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On Big Box Stores and the Abuse of Hayek

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Max Borders (“The Big Box Effect,” The Freeman, May 14), in one of the most perverse exercises in framing ever, portrays Big Box stores and sprawl as examples of spontaneous order, and the older style of mixed-use development as the domain of statist control freaks. He even misappropriates phraseology from James Scott — of all people — in the process.

Borders’s foil is the widespread belief that Big Box stores “negatively impact the social, economic and environmental fabric of communities.” In his attempt to counter that belief, he goes off the rails repeatedly from the very beginning. He begins, in response to critics of the low density inherent in the suburban sprawl model, with an abstract discussion of whether high density, as such, is really any better than low density. And — a pattern that will recur throughout his article — he portrays low density as a spontaneously arising phenomenon, as opposed to high density (which results from “pro-density policies”).

I referred above to Borders’s misappropriation of James Scott’s language. He uses Scott’s phrase “seeing like a state,” in fairness, in reference to urban planners’ obsession with a “best and highest use” that maximizes tax revenues per acre. But it’s still tone deaf beyond belief, considering the car-centric monoculture development model Borders celebrates was almost entirely the creation of mid-20th century urban planners in the tradition of Le Corbusier — who was actually one of Scott’s paradigmatic examples of “authoritarian high modernism” in Seeing Like a State. And Jane Jacobs, who genuinely understood Hayekian principles of distributed knowledge and spontaneous order, devoted her career to defending the organic development of older, traditional urban centers against the kind of monoculture central planning associated with Corbusier and car culture.

Borders at least tips his hat to the possibility that there is some local government aid to Big Boxes. But he does so in the manner of Lincoln’s anecdotal Jesuit who, accused of murdering ten men and a dog, triumphantly produced the dog in court. He portrays the benefits at issue as merely a few local tax advantages of middling scale, even then attempting to shift the entire blame onto local government with Big Box retailers as passive beneficiaries.

To take the second point first, one might as well attempt to portray giant landlords as passive beneficiaries of feudalism. Chambers of Commerce and real estate developers aren’t passive beneficiaries of local government; they ARE local government. As libertarians like Franz Oppenheimer and Albert Jay Nock recognized, government is the political means to wealth. It was created by economic ruling classes as a means for extracting rents from society. Government is a tool. Economic elites are the hands that wield it.

As for the sheer scale of government intervention in favor of monoculture and sprawl, it’s a bit like the blind men and the elephant. Each separate component of intervention is gargantuan. The whole is almost beyond comprehension. Outlying Big Box and monoculture housing developments get subsidized road and utility infrastructures, with utility ratepayers in older, in-lying areas paying way above cost for their sewer, water and electricity in order to subsidize extending hookups to new outlying developments. Threatening to charge hookup fees equivalent to the cost new fringe development actually imposes on the system is guaranteed to spur capital flight by real estate developers. Local governments criminalize mixed-use development through zoning laws that both prohibit neighborhood commercial enterprises like corner grocers, and affordable housing in downtown areas like walkup apartments over Main Street businesses. Design plats mandate golf course-sized front lawns and setbacks straight out of the Brady Bunch.

Cities, through gentrification policies like improvement districts and mandated downtown parking minimums, drive rents and property taxes out of the range of previous ordinary residents and small business owners, in order to make them more hospitable for suburban yuppies who come in to visit the fern bars and watch Andrew Lloyd Weber at the Arts Center. Cities bulldoze entire neighborhoods of poor people of color in order to build freeways, and close down old neighborhood schools in order to build new ones near the subdivisions springing up out on the cloverleafs.

And it’s not all local, either. The “warehouses on wheels” wholesale distribution model pioneered by Walmart depends entirely on the heavily subsidized Interstate Highway System.

The Big Box and sprawl monocultures Borders celebrates are a virtual creation of the centralized state, based on a “vision of the annointed” among urban planners and politically connected capitalists. So if you want to defend Big Box retailers, Mr. Borders, by all means do so. But leave James Scott and spontaneous order out of it.

Kevin Carson is a senior fellow of the Center for a Stateless Society (c4ss.org) and holds the Center’s Karl Hess Chair in Social Theory.

Kevin Carson is a senior fellow of the Center for a Stateless Society (c4ss.org) and holds the Center’s Karl Hess Chair in Social Theory. He is a mutualist and individualist anarchist whose written work includes Studies in Mutualist Political Economy, Organization Theory: A Libertarian Perspective, and The Homebrew Industrial Revolution: A Low-Overhead Manifesto, all of which are freely available online. 

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