Ideas have consequences. Many if not most conventional thinkers say markets are OK for the private sector, but only government can plan and execute action in the broader areas of, to quote the Randal O'Toole, "transportation, land use, and environmental stewardship."
So whether the narrower planning issue is urban growth, air pollution, traffic congestion, pricey oil, management of the nation's 193 million acres of forestlands, affordable housing, smart growth or other planning ventures, government is the way to go. Really?
Mr. O'Toole, a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute and former visiting scholar at Yale, Utah State and University of California at Berkeley, thinks otherwise in "The Best-Laid Plans," his hard-hitting, fact-filled, well-written volume. His opposition is formidable, to judge from current opinion polls for the 2008 campaign, which show planning-inclined presidential candidates in the lead.
Fascinatingly, Mr. O'Toole explains why elected officials tend to favor government planning. Namely, they are happy to turn over hot issues to the planning bureaucracy rather than make the decisions — and take the heat — themselves.
Meanwhile, he draws insight and inspiration from the late Jane Jacobs, a writer who re-thought and challenged conventional urban planning in such books as "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" (1961). The Jacobs challenge — she called planning a "pseudoscience" — jarred the thinking and practice of urban planners.
But thinking and practice can change. So Mr. O'Toole counters the five justices of the Supreme Court who in 2005 backed the New London, Conn., contention that by eminent domain the city could take homes and businesses for the common good, even when the land involved is un-blighted. He rejects Justice John Paul Stevens' majority opinion that New London had "carefully formulated an economic development plan that it believes will provide appreciable benefits to the community."
Carefully formulated? Tell that, says Mr. O'Toole, to the nearly 1 million low-income families — 80 percent of them black — who were displaced by urban renewal rulings between 1950 and 1980. He echoes critics of the displacement, charging that the activity amounts to "Negro removal."
Or tell it to residents of Greenwich Village in New York City, whose attractive neighborhood was spared from urban renewal bulldozers thanks in part to the efforts of Jane Jacobs.
Or tell it to the flood of suburbanites who depopulated the big cities: From 1950 to 1990, St. Louis lost 54 percent of its residents; Buffalo, Cleveland and Pittsburgh lost 40 percent to 50 percent; Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Minneapolis and Washington lost 20 percent to 30 percent.
Or tell it to survivors of the giant low-income Pruitt-Igoe Project in St. Louis. Designed by Minoru Yamasaki, the acclaimed architect who also designed the ultimately doomed World Trade Center, Pruitt-Igoe had more than 2,800 apartments in 33 identical 11-story buildings with surrounding green spaces. But high construction bids led the public housing authority to cut standards.
The cut helps explain why, when the project opened in 1955, new residents found that locks broke, windowpanes blew out, door knobs fell off and elevators did not elevate. Worse, entrances, corridors and laundry rooms became places for muggers, rapists and drug dealers to lurk. The upshot was occupancy topping out at 75 percent and sliding down to 35 percent by the early 1970s. But then St. Louis gave up and, amazingly, imploded the entire project. Chicago and Philadelphia likewise imploded their low-income high-rises. Cost of these implosions? Don't ask.
So it goes in the non-market planning game — one costly mistake after another. Mr. O'Toole tracks the mistake of Portland, Ore., once a model of New Urbanism's smart growth idea (dense, walkable, public-transit oriented), as opposed to the suburban sprawl so typical of Los Angeles. The Portland model simply didn't work, says Mr. O'Toole, a native Oregonian. He also doesn't buy the case that light-rail and other mass transit will replace petroleum-fueled autos on any material scale. And he observes that now many urban housing authorities switch from high-rise to low-rise low-income housing to blend in with adjacent neighborhoods, hopefully ending more planning mistakes.
"The Best-Laid Plans" concludes by reminding us that Adam Smith was on to something with his Invisible Hand of mutual self-interest — that, says Randal O'Toole, "when we all work in our own interest, we also work in everyone else's interest. Thus, the market relies on the very traits that keep government planning from working."
Ideas have consequences.
William H. Peterson is an adjunct scholar at the Heritage Foundation and the Ludwig von Mises Institute.