Nothing `reasonable' about `smart growth'

January 15, 1999|By Bill Thompson

REMEMBER this phrase: "smart growth."

Just two little words. But they are about to become the defining battle cry in the next great showdown between liberals and conservatives.

Maybe you thought that the conservative revolution was complete -- that the liberal philosophy of politics and government had been vanquished, had been consigned to the trash heap of history. Didn't President Clinton declare not long ago that the era of big government was over?

Didn't Mr. Clinton support welfare reform, reduction of the federal bureaucracy, even tax cuts?

Sure he did. But that was politics. Mr. Clinton and his government-loving disciples believe that government is the ultimate force for good in the world -- that government is the instrument by which every problem known to humankind can be alleviated.

And so Clinton dispatches his vice president and would-be successor, Al Gore, to spread the gospel of smart growth. When Mr. Gore announced the Clinton administration's plan to include $9.5 billion for smart growth in its new budget proposal, the likely Democratic nominee in next year's presidential race set the stage for a massive effort by the federal government to control economic development in local communities.

According to a report in USA Today, smart growth "is bound to become the political mantra of the new millennium. It likely will be one of the main issues in Mr. Gore's bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2000."

The premise of smart growth, it seems, is that everything Americans think of as growth -- including staples of economic development such as home building and road construction -- is not smart. New highways, housing developments, shopping centers, office plazas -- all that is dumb, say the advocates of smart growth.

The road to smart growth, say its supporters, is paved with well, it's not paved at all. Smart growth is about making vast expanses of America off-limits to developers. It's about forcing Americans out of their private automobiles and onto mass transit systems. It's about government bureaucrats deciding and dictating how Americans should be permitted to use their property, travel from place to place, conduct their business and live their lives.

Smart growth. It sounds so innocent, so positive. The alternative to smart growth, after all, would have to be stupid growth -- wouldn't it?

You might think so. But smart growth is a euphemism for no growth. Think about it. Mr. Gore is a hero to those who believe that economic development represents a lethal threat to the Earth and its inhabitants. To fanatical environmentalists, concrete is a symbol of apocalypse.

The goal of preserving the environment, Mr. Gore has written, will be the fundamental organizing principle of society in the coming century.

And so Mr. Clinton and Mr. Gore embrace smart growth, which proposes to focus the power and resources of the federal bureaucracy on the task of fostering an idyllic vision of America that demonizes development.

Smart-growth offers federal tax credits to "protect" billions of dollars' worth of American real estate from what its backers consider the development scourge.

It extends the federal bureaucracy's reach into local communities by using federal subsidies to influence previously local decisions in matters such as land use and transportation planning.

And the fixation on smart growth clearly diminishes the federal government's traditional role of financing highway construction. The administration has budgeted more than $6 billion to promote mass transit, despite the desperate need for new and improved roads all across America.

Look, folks. No sensible American is opposed to reasonable measures to protect the environment and preserve natural resources against undue encroachment by developers. But the key word here is "reasonable."

We need to keep an eye on the smart-growth crowd. "Reasonable" is not a word that crusading liberals understand.

Bill Thompson is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Pub Date: 1/15/99

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