In the wake of the St. Charles City Council’s recent approval of Lexington Club, there is a renewed call for better communication on controversial developments. I’m a big believer in the necessity of critical conversations that seek to resolve misunderstanding and/or disagreement. For such conversations to be fruitful, it’s vitally important to identify conflicting base assumptions, especially as they pertain to the duties and responsibilities of government.
As I have argued before, land use regulations are legally predicated on the city’s power to police. The ethical basis for such interventions into private enterprise is the preservation and promotion of the Public Welfare—that is, the control of so-called neighborhood effects. As Milton Friedman opined in his classic treatise, Capitalism and Freedom (1962), such considerations “have been used to rationalize almost every conceivable intervention. It’s hard to know when neighborhood effects are sufficiently large to justify particular costs in overcoming them....”
For the record, I’m not a libertarian. I’m a liberal—and unapologetically so. But I do think that Friedman raises an important issue here. Government must be prudent in its use of regulation and vigilant against abuses of this power.
By and large, such considerations have been neglected by many community activists who implicitly demand that the city use its powers to enforce their own desires. It’s common to hear people declare that government must deliver what the residents want and not what developers want. As one activist recently commented, “the residents own (the) neighborhood and the developers need to come in and work with us.”
This is patently untrue. As a home owner, my property claims terminate at my property line. They certainly do not extend into my neighbor's property—even if that neighbor is an “out-of-town” corporation. Therefore, I should not expect land uses in my neighborhood to conform to my mere desires. Nor should I expect government to coerce property owners to do what I want—or even what the majority of residents want. What I can and should expect is for government to prevent land uses that are injurious to me, to my family, and to my neighborhood.
How we discern this is a vital question—and unfortunately beyond the scope of this essay. I believe that continuing conversations are key. One thing we must also recognize is the distinct possibility that a given land use proposal (and I'm talking in generalities here) will satisfy the needs of the Public Welfare yet stop short of satisfying the public.
In these cases, as odd as it sounds, government may in fact have an ethical responsibility to disappoint its constituents.