Originally published on Mises.org
Both economic decisions and political decisions involve choices and tradeoffs. The difference is that economic decisions are ultimately informed and rely upon monetary prices, revenues and costs. Political decisions, meanwhile, do not depend on market outcomes—they can be based on love, legacy, favors, or establishing power relations.
Zoning is the practice of governments controlling the type, size, and population density of buildings. (Zoning should not be confused with building codes, which control the building materials and other design aspects of buildings.) The purpose of zoning has been to create separate regional “zones” of building types: broadly, these categories typically include residential, industrial, retail, and parks. The zones are then broken down into more minute categories, like low, medium, and high density homes, different kinds of retail businesses, and so on.
Zoning is a type of government intervention into economic decision making: it the practice of the state (whether it is the municipality, subnational, or national level) intervening in the affairs of private individuals in where and what they can build. By intention, zoning is a limit on the supply of housing. In effect, it is a limit on the quantity of the stock of housing; that is, it acts like any other quota or prohibition.
While many economists, from Rothbard himself, to even those in the mainstream, recognize the deleterious effects of zoning, there does not exist a single, thoroughgoing Austrian analysis on the subject. The purpose of this piece is to be that analysis. It is broken up into two sections: the politics of zoning, and the economics of zoning.