Usually when right-libertarians defend gentrification, they do so by framing it as an entirely spontaneous free market phenomenon, and minimizing or ignoring the state’s role in promoting it. That’s bad enough. But we don’t usually expect them to come out explicitly in favor of direct state intervention to evict poor people for the sake of promoting business interests. Walter Block doesn’t do things by halves, though (“Gentrification Makes the World a Better Place,” LewRockwell.com, Feb. 9).
He starts out by defending gentrification as a simple manifestation of autonomous market preferences, of course. The gentrifier does, he admits, drive existing residents — sometimes third or fourth-generation residents — out of their homes. They are forced to retreat to “less preferred real estate. We know this since if they liked their new domiciles more than their previous ones, they would have already moved there, without any pressure being placed on the market by the new gentry.” And the homes they’re driven from “are part of neighborhoods, communities, associations. They have a history there. Their children are wrenched away from their friends.”
But, says Block, so what? Gentrifiers do all these awful things entirely by trying to rent or purchase real estate in a neighborhood, “thus bidding up rents and sales prices higher than would otherwise exist.”
Is this unfair? he asks. “Certainly not. Assume that the rich came by their wealth in an honest way, not through government grants of special privileges, subsidies, bail-outs, a la crony capitalism, but via laissez faire capitalism.” Having thus assumed away the entire real world of privilege enjoyed by actually existing rich people, and the fact that local governments are nothing but showcase properties of the local real estate interests, Block goes on to argue that anything short of inequality and merciless gentrification would be grossly unfair to the rich, because they “have contributed more to everyone else than the poor.”
After this display of pathos on behalf of the poor, suffering rich folks, I halfway expect (with apologies to Blazing Saddles) one of Block’s graduate assistants to step in with “I sure hate to see you like this, Boss. Would it make you feel any better if I was to go and shoot them poor people dead?”
Block doesn’t go quite that far, but he does include in his list of gentrification examples (alongside college students “who often have more money to spend than the people they replace”) the wholesale eviction of poor people from their neighborhoods for the sake of projects like World’s Fairs and the Olympics. In cities that host the Olympics, he notes matter-of-factly, “people are moved en masse to make way for the new stadiums, swimming pools, ball fields, etc…. They, too, export inhabitants with a long history, willy nilly. They, too, eradicate cultures and communities that were thriving before the rampage took place.”
Block neglects to mention that all these things “happen” with the very active involvement of local government using eminent domain to demolish entire neighborhoods (mostly inhabited by poor people of color); we recently saw an example in Brazil, with demolition of favelas for the World Cup on a scale that would put Israel’s operations on the West Bank to shame. The ethnic cleansing extends further, to driving away street vendors and sweeping homeless people out of sight. Olympics bureaucrats are treated like foreign conquerors, with entire lanes of the freeway system closed off for their personal use (if you don’t believe it, just check out the International Olympic Committee’s list of demands for royal treatment in the event Boston is chosen to host the 2024 Summer Olympics).
Block writes that anti-gentrifiers, in attempting to suppress our natural “tendency to truck and barter,” display an ignorance of Adam Smith. But Smith also wrote of the Whig landed oligarchs of his day that landlords “love to reap where they have not sown.” In failing to recognize gentrification as an example of this, Block displays his own ignorance.
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.