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Aesthetics and regulation

Virginia Postrel’s latest NY Times column highlights what may become a growing weakness in the regulatory state.

Oscar Wilde defined a cynic as someone who “knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing.” To many people, that sounds like an economist or an executive.

But Wilde’s witticism ignores what prices do. They convey information about how people value different goods, including the intangibles an aesthete like Wilde would care about most.

. . .

Public policy often regards aesthetic value as illegitimate or nonexistent. This oversight comes less from ideological conviction than from technocratic practice. Unlike prices, regulatory policy requires articulated justifications and objective standards. So policy makers emphasize measurable factors and ignore subjective pleasures.

As the info-industrial economy advances, the regulatory state will look increasingly out of step and, one hopes, irrelevant and undesirable. Regulation is all about conformity, and while top down conformity might appear to be tolerable in a society that is struggling to make ends meet, one hopes that it will become increasingly intolerable as it becomes more of a barrier to the kinds of pleasure-seeking and self-realization that people are willing to go to great lengths to achieve when they have the means to do so. As Ms. Postrel points out, the pricing mechanism of the market lets people pursue these essentially aesthetic ends as far as they want (or can afford), while top-down policy-driven efficiencies all too often preclude these pursuits.

Future debates over the regulatory state may play out as a struggle between the competing values of risk-aversion and efficiency on the one hand, and self-individuation and aesthetics on the other.

9 comments to Aesthetics and regulation

  • In the US, there has been significnatly increased regulation on behalf of aesthetics.

    Zoning rules now control the aesthetics of your property. If you live in a newer community, you probably have no choice in the “free market” but to agree to the dictates of a neighborhood architectural committee as part of the contractural rules and regulations. Note that these are “freely agreed to” contracts – if you don’t want to sign them, don’t buy the house.

    Of course, since all new developments, at least here in the Phoenix area, have these rules (called “Codes, Covenants and Restrictions”), you really can’t buy a house without finding your property under the control of your local neighborhood busy-bodies.

    And this is without government regulation!

    It is actually a failure of market diversity. Neighborhoods are built in new areas buy developers who take a large parcel of land, subdivide it, and sell the lots. Enough people want the rules that they automatically include these with the deed. And these rules follow the ownership of the property- when you sell your property, the subsequent buyer has to agree to them.

    I live in such a neighborhood. It has some advantages (for example, ours is very unusual in that it is in a non-city area surrounded by city, so we don’t have a city regulating us also). But it tends to produce cookie-cutter alike houses and neighborhoods, and an enforced conformity.

    And all of this is by private contract – by free people!

    This technique was used long ago to create neighborhoods with no blacks (or sometimes, also, no Jews). Now it is used to create neighborhoods with no individuality. The rules are seen by many people as protecting the value of their property, which in many parts of the country (such as Arizona) is a major investment.

    I am not so sanguine about the fading away of regulations.

  • John: That does sound unusual. Where exactly is this? Presumably it also means that the local police are provided by the county sheriff’s department and not the city. Does that cause problems?

  • The nearby police respond in emergencies, but otherwise the sheriff’s department provides routine policing. We also have a roving sheriff’s posse member (volunteer) complete with thermal infrared imager who comes in here.

    I would rather not name the location on the internet.


  • My take on the matter is too long to post as a comment so I put it here.

  • Cobden Bright

    John – I don’t see why absence of government regulation ought to imply diversity. Diversity has nothing whatsoever to do with freedom. Free people may well choose to associate with people as close to themselves as possible. And this makes a lot of sense – if you hate loud heavy metal music and motorbike exhaust noises, then you wouldn’t want to live on a street full of Hell’s Angels would you?

    You seem to be objecting to the fact that some people have totally different tastes to you. But so long as people are free to go live where they want, and either join up with other like-minded souls to form conformist communities, or the exact opposite, then I don’t see the problem. If you don’t like it, then move elsewhere, or buy some land and build your own community along lines more suitable for your tastes.

    Who knows, maybe you’ll be filling a gap in the market? Not everyone can be a fan of boring single family homes and white picket fences, after all.

    David – clearly there’s a political demand for zoning, and I’m sure many libertarians are aware of it. The question we ask is whether it is legitimate. Government zoning is done retroactively by decree – you can literally wake up one day, and your house has been “zoned”…a clear infringement of your freedom and property rights. But if you don’t own a land patch or property, and the contract to buy it states clearly that only certain types of building activity are permitted, then your rights haven’t been infringed at all.

    Finally, you don’t justify your assertion that land aesthetics *must* be regulated, other than to say it is a public good, which begs the question. Other people’s attractiveness is a public good, but no one says we must regulate that. Therefore the fact that something is a public good is not sufficient to justify regulating it. Regulation is only justified if people have a *right* to the landscape looking a certain way, just as regulation of social behaviour is only justified if we have a right to expect people to act (or more often, not act) in a certain way.

    So – why do you think that people have a right to force property owners to manage their private property in a manner attractive to onlookers?

  • Cobden, The simple answer is that there is what Justice Homes calls a “reciprocity of advantage.” In fact zoning would not survive as a social institution if it were not for the advantage that it provides to everyone who is effected. Yes, my property is restricted. But my neighbor’s property is restricted as well and I can be assured that he cannot build a car wrecking yard on it. That is an advantage which more than outweighs the restrictions which I suffer. I believe that the reason we zoning exists, and will continue to exist because of the great support for it, is because people perceive its great protective value. Zoning adds value to a property because it makes more predictable the surrounding patterns of development.

  • Cobden,
    And to answer your other question about the “must”, I’ve adjusted my post at CCBlog as follows:

    “For both political (i.e. people want it) and structural reasons (the transaction costs of doing anything else are impossible), there must and will be regulations to govern the aesthetics of the landscape. The only question is their scope.”

    I think it all boils down to a personal question of what one values and what sort of trade-offs are acceptable. Since I value very greatly living in a certain kind of landscape — obviously if I valued it even higher I would move to Carmel, California — I am willing to accept restrictions to achieve that since the market by itself cannot, no matter how we huff and puff, do it.

  • Virginia Postrel writes for the Times? I had no idea. I never get that far into the business section on a Thursday. She ought to be on the Op-Ed page between Herbert and Krugman.