Social engineering and the myth of "smart growth"


Author: Luke A. Wake

In land use and city planning, you often hear people talking about a new progressive idea: "smart growth." Now the term insinuates that there are "smart" ways for communities to develop; it suggests that communities should be planned in an orderly way to promote certain "values." The idea is that land use planners can create perfect little communities – little utopias (or dystopias depending upon your  


All of this talk about "smart growth" reminds me of Ira Levin's 1970 dystopian novel, This Perfect Day. Levin depicts a utilitarian world in which everything is organized by a faceless bureaucratic central planner, whom he refers to as "Uni." Uni makes all decisions. Uni decides where and how cities are built. Uni decides where resources should be allocates. Uni even decides how long individuals should live and whether they should procreate. But, the citizens of this future world are passive and unquestioning; they are fully indoctrinated in the collectivist ideal and have blind faith that "Uni knows best."

Yet behind this veil of order, there is something dreadfully wrong. All individuality is lost. To master its architectural design for society, Uni has deprived its subjects of all liberties and, in doing so, has violated their inherent dignity.

It is naturally wrong to impose our will upon other individuals and to seek to order their lives in accordance with our own dictates. This is true, despite whatever good intentions we might have because no person can know what is best for every other person. Each individual must be free to pursue his own good, not shackled to the promotion of a collectivist vision for how things should work.

So I think it is only prudent to question the notion that city and county planners can know what is best for your property. Why should they be able to decide how your property should be used? Why are they more qualified to determine how you should conduct your own affairs on your own property? How are their plans for your life and your property "smarter" than your own plans?

The only answer that "smart growth" advocates can really give is that land use restrictions are necessary for the greater good of the community. But that's exactly what Uni would say. Social engineers – Uni and "smart growth" advocates alike – call upon us to sacrifice our individual rights for the benefit of others. In order to create their own paradise, they destroy ours. We are treated merely as the means to their ends, and not respected as ends in ourselves.

So before we can even begin to surmise how a community "should" be run in the normative sense, we must first consider whether we can justly deny individuals the liberty to make reasonable use of their own property.