A recent plan for the City of Wichita to take over the management of residential trash pickup has many citizens advocating for the present free market system. Some go as far as calling city-managed trash pickup “socialism.”
While I appreciate the sentiment, and I agree that a free market in trash pickup is superior to government management of a cooperative, it is, after all, only trash. There are far greater threats to the economic freedom of Wichitans, in particular the planning for the future of downtown Wichita.
While the downtown Wichita planners promote their plan as market-based development, the fact is that we already have market-based development happening all over Wichita. But because this development may not be taking place where some people want it to — downtown is where the visionaries say development should be — they declare a “market failure.”
But just because people make decisions that visionaries don’t approve of, that’s not market failure. And this is one of the most important reasons why Wichitans should oppose the downtown plan. It proposes to direct public investment away from where free people trading in free markets want public investment to be. The public investment component of the downtown plan says that people who decided not to live or work downtown are wrong, and they must now pay for others to be downtown.
The public investment in suburban development, by the way, is not as large as critics of “sprawl” claim. Here is an example of the public infrastructure that a suburban development paid. It’s a big number, and pays for many of the things that people assume the city pays for. Downtown developers, however, aren’t asked to pay for infrastructure in the same way. Or, they may receive preferential treatment like tax increment financing (TIF) that allows their property taxes to be redirected back to them for their own exclusive benefit.
We have market-based development in Wichita. We don’t need a government plan to have market-based development.
The downtown planning visionaries are also proud of their community engagement. This consists largely of asking people what they’d like to see downtown. The problem with this community engagement is that there’s no accountability. Anyone can say they’d like to see almost anything downtown, and it goes into the plan. But without accountability, this is meaningless. After all, who doesn’t want more of everything?
The fact is that just like we already have market-based development in Wichita, we already have community engagement in Wichita. It’s done by people who are held accountable by markets in the most severe way. These people are the private-sector developers who risk their own capital in order to build what their research or tenants tell them they want. It is through this process that we build what people really want when they spend their own money. Those planning how to spend other people’s money — these are the downtown planners and visionaries — do not have this accountability.
It is the conceding to a centralized government of the power to plan that is a great threat to economic freedom in Wichita. To top it off, it just isn’t going to work. Here is a passage from the opening chapter of The Voluntary City: Choice, Community and Civil Society that explains the problems with the type of planning Wichita is considering to adopt:
The use of land is not a “special case” exempt from the power of markets to fashion orderly and efficient outcomes. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Just as Nobel prize-winner Friedrich Hayek (1988) and fellow Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises demonstrated the folly of top-down economic planning, Jane Jacobs (1963) exposed the problems of top-down city planning. Top-down planners of all stripes are fatally hobbled by their inability to tap local knowledge, the sheer magnitude of which would in any event overwhelm them. In a competitive market, local knowledge reappears, lessening the dependence on politics and increasing flexibility; “public” goods (and spaces) in CIDs and in shopping centers are provided more optimally; the capitalization of benefits in land rents more efficiently finances public goods provision; and market-tested rules of governance are developed. Private developers now routinely supply what had been thought to be “public” goods — without the widely presumed market failure. Just as many people presume the inevitability of top-down planning because of external effects and information problems, events show the opposite: the inevitability of bottom-up approaches to these problems exactly as the Hayekian critique makes clear. It takes decentralized markets to generate the required information through trial-and-error learning. In the process, market participants are far more productive than central planners can ever be.
In Wichita, we are considering replacing the dynamic and truly market-driven approach to development with the political and bureaucratic system. This loss of economic freedom is far more important than having a city manager who doesn’t think Wichitans can handle arranging for their own trash service.