Should a local government be able to tell property owners what they can and cannot do with their property? I’d argue that in some cases, yes. In certain areas, reasonable restrictions should be made on what property can be used for. Even in an ideal anarcho-capitalist society, zoning would still exist in that if I didn’t like what my neighbor was doing, or if their behavior was adversely affecting me, I could potentially sue them, enacting a form of private zoning on the individual level. This, in part, is the argument for why pollution would be much less of a problem if everything was privately owned.
Take, for instance, the example of a friend of mine invoking the use of zoning laws for the safety of her community. There are those who have been staging horse races on a piece of land that is inadequate for that type of event, and the runoff resulting from such an event could affect her community’s drinking water. Do I find zoning laws acceptable in this case? Absolutely. As a community that is being affected by such activities, they have every right to make and enforce such laws.
Can zoning laws be abused by businesses to protect themselves from competition? Absolutely. They have been invoked to defend entrenched interests. But zoning laws in regards to the case I’m referring to are necessary in the name of public safety and fiscal responsibility. Why should all of the taxpayers in the aforementioned community be forced to provide the infrastructure that would be necessary to host a spectator event like a horse race? Why should they be forced to repair the existing infrastructure or natural resources if they were to be damaged due to their inadequacy, or vulnerability, as a result of this event?
Local zoning laws also give people the option to vote with their feet if they don’t like the laws in their jurisdiction. It is in the community’s best interest to make zoning laws in regards to the situation within the locality and the type of business that can exist, given the infrastructure and geographical features. In the example I’ve mentioned, the horse track potentially puts the community in danger, given the inadequate infrastructure, the aquifer from which they get their water, and other external considerations that have a greater impact on the residents – impacts that do not solely affect the individual property.
As pragmatic libertarians, we should seek to see small localities empowered to make their own decisions, even if we disagree with those decisions. Ideology oftentimes blinds some people to necessities; until we have a working anarcho-capitalist society, zoning laws should exist, provided that it can be proven with multiple examples that public safety is endangered. Broad definitions are subject to abuse by those who want to defend their market share, thus care need be taken to ensure that only the people directly affected have the say. While this seems somewhat idealistic, it is no more so than presuming that anarcho-capitalism will take root within our lifetime.
As Saul Alinsky said in his seminal work Rules for Radicals:
“As an organizer I start from where the world is, as it is, not as I would like it to be. That we accept the world as it is does not in any sense weaken our desire to change it into what we believe it should be— it is necessary to begin where the world is if we are going to change it to what we think it should be. That means working in the system.”
If at the local level, we can show people that small groups working together can bring about a favorable outcome for all parties in regards to reasonably limiting property rights based on public safety or local concerns, perhaps they can see the viability of what we want to change the world into.