The Economic and Political Dynamics of Zoning

Originally published on

Ludwig_von_Mises[1]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.

Continue reading “The Economic and Political Dynamics of Zoning”

Rethinking the Yellowbelt: Report Release

After a full year of research, the largest, most comprehensive report on the economics, politics, history, and policies of zoning in Toronto is available for download.

The full report is available both on the Housing Matters website, and quickly downloadable here: Rethinking the Yellowbelt. 

The “Yellowbelt” refers to the portion of the city that’s zoned exclusively for detached homes. The report goes into detail explaining when and why such a zone came into existence, where it spreads in the city, who is hurt by the existence of this zone and how; and what it will take to change the system.

A summary of the report follows. Of course, the report itself goes into much more detail.

Continue reading “Rethinking the Yellowbelt: Report Release”

Response to Ryerson CBI on Bill 10

Originally posted on Housing Matters.

Earlier in May, the Ontario Government tabled new legislation as part of its long-anticipated Housing Supply Action Plan. Known as Bill 108, it proposes numerous changes to several existing laws and regulations.

The preamble of the Bill makes it very clear: the Government of Ontario “believes that increasing the supply of housing will help every person in Ontario by making housing more affordable.” We at Housing Matters share in that belief. We’ve come to this belief through careful analysis of economic theory and data. And after careful study of the contents of this Bill, we believe that it will do as promised: increase the supply of housing, and, consequently, make housing more affordable.

However, the researchers at the Ryerson City Building Institute (CBI) have reached a different conclusion from their analysis of the same Bill. Indeed, CBI begins their analysis by predicting:

it is unlikely that the Housing Supply Action Plan and Bill 108 will improve housing affordability while also targeting the lack of housing options, including missing middle and family sized multi-unit housing. What is proposed may, in fact, reduce livability and affordability throughout the province — particularly in areas facing intense growth pressure…. (p. 1)

We disagree with these statements. To be clear, we believe that Bill 108 — while not a perfect panacea — will (1) increase the availability of housing options, (2) increase livability, (3) increase affordability, (4) and this will be especially true in areas facing intense growth pressures. The following post will analyze the changes to Bill 108 with respect to these areas, and we will compare our findings to that of the CBI.

Table of Contents

— The Economics of Supply and Demand
— On Development Charges
— On the LPAT and OMB
— On Heritage Protection
— On Community Benefits, Public and Private
— On Inclusionary Zoning
— Changes to the Building Code
— Conclusion

Continue reading “Response to Ryerson CBI on Bill 10”

Statement on the Decision to Partially Eliminate Rent Control

Originally posted on Housing Matters

The Government of Ontario announced in its fall economic outlook this past week that they were removing some restrictions on rent control. While rent control remains unchanged for existing tenants, new rental units will not be subject to any price controls whatsoever.

This policy change is a response to the previous government’s “Fair Housing Plan”, introduced in 2017. Prior to the Fair Housing Plan, only homes built before 1991 were subject to rent control. In 2017, rent control was extended to all rentals regardless of the year of construction.

Following the introduction of the “Fair Housing Plan”, 1,000 units originally slated to be purpose-built apartments were converted to condos. That, in a city with a rental vacancy rate of 0.7% — a sixteen year low for the city, and one of the lowest rates in the world.

As a partial reversal of a one-year-old policy, the short-term impact of the new government’s change will likely be small.

However, as we will explain below, this policy has long term impacts that affect the quantity, quality, and price of rental housing, as well as the kind of individuals likely to be affected. In particular, this new policy averted a future of extreme rental shortages, declining rental housing quality, rapidly increasing rents, and discrimination against low-income renters. Continue reading “Statement on the Decision to Partially Eliminate Rent Control”

A Right is Not an Obligation

Originally posted on Notes On Liberty

Precision of language in matters of science is important. Speaking recently with some fellow libertarians, we got into an argument about the nature of rights. My position: A right does not obligate anyone to do anything. Their position: Rights are the same thing as obligations.

My response: But if a right is the same thing as an obligation, why use two different words? Doesn’t it make more sense to distinguish them?

So here are the definitions I’m working with. A right is what is “just” or “moral”, as those words are normally defined. I have a right to choose which restaurant I want to eat at.

An obligation is what one is compelled to do by a third party. I am obligated to sell my car to Alice at a previously agreed on a price or else Bob will come and take my car away from me using any means necessary.

Let’s think through an example. Under a strict interpretation of libertarianism, a mother with a starving child does not have the right to steal bread from a baker. But if she does steal the bread, then what? Do the libertarian police instantly swoop down from Heaven and give the baker his bread back?

Consider the baker. The baker indeed does have a right to keep his bread. But he is no under no obligation to get his bread back should it get stolen. The baker could take pity on the mother and let her go. Or he could calculate the cost of having one loaf stolen is low to expend resources to try to get it back.

Let’s analyze now the bedrock of libertarianism, the nonaggression principle (NAP). There are several formulations. Here’s one: “no one has a right to initiate force against someone else’s person or property.” Here’s a more detailed version, from Walter Block: “It shall be legal for anyone to do anything he wants, provided only that he not initiate (or threaten) violence against the person or legitimately owned property of another.”

A natural question to ask is, what happens if someone does violate the NAP? One common answer is that the victim of the aggression then has a right to use force to defend himself. But note again, the right does not imply an obligation. Just because someone initiates force against you, does not obligate you or anyone else to respond. Pacifism is consistent with libertarianism.

