FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

On Big Box Stores and the Abuse of Hayek

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.

More articles by:

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. 

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550
April 09, 2020
Binoy Kampmark
Banal Terrors: Pandemics and the Ordinary Business of War
Ted Rall
Why We Need a New Progressive Party and How We Can Create It
Walden Bello
Martin Khor: the Making of a Global Activist
Ariel Dorfman
COVID-19 and the Lessons of Life in Exile
Merriam Ansara
John Lennon in Quarantine: a Letter From Havana
George Wuerthner
Politics and Corruption at Grand Canyon
Eugene Schulman
Lost in the Pandemic: the Forever Wars
Dean Baker
Basic Economics for Economic Columnists: a Depression is a Process, Not an Event
George Ochenski
The Dishonest Mr. Daines
Mike Ferner
Love in a Dangerous Time
Brian Horejsi
Beware Government Secrecy in Times of Pandemic
Sam Pizzigati
No Fennel in the Sausage, No $600 for the Jobless
Jason Christensen – John Carter
Conservation Groups Oppose the Nature Conservancy’s Cattle Grazing Development Project on the Border of Canyonlands National Park
April 08, 2020
Melvin Goodman
The Impact of COVID-19 on the Body Politic
Eve Ottenberg
Amid Plague, Sanctions are Genocide
Vijay Prashad, Du Xiaojun – Weiyan Zhu
How China Learned About SARS-CoV-2 in the Weeks Before the Global Pandemic
Bill Quigley
Seven Disturbing Facts About COVID-19 in Louisiana
Joyce Nelson
BlackRock Takes Command
Geoff Dutton
Coronavirus as Metaphor: It’s Not Peanuts
Richard Moser
From Strike Wave to General Strike
Gary Leupp
Could COVID-19 Kill Capitalism?
Thomas Klikauer – Nadine Campbell
Corona, Capital and Class in Germany
Tom Crofton
Aspirational vs Pragmatic: Why My Radicalness is Getting More Radical
Steve Kelly
Montana Ballot Access Decision Suppresses Green Party Voters
Jacob Hornberger
Muhammad Ali’s Fight Against the Pentagon
Phil Mattera
The Rap Sheets of the Big Ventilator Producers
Manuel García, Jr.
Why Remdesivir and Hydroxychloroquine for COVID-19?
Rick Baum
When “Moderate” Democrats Lead the Ticket and Win, Down-Ballot Candidates Soon Suffer Losses
Jake Johnston
Tens of Millions Will Be Pushed into Poverty Amid COVID-Induced Recession
Kim C. Domenico
Healthy and Unhealthy Fear in the Age of Coronavirus
John W. Whitehead
Draconian Lockdown Powers and Civil Liberties
Binoy Kampmark
University Bailouts, Funding and Coronavirus
Luke Ruediger
BLM Timber Sale Increases Fire Risk, Reduces Climate Resilience and Harms Recreation
John Kendall Hawkins
Slavoj Žižek’s Virulent Polemic Against Covid-19, and Stuff!
Nyla Ali Khan
Finding Meaning and Purpose in Adversity
April 07, 2020
Joel McCleary – Mark Medish
Paradigm Shift by Pandemic
Matt Smith
Amazon Retaliation: Workers Striking Back
Kenneth Surin
What The President Said (About The Plague)
Patrick Cockburn
The Chaotic Government Response to COVID-19 Resembles the Failures of 1914
Marshall Auerback
The Coronavirus Pandemic Has Opened the Curtains on the World’s Next Economic Model
Vijay Prashad, Paola Estrada, Ana Maldonado, and Zoe PC
Trump Sends Gun Boats to Venezuela While the World Partners to Fight a Deadly Pandemic
Jeremy Lent
Coronavirus Spells the End of the Neoliberal Era. What’s Next?
Dean Baker
The Big Hit: COVID-19 and the Economy
Nino Pagliccia
A Simple Democratic Transition Framework for Venezuela: End All “Sanctions”
Colin Todhunter
Locked Down and Locking in the New Global Order
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail