Suburban sprawl a volley in nation's cultural war

June 30, 1999|By Thomas Sowell

THE LATEST scare phrase that is supposed to set off a political stampede is "suburban sprawl."

But, before we go thundering off in all directions, just what is this suburban sprawl? How can you tell whether there is sprawl where you live?

Those who want to lead a government-sponsored crusade against sprawl have no time for such questions. Politicians who want to "do something" and "make a difference" must have a crisis du jour. So suburban sprawl is today's contrived crisis.

It refers to the fact that metropolitan areas are spreading out, with people living in lower densities in the suburbs than in the central cities. What is so terrible about that?

The real objection may be that all this is going on without the guiding hand of Big Brother. But the alarm that is being sounded is that farmland is disappearing under concrete as suburbanization spreads. Images are conjured up of a growing population needing more food while the land available on which to grow it is getting smaller and smaller.

Another way of saying the same thing is that agricultural advances over the past century have drastically reduced the amount of land and the number of farmers needed to grow food, even in places where the population has grown. Far from being something to be alarmed about, this is one of the key factors in rising standards of living around the world.

Where have all the people come from who produce all the abundance of goods and services that make our standard of living so much higher than that of our great grandparents? Those people have come largely from the farms where they were no longer needed. Meanwhile, farmers are selling off surplus land to developers of new subdivisions, which help relieve urban crowding.

This is not rocket science. It is basic economics. Resources tend to move from where they are valued less to where they are valued more.

Objections to this common process come largely from people who either have no conception of economics or who imagine that their own superior wisdom and virtue can determine what is "really" more valuable, regardless of what other people want. It is no coincidence that shrill cries about sprawl are coming from people who have supported big government politics.

The most prominent of these critics of suburban sprawl is Vice President Al Gore. When he was a senator, Mr. Gore twice beat out Sen. Edward Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, for the title of the biggest spender in Congress. Mr. Gore's book, "Earth in the Balance," is a classic of hysterical environmental extremism. Theodore J. Kaczynski, the confessed Unabomber, had a copy in his cabin.

Sierra Club officials are also frothing at the mouth against sprawl because more space for people means less space for animals. Using land for what the Sierra clubbers like is called "saving" it, while using it for what other people like is called "spoiling" it. Demanding that the government prevent other citizens from doing what they want so that the environmentalists can do what they want, is depicted as something noble, not something selfish beyond words.

Portland, Ore., is held up by the Sierra Club as a good example of a place with restrictions on growth that have "helped make Portland one of the world's most livable cities." There is not the slightest sign of embarrassment at the incredible ego of determining for other people what is a "livable" city.

Obviously millions of other people prefer to live in Los Angeles, the very epitome of sprawl.

At the heart of the liberal-left vision is the idea that the self-anointed saviors should be telling the rest of us, through the power of government, what we ought to do. They will define for us what is good and what is bad, remaking us in their image.

Sprawl is only the latest battleground in that crusade. This is a culture war -- and the only thing worse than being in a war is being in a war and not knowing it, while the other side is carrying on a Jihad.

Thomas Sowell is a syndicated columnist.

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