Consider another example. Due to a strange series of coincidences, you find yourself lost in the woods in the middle of a winter storm. You come across an unoccupied cabin that’s obviously used as a summer vacation home. You break in, and help yourself to some canned beans and shelter, and wait out the storm before going for help.

Did you have a right to break into the cabin? Under some strict interpretations of libertarianism, no. But even if this is true, all it means is that the owners of the cabin have the right, but not obligation, to use force to seek damages from you after the fact. (They also had the right to fortify their cabin in such a way that you would have been prevented from ever entering.) But they may never exercise that right; you could ask for forgiveness and they might grant it.

Furthermore, under a pacifist anarchocapitalist order, the owners might not even use force when seeking compensation. They might just ask politely; and if they don’t like your excuses, they’ll simply leave a negative review with a private credit agency (making harder for you to get loans, jobs, etc.).

The nonaggression principle, insofar as it is strictly about rights (and notobligations), is about justice. It is not about compelling people to do anything. Hence, I propose a new formulation of the NAP: using force to defend yourself from initiations of force can be consistent with justice.

This formulation makes clear that using force is a choice. Initiating force does not obligate anyone to do anything. “Excessive force” may be a possibile injustice.

In short, justice does not require force.

A Tax is Not a Price

Originally posted on Notes On Liberty 

According to The Economist, the latest US federal budget includes incentives for “congestion pricing” of roads.

Ostensibly, this is about reducing congestion. But some municipalities like the idea of charging for roads because it represents a new revenue stream. This creates an incentive to charge a price above cost. When a firm does this, we call it a “monopoly price.”

But when a government monopoly forces you to pay a fee to use a good or service, do not call it a price. It is a fee that a government collects by fiat. In other words, it is a tax.

A price is a voluntary exchange of money for a good or service. The emphasis on voluntary is important, because it is this aspect of the price that enables economic calculation for what people really want.  Even a free market “monopolist” (however unlikely or conceptually vague it may be) engages in voluntary exchange. Continue reading “A Tax is Not a Price”

Should Everyone Vote?


[Originally posted on]

To ask it another way: Is it really a good thing to tell people who are ignorant of law (so they don’t know which proposed policies are illegal), and/or ignorant of economics (so they don’t know what the actual outcomes of proposed policies will be), and/or ignorant of political science (so they don’t know which proposed policies are politically feasible with the actual people and institutions we already have)?

If politics is serious business, shouldn’t people have more than causal understanding law, economics, and political science before voting? How are people supposed to judge platforms otherwise–by what “feels right”? Continue reading “Should Everyone Vote?”

The Maximum Punishment Possible for Nonviolent Marijuana Crimes Around the World

Marijuana mapEveryone knows different countries treat drugs differently. For example, if you get caught buying or selling a large amount of marijuana in Canada, you’re probably not going to get your head chopped off by the government–but in Saudi Arabia, that is the law.

I wanted to see just how different the laws were in world when it came to nonviolent marijuana crimes: that is, if one or more people are breaking a marijuana-related crime (like buying, selling, smoking, or producing) and they didn’t hurt anyone in the process, what is the worst that can legally happen to them? Continue reading “The Maximum Punishment Possible for Nonviolent Marijuana Crimes Around the World”

Against the “Pragmatic Libertarian Case for the Basic Income Guarantee”

Originally posted on August 15, 2014

Self-styled “Bleeding Heart Libertarian” Matt Zwolinski is out with a new series of essays defending a “basic income guarantee” (BIG). For those who don’t know, a BIG is a program where the government gives everyone, regardless of wealth or income, a set amount of cash every year. Professor Zwolinksi has previously attempted to justify a BIG on philosophical libertarian grounds, which I considered unprincipled. He is now attempting to justify a BIG on “pragmatic” libertarian grounds. I have issues with this line of defense as well.

Zwolinki’s argument for practicality boils down to four claims: that a BIG is cheaper than the current welfare state, a BIG is less paternalistic, a BIG would require a smaller bureaucracy, and a BIG would remove a lot of the opportunities for “rent-seeking” (meaning it would be harder for the rich and powerful to get special treatment). Zwolinski then attempts to brush aside principled libertarian arguments against a BIG by claiming that a libertarian “Utopia is not an option”. Continue reading “Against the “Pragmatic Libertarian Case for the Basic Income Guarantee””

Against “The Libertarian Case for a Basic Income”

Originally posted on on December 6, 2013

Matt Zwolinski, of Bleeding Heart Libertarians fame, has a new post on in which he attempts to defend a so-called “Basic Income Guarantee”, whereby the government pays everyone (or a very large portion of people) a minimum amount of money regardless of employment or any other status, using libertarian principles.

I believe he failed in his endeavour.

Zwolinski’s first defence: A Basic Income Guarantee would be much better than the current welfare state.

This has a simple response: Why should the federal government be taking money by force from anyone, for any reason at all? There are many economic costs associated whenever the government purloins the public, of course; but there are also moral issues involved with theft. Just because a BIG may be less paternalistic and condescending to the poor than the current welfare paradigm, as Zwolinski suggests, does not mean that it just and ethical to do in the first place. Zwolinski provides no defense of why the state has either the right or the obligation to take from some to give to others.

Zwolinski’s second defence: A Basic Income Guarantee might be required on libertarian grounds as reparation for past injustice. Continue reading “Against “The Libertarian Case for a Basic Income””