin.
So what is behind smart growth? Certainly not facts. It is rather doctrine . It is as if the
nation is being petitioned to adopt a new state religion, call it Ecotheism. It's
fundamentalist doctrines promise to take away your right to do what you like with what
you own. And, it is but a small step from violating your property to violating your
person. This is a lesson society learned the hard way in the Soviet Union and Nazi
And so, the basic principle of liberty with respect to land use is stated by the Lone Mountain Compact:
Absent a material threat to others or the community, people should be allowed to live and work where and how they like.
THE AMERICAN DREAM
Getting ahead is not just the American Dream.
All around the world, people buy cars as soon as they get the money and they move to
a house in the suburbs as soon as they have the money. I saw if first hand on the
Tokyo where I visited a tract of new houses on offer. I couldn't read the signs, but the
flags and parking lot made it clear. I went in, and walked around the house like a
prospective buyer would in the United States. I spoke no Japanese and the agents
spoke no English, but I could read the $500,000 price stated in yen. The American
Dream is no longer just the American Dream, it is the Universal Dream. It is already
alive in Japan, Canada and wherever people have prospered from the operation of
markets that respect property rights. I look for the day that it becomes a reality in China
and India too.
As I conclude, it is appropriate to recall the words of a great Illinois Democrat, Adlai Stevenson, who ran for President in 1952 and 1956:
Our people have had more happiness and prosperity, over a wider area, for a longer time than men have ever had since they began to live in ordered societies 4,000 years ago. Since we have come so far, who shall be rash enough to set limits on our future progress? Who shall say that since we have gone so far, we can go no farther? Who shall say that the American dream is ended?
I'll tell you who --- the fear mongering Ecotheists.
It is up to people who know the difference between hysteria and reality to turn the ride.
Our future must not be determined by the prejudices and doctrines of a an elite every
bit as misinformed as the communist theorists of a century ago. There is another way --- based upon the overwhelming evidence of human innovation and advancement
through history. Our cities are less polluted than since before the industrial revolution
began. Our health care and span of life continues to improve. The Ecotheists have
proven no problem sufficient to call for surrender of our liberties.
A few moments ago, Reverend Lees gave an invocation. I suspect he would like to
have delivered a sermon. He did not. I will. It was some thousands of years ago, near
the end of Moses' life. Israel stood outside the promised land. They sent 12 scouts in to
assess the situation. They returned with less than a unanimous decision. Ten of the
scouts were frightened by what they saw. The Cannanites were big and threatening.
Israel, they said, was no match for them. But two scouts, Joshua and Caleb saw it
differently. There was no question in their minds that Israel was more than a match for
Like Joshua and Caleb, let us go forward in faith, not fear.
Wendell Cox is principal of Wendell Cox Consultancy, an international public policy firm
specializing in urban policy and transport. He has provided consulting assistance to
government and private sector clients in the United States, Canada, Australia, New
Zealand, Europe, Asia and Africa. He is a signatory of the Lone Mountain Compact,
which delineates market oriented principles of urban land use. His discovery of errors in
the US Department of Agriculture National Resource Inventory was instrumental in
withdrawal and correction of its results (2000).
Mayor Tom Bradley appointed Wendell Cox to three terms on the Los Angeles County
Transportation Commission. While in that position, he was elected chairman of the
American Public Transit Association Planning and Policy Committee and the Governing
Boards. Mr. Cox served three years as the Director of Public Policy of the American
Legislative Exchange Council, where he oversaw the development of state model
legislation and policy reports.
In 1999, Wendell Cox was appointed to the Amtrak Reform Council by the Speaker of
the US House of Representatives, to fill the unexpired term of New Jersey Governor
Christine Todd Whitman.
Wendell Cox was born in Los Angeles and grew up in Oregon, Washington and British Columbia. He was Oregon state mile run and cross country champion and set a national junior class (school year 11) record in the two-mile run. He attended the University of Southern California and earned a bachelor's degrees in Government from California State University Los Angeles and a Master of Business Administration from Pepperdine University.
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P. O. Box 841 - Belleville, IL 62222 USA
Telephone: +1.618.632.8507 - Facsimile: +1.810.821.8134
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