Central planning suffers from a fatal flaw: insufficient knowledge. No single individual or group of individuals possess the knowledge or wisdom to make decisions that maximize individual and collective prosperity. However, taking advantage of positions of power and privilege, central authorities often seek to impose a particular order on the general public. One of the most apparent manifestations of central planning is governmental control of land uses through comprehensive design. 

With a utopian vision, planners deploy laws, policies, and practices such as zoning, comprehensive planning, urban renewal, and environmental protection to impose an aesthetic, a lifestyle, or a mission upon the people. Whether it is a brick-clad business district, a walkable city, or mandatory green building practices, planners pursue a city that may or may not reflect the desire, will, or preference of the governed.  

Cities are incredibly complex. Whether that city is home to thousands or hundreds of thousands, each individual is unique in how they interact within the human environment and with different objectives. To understand the complexity involved in designing and organizing something as complex as a city, consider the knowledge it may take to organize a workspace. 

Accounting for tangible and intangible factors (such as personality, psychology, physiology, and productivity), a solitary employee walking into an empty workspace will make decisions regarding the furnishings, furniture arrangement, office supplies, hardware, software, operating systems, organizational systems, office décor, spatial orientation, color schemes, etc. The choices and combinations are seemingly limitless. Each decision contributes to creating a workspace that is unique to the needs and preferences of the individual. The conscious and subconscious knowledge available to the individual allows for efficient design.

However, that level of efficiency decreases for a manager who attempts to design an office environment that is customized for individual and collective productivity. To accomplish this, the manager would have to possess the knowledge unique to each employee multiplied by the total number of employees. Additionally, beyond designing the individual workspaces, each space would have to be coordinated to not interfere with another’s space or productivity. While this is overwhelmingly complex in and of itself, it is exacerbated by employee turnover, promotions, and changes in personal preferences over time. 

Alternatively, lacking the requisite omniscience to design and order the maximally efficient office, a manager could avoid the headache by selecting a general design scheme and allowing each individual to compose their own space within that scheme. Interestingly, such an executive action immediately begins to limit the choices available to individual employees. For example, suppose the office manager chooses to create an open office space. In that case, employees no longer need to be concerned with the desk’s location relative to the door or selecting decorations for the wall. The manager’s action precludes some of the employees’ freedom to create their own space and maximize individual productivity. 

Effectively, this is what city planners are attempting to do but on a grander scale – potentially organizing hundreds of thousands of residences and businesses across a municipality or county. A comprehensive land-use plan encompasses a broad scope of interrelated issues and requires a profound knowledge of the complex, intricate workings of a city and its residents. The amount of data, knowledge, and understanding necessary to order the innumerable combinations and permutations is staggering. No one could possibly know, let alone understand and use the data in a meaningful way. Even a computer would require an overly simplified model to produce understandable data upon which planners could act. By its nature, this centralized, comprehensive approach to organizing a city is limiting and controlling.  

While centralized, comprehensive planning is technically impractical, it can also have dire, far-reaching consequences. At best, central planning is inefficient. At worst, the concentration of power in the privileged elite can undermine liberty, resulting in tyranny and oppression.

Through socialistic central planning (as opposed to an individualistic, competitive free market), the focus question changes from how to foster the spontaneous forces that drive an economy in a free society to one in which a central, collective plan dictates the allocation of scarce resources—the value switches from freedom to control.  

To be clear, this is not a justification for anarchy. There are times that government action is necessary. Laws, policies, protections, and infrastructure are essential to foster a competitive environment. 

However, in the context of land-use regulation, any attempt to control or restrict private land ownership should be approached with great apprehension. The 1889 Institute’s latest publication, “Land and Prosperity: A primer on Land Use Law and Policy” (primer), discusses this issue and expounds on the importance of protecting private property rights. 

Humankind has been naturally endowed with a triad of inalienable rights. Initially popularized by the English philosopher John Locke, these include the rights to life, liberty, and property. Among these rights, the right to property is the keystone to our constitutional republic—it is fundamental to life and liberty. Property is defined as ownership, or the ability to possess and use a thing to the exclusion of others. As the primer explains, “Having possession and ownership of oneself, having the freedom to act in one’s interest, and owning the consequences of those actions is the essence of life and liberty.” 

Land, or real property, ranks among the most essential and valuable properties available to individuals. It is necessary to support and provide life’s necessities—food, shelter, clothing. Additionally, as one philosopher wrote, because private property places control over the means of production into the hands of many, a “system of private property is the most important guarantee of freedom.” The dispersion of power to control land uses increases freedom. On the other hand, allocating power to dictate appropriate land uses to a central planner limits individual and overall freedom. Therefore, any exercise of control or regulation of land use should be met with healthy skepticism.  

Governments wield significant power over individual liberty by exercising control over how private landowners can use their property. By doing so, the government usurps aspects of private ownership, asserting a superior ownership interest in determining the highest and best use of every parcel of land within their jurisdiction. Given the importance of real property, policymakers and planners must be self-aware enough to recognize their limited knowledge and, to the greatest extent possible, defer decisions regarding the highest and best use of land to individual landowners. 

Governmental control of private property should be limited in scope to only that which is clearly necessary to preserve health and safety to maximize freedom and competition in a free market. 

Brad Galbraith is Land Use Fellow at 1889 Institute. He can be reached at [email protected].