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Jewish World ReviewJune 29, 1999 /15 Tamuz, 5759

Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell
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"Urban sprawl" and liberal gall --
THE LATEST SCARE PHRASE that is supposed to set off a political stampede is "urban sprawl." But, before we go thundering off in all directions, just what is this urban sprawl? How can you tell whether there is urban sprawl where you live? If someone says there is and someone else says there isn't, what can you look for to tell you who is right?

Those who want to lead a government-sponsored crusade against urban sprawl have no time for such questions. Just as some restaurants have a soup du jour, politicians who want to "do something" and "make a difference" must have a crisis du jour. Urban sprawl is today's contrived crisis.

In so far as there is any coherent meaning to the term, urban sprawl is a name given 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 both the amount of land and the number of farmers needed to grow food, even in places where the population is several times as large as before. 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 people living just a couple of generations ago? Those people have come largely from the farms where they were no longer needed. Neither is so much land needed. That is why farmers are selling it to those who build homes and communities that 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, because those who value these resources more will make their current owners an offer they can't refuse.

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 urban sprawl are coming from people with a long history of big government politics on all sorts of other issues.

The most prominent of these critics of urban sprawl is Vice President Al Gore. When he was a Senator, Al Gore twice beat out Ted Kennedy for the title of the biggest spender in Congress. His book "Earth in the Balance" is a classic of hysterical environmental extremism. The Unabomber had a copy in his cabin.

The head of the Sierra Club is also frothing at the mouth against urban 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, in order that the environmentalists can do what they want, is depicted as something noble, instead of something selfish beyond words.

Portland, Oregon, 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 urban 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, what we can do and what we cannot do. They will define for us what is good and what is bad, remaking us in their image.

Urban 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.


06/18/99: A famous victory
06/14/99: A victory in Chicago
06/10/99: Mass shootings and mass hysteria
06/08/99: The other side of affirmative action
06/03/99: Childish labor laws
06/01/99: Demonizing for dollars
05/27/99: The real public service
05/24/99: Income, taxes and demagoguery
05/18/99: Random thoughts
05/14/99: Aborted knowledge
05/10/99: The new "fairness"
05/04/99: Holding parents responsible
05/03/99: Exit strategies
04/28/99: Tragedy and farce
04/26/99: Guilt and cop-outs
04/21/99: Choosing a college
04/16/99: When success fails
04/13/99: A photo-op foreign policy
04/09/99: Russia and the Serbs
04/06/99: Random thoughts
03/31/99: Irresponsible "experts"
03/29/99: Another Doleful prospect?
03/23/99: Random thoughts
03/22/99: Loving enemies
03/19/99: Naming names
03/15/99: Undermining the military
03/10/99: Joe DiMaggio -- icon of an era
03/02/99: Facts versus dogma on guns
03/01/99: Losing the cultural wars
02/22/99: "Saving" social security
02/18/99: Too many Ph.Ds?
02/8/99: A national disaster
02/8/99: Economic fallacies in the media: Part II
02/5/99: Why economists visit dentists so often
02/2/99: Warning: Good news
01/29/99: What is at stake?
01/26/99:Moral bankruptcy in the schools
01/22/99: Who is going to convict Santa Claus?
01/19/99: Seeing through the spin
01/13/99: A trial is a trial is a trial
01/11/99:Trials and tribulations
01/08/99: Rays of hope
01/04/99: Random thoughts
12/31/98: The President versus the presidency
12/29/98: The time is now!
12/23/98: World-class hypocrisy
12/21/98: The spreading corruption
12/17/98: Politically "contrite"
12/16/98: Polls and partisanship
12/14/98: The "non-profit" halo
12/11/98: Corruption and confusion
12/03/98: The health care "crisis"
11/30/98: Knowing what you are talking about
11/23/98: The impeachment legacy
11/23/98: Random thoughts
11/19/98: Tales out of bureaucracies
11/16/98: Scholarships based on scholarship
11/12/98: Forward march
11/09/98: Moral outrage
11/05/98: Will the Republicans ever learn?
11/02/98: A voter's duty
10/30/98: The poverty pimp's poem
10/29/98: Random thoughts on the election
10/27/98: "Partisan" and "unfair"
10/23/98: Ed-u-kai-tchun
10/21/98: McGwire, Maris and the Babe
10/16/98: Lightweight Boxer
10/14/98: A strange word
10/09/98: Impeachment standards
10/08/98: Alternatives to seriousness
10/07/98: Heredity, environment and talk
10/02/98: A much-needed guide
10/01/98: Starr's real crime
9/24/98: Costs and power
9/18/98: Are we sheep?
9/16/98: Judicial review
9/15/98: Hillary Rodham Crook?
9/14/98: Taking stock
9/11/98: Moment of truth
9/04/98: Random thoughts
8/31/98: The twilight of special prosecutors?
8/26/98: "Doing a good job"
8/24/98: America on trial?
8/19/98: Played for fools
8/17/98: A childish letter
8/11/98: Hiding behind a woman
8/07/98: A flying walrus in Washington?
8/03/98: "Affordability" strikes again
7/31/98: Random thoughts
7/27/98: Faith and mountains
7/24/98: Clinton in Wonderland
7/20/98: Where is black 'leadership' leading?
7/16/98: Do 'minorities' really have it that bad?
7/14/98: Race dialogue: same old stuff
7/10/98: Honest history
7/09/98: Dumb is dangerous
7/02/98: Gun-safety starts with
parental responsibility
6/30/98: When more is less
6/29/98: Are educators above the law?
6/26/98: Random Thoughts
6/24/98: An angry letter
6/22/98: Sixties sentimentalism
6/19/98:Dumbing down anti-trust
6/15/98: A changing of the guard?
6/11/98: Presidential privileges
6/8/98: Fast computers and slow antitrust
6/3/98: Can stalling backfire?
5/29/98: The insulation of the Left
5/25/98: Missing the point in the media
5/22/98: The lessons of Indonesia
5/20/98: Smart but silent
5/18/98: Israel, Clinton and character
5/14/98: Monica Lewinsky's choices
5/11/98: Random thoughts
5/7/98: Media obstruction of justice
5/4/98: Dangerous "safety"
5/1/98: Abolish Adolescence!
4/30/98: The naked truth
4/22/98: Playing fair and square
4/19/98: Bad teachers"
4/15/98: "Clinton in Africa "
4/13/98: "Bundling and unbundling "
4/9/98: "Rising or falling Starr "
4/6/98: "Was Clinton ‘vindicated'? "
3/26/98: "Diasters -- natural and political"
3/24/98: "A pattern of behavior"
3/22/98: Innocent explanations
3/19/98: Kathleen Willey and Anita Hill
3/17/98: Search and destroy
3/12/98: Media Circus versus Justice
3/6/98: Vindication
3/3/98: Cheap Shot Time
2/26/98: The Wrong Filter
2/24/98: Trial by Media
2/20/98: Dancing Around the Realities
2/19/98: A "Do Something" War?
2/12/98: Julian Simon, combatant in a 200-year war
2/6/98: A rush to rhetoric

©1999, Creators Syndicate