Matthew Yglesias suggests that out-group bias against environmentalists explains why libertarians, in contradiction to their own ideology, so often defend sprawl. (Jim Henley, Erik Kain and David Schaengold and others also had interesting reactions to my earlier post.)  There’s something to that, though I’d like to add two more factors that may be at work.

The first is relatively benign, namely, availability bias. That sprawl opponents want to restrict development is well-known; less well-known is that existing laws make it impossible to develop anything but sprawl. To save cognitive resources, libertarians rationally overestimate the importance of available information (being anti-sprawl means being anti-development!) at the expense of information that takes time and effort to gather (being anti-sprawl also means being anti-central planning). This doesn’t excuse John Stossel, who presumably had time to research his vindication of sprawl before broadcasting it, but it does explain why others make similar mistakes. Indeed, the availability heuristic explains why both libertarians and their opponents so often assume that the free market causes sprawl. 

Even relatively well-informed sprawl defenders are misled by more readily available information. In various comments, for example, some argued that Houston, which famously has no zoning code yet looks just like every other place in America, proves that consumers prefer sprawl.  Even without zoning, however, Houston’s land use rules still mandate sprawl. Here, for example, are Houston’s street design ordinances. Among other things, they require that major streets be 100 feet wide and that intersections (which must have a 25 degree turning radius) be spaced 600 feet apart. Imagine yourself strolling down a block three football fields long next to a road packed 100 feet across with moving vehicles. Wouldn’t you rather be safe within your car? I would. Houston, like most other places in America, has driven pedestrians away.  The Houston example proves the opposite of what sprawl defenders think. Not only does the government mandate sprawl, but sprawl is legally over-determined. That is, any number of laws, even without the others, suffice to make sprawl the only possible form of development.

Second, libertarians defend sprawl because they have ideological commitments other than to limited government. In sprawling neighborhoods, people only go out in public (and then of course only in their cars) to buy stuff.  In traditional neighborhoods, by contrast, people go out to buy stuff, but also to people-watch, gossip, stroll, or maybe all these things at once.  Sprawl restricts the range of human activities to the purely commercial. Indeed, the sprawling business and shopping district, with its strip malls, office parks, parking lots and massive road signs, is the very image or “ideal type” of commercial life.  Libertarians know that have no problem with meretricious commercialism. They therefore feel compelled to embrace sprawl, which allows nothing else.

Of course, traditional neighborhoods do not actually prohibit commerce. Indeed, the intellectual hero of the New Urbanists, Jane Jacobs, passionately defended commercial values, which she believed flourished most of all in cities. (See her quirky homage to Plato’s Republic, Systems of Survival.) More importantly, just because you oppose sprawl does not mean that you despise people who shop at Walmart, any more than if you oppose rent control you despise people who can’t find housing.  The ubiquitous commercialism you see as you drive through America is not in itself deplorable. What’s deplorable is that Americans aren’t free to do anything else.