A long-running hallmark of progressive politics is urban planning – the idea that the Best-and-Brightest (TM) should organize our physical lives in a fashion that advances certain goals. Those goals are purported to include efficiency, environmental stewardship, harmony, social justice (an urban planning scholar speaks of “equity, democracy, and diversity”), and/or communitarian living. “Purported,” in that the real goals are the imposition of their particular vision on others, whether those others want it or not, and with no regard for the principles of liberty and self-determination.

One of the great attempts (and great failures) at the progressive urban vision can be found in the housing projects of the 1960s. Big high rises that eschewed private ownership or private spaces in favor of common grounds that were expected to create a sense of community. Those common spaces, unfortunately, quickly devolved into territories, often carved up by criminal gangs, and the kumbaya harmony dream promptly few out of a high-rise window as tenants hunkered and bunkered. Coupled with misguided rent policies, these projects were far more resistant to the process of urban renewal often denigrated as “gentrification” that, over time, fixes run-down neighborhoods wherever government doesn’t get in its way, and raises living standards for everyone.

That bit of history should serve as a warning against progressive hubris, and there are many other examples of failure to serve as cautions to those Best-and-Brightest.

Unfortunately, it’s eternally true that the hubristic in our society are immune to past lessons, no matter how stark. And, so, progressives continue in their attempts to mold our lives and associations per their playbook, in things as varied as imposing and mandating diversity of population in communities deemed “too white,” the continued war against cars with a statistically unjustifiable conversion of city streets to bicycle paths, mandates for “low income housing” (now seen as a means to achieve the aforementioned forced integration), overly restrictive zoning, and a “war” on single-family homes.

Professor and mathematician Nassim Nicholas Taleb coined the phrase “black swan event” to describe occurrences that come as surprises and that have major effects on societies and/or the world. What qualifies is obviously a matter of debate as well as degree, but things like the 9/11 attack, the 2008 financial meltdown, and the Fukushima disaster come to mind. Taleb also posits that positive disruptors like personal computers, the Internet, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and makes the point that not all black swan events are crises.

Taleb adds a third element to the theory: that post-hoc rationalizations posit that someone dropped the ball, i.e. that the event could have been anticipated and mitigated, presumably by better-and-brighter people than those who were in charge during the lead-up. In short, “we should have seen it coming.”

This ignores another big of wisdom, this one bestowed by Prussian Field Marshall Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, who in the mid nineteenth century informed us that:

No plan survives contact with the enemy.

The variables in such events are astronomical in number, and each builds on its predecessors. Our most recent, the COVID-19 pandemic, has been the subject of intense political argument, with a metric ****ton of fingers pointed at anyone and everyone. And, while pandemics are nothing new (and with ample evidence that many leaders, past and present, had thoughts, fears, expectations, and plans about them), the advent of the COVID event has unfolded in numerous ways that could only have been predicted by someone with a time machine.

One such (and since we’re still in the midst of it all) is the disruption of professional physical interactions, i.e. office work. Telecommuting/work-from-home (WFH) became a necessity, and necessity is the mother of invention. So, tools like Zoom, Webex, and others emerged, evolved, and were quickly adopted. While there has certainly been a trend to remote working, especially in IT, it seemed more “niche” or transient, with the interactiveness of office space remaining the baseline. The usual inertia of learned behaviors stood as an impediment to trying an all-encompassing version of WFH.

Until the coronavirus came along and forced the experiment upon everyone.

The experiment has been rather successful. Many people are realizing they can be productive workers from home, and many companies are realizing that they don’t need to “return to normal” after the pandemic has subsided.

This feels like the same sort of landscape shift that e-tail imposed on brick-and-mortar. Cities like New York already had an empty storefront problem (that clueless thugs like Mayor De Blasio thought could be remedied with a stick, i.e. taxing landlords until they miracled tenants for those spaces into existence), and I fully expect that, even post-pandemic, that market forces will produce a “new normal” equilibrium that has a substantially larger fraction of WFH big-business employees.

This bodes ill for those big cities. If remote work can be demonstrably expanded beyond the IT realm, then the force that anchors residents to those cities starts to ebb. With the pandemic’s inculcation of fear of close proximity to strangers already prompting urban flight, cities will face permanent population loss, especially in the mid-to-high-earner category (and, indeed this is already happening. I see, daily, full-page real estate ads in the New York Post for luxury Hamptons properties. The rich are bugging out, and that will only be accelerated by the likes of De Blasio who is trumpeting his desire to tax them harder to pay for his city wish list). This will ripple down to the service industries, since fewer office workers living in the city will reduce demand for restaurants, supermarkets, dry cleaners, etc.

It’s an urban planner’s nightmare. The vision of high density living, with everyone walking, riding bicycles, or using mass transit rather than driving, is being black-swanned into unviability. The dreaded “sprawl,” i.e. the growth of suburbs and exurbs will accelerate, and no progressive cudgels will suffice to deter it. Any impetus towards expatriation undermines their ability to shape the city as they think best.

Certainly, the urban ghost towns that the pandemic created will repopulate once we’re either immunized or herd-immunized, but they won’t repopulate to their previous levels, and the concerns of “the next one” won’t go away so easily.

Of course, lovers of liberty should rejoice, both in the repudiation of the urban-planners’ coercions and the liberation from work-based determinants like living location and commutes. When we are freer to live our lives as we choose, we are more apt to be happy and healthy.

The landscape shift, discounting the pandemic, isn’t all bread and roses, of course. Disruptions disrupt, and it’s not just restaurants and those they employ that will be impacted by the “creative destruction” of market forces. Cities don’t shrink well, either physically (see: Detroit), financially, or in regulation (zoning laws and other restrictions don’t adapt spontaneously to changing conditions, and they often hinder the orderly progress they’re meant to ensure). Those who aren’t able or willing to decamp to more spacious locales are in for living standard degradation and other hurts. And, the massive financial obligations those cities carry (emplaced in large part by irresponsible politicians (i.e. almost all of them)) are going to weigh ever-more-heavily as the tax base erodes.

There, of course, is something that we libertarians have foreseen and forewarned. The fiscal profligacy and reliance on Ponzi pay-as-you-go finances in so many ways is a giant and obvious red flag, and it would be a misuse of “black swan” to describe the foretold collapses of those finances (see: municipal pensions) when they happen.

Sadly, all that will happen at those future times is a lot of finger pointing, almost no behavioral change, and the usual descent into crab antics and tribalistic trench warfare.

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.

3+

Like this post?