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Jewish World Review May 16, 2000 / 11 Iyar, 5760

Thomas Sowell

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Green bigotry in the Hamptons -- CALIFORNIA IS NOT THE ONLY PLACE where there is widespread hand-wringing over a lack of "affordable housing" -- including hand-wringing by people who are themselves making housing unaffordable. The same sad farce is being played out in Long Island's fashionable East Hampton.

Here, as in California, modest homes cost the kind of money that is elsewhere charged for mansions. One little house overlooking a rubbish dump costs nearly $400,000. But that is considered a bargain in a place where the average house costs well over half a million dollars.

Like so many upscale communities, East Hampton is into conserving "open space." Moreover, as in California, the people there seem to see no connection whatever between their taking land off the market and the fact that the land remaining on the market skyrockets in price -- taking with it into the stratosphere the prices of homes and the rents of apartments built on that artificially more scarce land.

There was a certain poetic justice when one of the people forced out of East Hampton by outrageous housing prices was a leader of a group dedicated to keeping land off the market and in "open spaces." There is, however, no justice at all in the fact that people living in a trailer park are being forced out by their upscale neighbors, who find them living "too close" to tall grass in a nearby swamp -- "wetlands" in politically correct pieties.

If the affluent have nothing better to do than worry about swamps, let them at least pay hard cash out of their own pocket to buy up these swamps by paying those in trailer parks enough money to induce them to move voluntarily. Instead, they use the power of government to force people out of their homes. In other words, they impose high costs on others at little or no cost to themselves.

Many complain that the marketplace is unfair to lower-income people because the affluent have more money. Unfortunately, the alternative to the marketplace is often much more unfair. While lower income people have less money individually than the affluent, often they have more money in the aggregate, since there are so many more of them.

That is why a free market will often displace upscale homes and replace them with apartments for the masses -- much to the indignation of those who deplore "urban sprawl." Despite much editorial pontificating and the appointment of blue-ribbon commissions, there is no "solution" to such "problems" because different sets of people want different -- and incompatible -- things done with the same land. The most we can hope for are trade-offs that make some sense.

Such trade-offs are unlikely, however, when one set of people imagine themselves so much wiser and nobler than others that their desires should over-ride the desires of others. Bigotry means denying others the same rights you claim for yourself -- and there is no bigotry like green bigotry.

The very idea that other people have just as much right to bid through the marketplace for land to use for trailer parks or shopping malls as the anointed have to bid for land to use for their well-proportioned estates or for "open space" is shocking to the green bigots.

When half the land in an area is taken off the market for open space, one possible way of compensating would be to build homes and apartments twice as tall, so that the same number of people could be housed locally as before.

But those who love tall grass do not love tall buildings. Again, they use government to limit what others can build.

The net result is that some people are forced out of the places where they live and must then spend additional time on congested highways traveling to and from work. There is not the slightest reason why such issues should be settled by words. Talk is cheap, even when its consequences are costly.

People can share land through the marketplace, just as they share all sorts of other goods, services and resources. However, making trade-offs through the marketplace would not only deprive the self-righteous of hard cash and allow the masses to satisfy more of their own needs, it would deprive the self-anointed saviors of that sense of wonderful specialness which is one of their prize possessions. That is why hand-wringing about "affordable housing" is likely to continue from people who are making it unaffordable.

JWR contributor Thomas Sowell, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, is author, most recently, of The Quest for Cosmic Justice.


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© 2000, Creators Syndicate