The R-Word

I digitally attended the Power of Ten summit of local governments in Middle Tennessee last Thursday. The speaker, Brent Toderian, gave a pretty hard-hitting presentation. One thing that stood out was his insistence that cities not be squeamish about using regulation to enforce desired outcomes.

What’s interesting about this is that in conservative rural and suburban Tennessee, elected leaders are averse to using policy “sticks” and prefer instead only to use “carrots.” For instance, the state government either pre-empted or invalidated Metro Nashville (can’t remember which) on a mandatory affordable unit set-aside they wanted to enact for certain developments.

I get the basic philosophy here: freedom is free markets and choice, and so MAKING people do anything (as long as not making them doesn’t lead to serious injury or death) is frowned upon. And I agree, free markets are usually the most efficient way to allocate goods and services. But not always.

Toderian said we need to get over our ideological aversion to regulations. He said that, because as soon as he started talking about rules and requirements, the moderator asked the question of what about incentives instead? This precommitment to no regulation, and to why can’t everything be incentive and choice-based? does seem to hamper policy in our region.

What’s interesting is that we’re already eat up with regulation anyway. The draconian zoning ordinances so many of our cities labor under restrict freedom every which way, and nobody bats an eye because of three reasons: one, it’s been that way for a while, and people are used to it. Two, restricting people’s freedom leads to more predictability and stability in property values. Three, once you realize you have the right to show up at a public hearing and put the kabosh on whether your neighbor gets to build a mother-and-law suite behind his home or not, you realize that that kind of power feels pretty good.

I will say that I’ve seen the worst kind of pettiness when it comes to these kinds of disputes, and they often lead to permanent enmity between neighbors. People that would protest at the drop of a hat any new regulation we might propose will just as quickly turn around and doggedly hound their neighbors before Planning Commission or the Board of Zoning Appeals to ensure every jot and tittle of the existing law is enforced to the maximum extent.

I think our problem is not too much or too little regulation; it’s a problem of what we’re regulating. We should regulate for outcomes we want and not those we don’t. How do we understand what we want, though? Do we want regulations that prohibit corner stores and mother-and-law suites? Many planners of this generation don’t, but there is a certain set of the homeowner class that can be counted on to oppose all these things. Do we have to get a 51% vote of everyone saying we’d like to move toward flexibility and freedom, which may require a sacrifice in predictability? Or is this enough of a technical and public health problem that regulators can act without a mandate from the voters? Difficult questions.

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