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A vision for Wichita

Wichita city hall logoWhy are some in Wichita so insistent on pushing their vision of what our city should look like, and why are they willing and eager to use the coercive force of government to achieve their vision? In the article below, Randal O’Toole, using a work by Thomas Sowell, provides much insight into understanding why.

Reading this post, I couldn’t help think of Wichita: the “manufactured crisis” of too much driving and too little walking; the desire by many, including several Wichita City Council members — even self-styled conservative members — to expand the power and reach of government; and the denial of responsibility for obvious failures like Waterwalk.

project-downtown-logoWe should remember that the plan for downtown Wichita developed by Boston planning firm Goody Clancy is a plan developed by and for self-styled elites. We only need to remember when David Dixon, Goody Clancy’s principal, told Wichitans that in the future, Wichitans will be able to “enjoy the kind of social and cultural richness” that is only found at the core. That’s an insult to the vast majority of Wichitans, but the elites in Wichita evidently believe it, or are willing to tolerate this insult in order to achieve their vision.

O’Toole visited Wichita in 2010 and presented a fascinating lecture.

The Vision of the Urbanites

By Randal O’Toole

As the Antiplanner has traveled and visited people all over the country, I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon. Though I’ve met thousands of suburban and rural residents who are very happy with their homes and lifestyles, I’ve never met one who thinks the power of government should be used to force others to live in the same lifestyle. Yet I’ve met lots of urban residents who openly admit that they believe their lifestyle is so perfect that government should force more if not most people to live in dense, “walkable” cities.

Do cities turn people into liberal fascists? Or do liberal fascists naturally congregate into cities, and if so, why?

A general description of the phenomenon I’ve observed can be found in Thomas Sowell’s 1995 book, The Vision of the Anointed. Sowell says that America’s liberal elites view themselves as smarter or more insightful than everyone else, and thus qualified to impose their ideas on everyone else. The process of doing so, says Sowell, follows four steps (p. 8):

First, the anointed identify or, more usually, manufacture a crisis. Sowell’s book reviews three such crises: poverty, crime, and teen pregnancy, all of which were declining in the 1960s when the liberals turned them into crises. The crises relevant to this blog include such things as urban sprawl (totally manufactured as in fact it is not a problem at all) and auto driving (while some of the effects of driving are negative, these are easily corrected while the overall benefits of driving are positive).

Second, the anointed propose a solution that inevitably involves government action. Sowell makes it clear that the the leadership of the elites go out of their way to define or manufacture the crises in ways that make it appear the government action are the only solutions. In other words, their real goal is to make government bigger, not to solve problems. I don’t know if that is true or not, but it doesn’t really matter; what matters is they propose the wrong solutions to problems that often don’t really exist.

Third, once the solution is implemented, the results turn out to be very different, and often far worse, than predicted by the anointed. Crime, poverty, and teen pregnancy went up, not down, when government stepped in to “fix” these problems in the 1960s. In the case of urban planning, anti-sprawl policies made housing unaffordable and led to the recent mortgage crisis. Anti-automobile policies make congestion worse and therefore waste even more energy and produce more pollution.

The final stage is one of denial, in which the elites claim that their policies had nothing to do with the worsening results. Other factors were at work, they claim; in fact, the results might have been even worse if their enlightened policies had not been put into effect.

Sowell notes that the anointed use several tactics to promote their ideas. For example, “empirical evidence itself may be viewed as suspect, insofar as it is inconsistent with that vision” (p. 2). Whenever the Antiplanner uses data to show that there is no urban sprawl crisis or rail transit doesn’t work in a debate with an urban anointed, the inevitable response is some version of “figures don’t lie but liars figure.” “Statistics can be used to show anything you want,” is another version. These comforting words leave the anointed free to dismiss any data and all that conflict with their vision.

A second fundamental tactic is to presume that they have the moral high ground. “Those who accept this vision are deemed to be not merely factually correct but morally on a higher plane,” says Sowell. “Put differently, those who disagree with the prevailing vision are seen as being not merely in error, but in sin” (pp. 2-3). The term “smart growth” is a classic example of this tactic, used solely to bludgeon any dissenters with the claim that they must favor “dumb growth.”

Relying on tactics like these, the anointed avoid confronting the fraudulent nature of their crises and the failures of their solutions. “What is remarkable is how few arguments are really engaged in, and how many substitutes for arguments there are,” says Sowell (p. 6).

While The Vision of the Anointed describes the situation, it doesn’t answer the fundamental question of why people think that way. A partial answer is provided by Sowell’s 1987 book, A Conflict of Visions, in which Sowell traces two different world views back to the late eighteenth century. One view, expressed by Adam Smith, is that humans are imperfect and so we should design institutions that work even if the face of these imperfections. The other view, proposed by William Godwin, is that humans are perfectable, which suggests that the benign hand of government authority should be used to guide people to that perfection.

Today, the Tea Party represents the descendants of Adam Smith, while urban planners are descendants of Godwin. As University of California planners Mel Webber and Fred Collignon wrote more than a decade ago, urban planners were “heir to the postulates of the Enlightenment with its faith in perfectibility.”

The question still remains: why are urbanites more susceptible to the vision of the anointed? Perhaps part of the answer is that the constant friction between strangers that cities impose on their residents leads to a desire for government authority to protect people from those frictions. But a larger part of the answer may be that the role of government is far more visible in cities than elsewhere, and far larger in cities today than in the past, so residents of those cities cannot imagine living without it — and those who want more government are attracted to those cities. In any case, everyone in general and urbanites in particular should be wary of any ideas that make government bigger, as they are probably just part of some elitist scheme to coercively impose their vision on everyone else.

The link to this article at O’Toole’s site is The Vision of the Urbanites.

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