A few years ago I had an online debate with Randal O'Toole where we jointly posted on each other's sites. It was kind of fun from a programmatic standpoint, but the content left a little to be desired. We mostly talked past each other, a preview of coming events.
When I was in graduate school we were assigned an article O'Toole wrote that was brilliantly titled A Desire Named Streetcar. It was about how federal subsidies have created a system of bizarre transit investments. It described the reality as I was also seeing it, which was not a popular viewpoint at the Humphrey Institute. Unlike many of our readers, I'm not reflexively anti the Antiplanner.
That being said, I feel as if the value of what he adds to the national dialog has been superseded by what he takes away from it. The experience in Lafayette -- a conservative-leaning community with a conservative-leaning government struggling to carry on with fiscal prudence after two+ generations of unproductive, auto-oriented growth -- left a really bad taste in my mouth.
It is not coherent to suggest to people that they can have their congestion-free roads along with low taxes and little regulation. It is even less coherent to tell people that a non-existent transit policy or feeble planning document is the primary threat to this desire. Note that I'm going to continue to ascribe incoherence to this dialog as opposed to the deviousness that many of you have suggested.
We've done the math. Lafayette is -- like almost all American cities -- financially insolvent directly because of their development pattern, not in spite of it. We need to be honest with people about this fact. It is hard to respect someone intellectually who so casually dismisses the data.
Just like there are no atheists in a foxhole, there is little room for ideological dogma on a city council. Principles: yes. Dogma: no.
Last Thursday I was part of a debate with Randal O’Toole – the self-identified Antiplanner from the Cato Institute – in Lafayette, Louisiana. I’m going to take the opportunity to reflect a little bit on things from my perspective. I welcome you to weigh in with your thoughts and reactions as well.
As I pondered things over the weekend, I kept coming back to the same notion: I’m not a very good libertarian. Of course, I’m not a very good conservative, engineer, planner, Catholic or any of the other labels that I’ve allowed to apply to myself. Dogma is just not my thing, I guess.
As I listened to O'Toole speak, especially during the Q&A, I was blown away with how utterly impractical his notions were. This coming from someone who is generally skeptical of government, believes in markets and places a high value on individual liberty. Much like Marxism, O’Toole’s philosophy could – ironically – only be applied through coercion. There is no way the people of Lafayette are going to vote for systems that embody his worldview.
To me, that makes them less than irrelevant.
If we’re to believe O’Toole, we should privatize the local streets, utilities and other common goods and let property owners figure it out. You could probably convince me that would be a good idea on some level – particularly on the many dead-end culs-de-sac that are little more than publicly-maintained driveways – but good luck running as a local council candidate on that platform.
O’Toole Candidate: Vote for me. I’ll give you back your local street to maintain. You and your neighbors should have the freedom to work that out without government interference.
Voter: I don’t get along with my neighbor. He is a jerk.
O’Toole Candidate: Well, you always have the freedom to move to a place where your voluntary associations are more to your liking.
Of course, transaction costs are an overwhelming problem with dogmatic libertarian thinking. Yes, we give up some freedom when we enlist government to do for us what we could do for ourselves. Yet, at the local level, do you really want to negotiate passage with each of your neighbors for each trip you take? Are you going to build a house worth hundreds of thousands of dollars if you have to negotiate to use the sewage lift station two miles up the street? And the one three miles up the street? The endless number of transactions one would have to overcome to do anything of substance just makes this silly.
Which is why nobody would vote for it and there is yet to be a city that operates under these principles. When people come together to form settlements, even when they are very liberty-obsessed, they establish rules, regulations and cooperative agreements that reduce their transaction costs to everyone’s mutual benefit. The more O’Toole spoke, the more absurd he sounded.
That’s before we get into the myriad of contradictions in his rhetoric: We shouldn’t plan, but we should plan for driverless cars. We shouldn’t be running the city by focusing on the city’s revenues, but we should run the city like a business. We should respect individual liberty and not be coercive, but it's okay to coerce our neighbors into paying to fix our personal roads. The city shouldn’t try and do anything, but it should have lobbyists at the state capital. I see this as O'Toole struggling to apply dogma to the real world. It doesn’t work.
One other lingering feeling I have that has grown the further I get from our closing statements is that O’Toole is kind of mean. I was predisposed to like him – that’s kind of my nature, sorry to disappoint all of you that wanted me to be a hater – and so I gave him the benefit of the doubt when his opening slideshow included a picture of a house in flames while he ranted about the government destroying people’s lives. I’ve had my share of flamboyant rhetoric over the years, after all. Yet, as things went on, it was clear that he was going to take every opportunity to simply scare people, even when he knew better.
We’re not in Portland. We’re not in San Francisco. This was Lafayette, Louisiana, a fairly conservative place in a rather conservative part of the country. These people should be working together, not living in fear that a (rather weak and broadly unimaginative) comprehensive plan will give their local leaders – people who are literally their neighbors – the power to torch their house. He knows better, and I thought his repeatedly resorting to the flaming rhetoric was a huge disservice to not just the conversation but the people of Lafayette who were listening.
Maybe I’m naïve, but I expected more from him.
I thought he made a fair point when he got up in his rebuttal and said that cities should not be run for their own financial gain. He cited Kelo vs. New London, an example that I agree was as repugnant as it was ridiculous. I acknowledged he was right during the Q&A. Yet, when he later claimed Lafayette should be running the city like a business, figuring out what things cost and then charging that, I thought we found a breakthrough. After all, this is exactly what Joe Minicozzi, Josh McCarty and I have been working with the city to do.
When I called O'Toole on it, I saw him show a little bit of panic and then he resorted to his flaming rhetoric. The opportunity passed. That is the moment when I realized that we weren’t going to do anything in this conversation to help the people of Lafayette reach a better understanding of their situation. When we got to the lobbying dialog shortly after that, I tried again to get him to acknowledge that, given the rules and constraints the city operates with, the approach they were taking was the most prudent one open to them. He essentially advocated for nullification of state and federal law. It was absurd and I felt like we were wasting air at that point.
I’ve done enough public speaking and spoken in front of enough hostile audiences to be able to read a crowd fairly well. There were around a hundred people in attendance. Quite a few I did not have in my camp when we started, but that number was a lot smaller at the end. There was a lot of nodding, a lot of smiling and the body language was pretty clear.
Thank you to everyone who was so supportive. I know there were some complaints on the audio/video quality (Guys….we’re a non-profit with a web cam, not CNN) and a couple of you thought I lacked “killer instincts” (I probably do), but all-in-all it went well. I’m especially appreciative of the people in Lafayette who had enough faith in me to put me up there to represent them. That was humbling.
I’m grateful for the opportunity. Not sure I’d do it again, but I’m thankful I got the chance.
Several Strong Towns members live-tweeted the debate. You can see the top tweets here.