Housing and Planning

Why is the socialist Left so hostile to YIMBYism?

One of my favourite examples of a quirky regulation is the Icelandic beer ban, which lasted until March 1989. This was a hangover (no pun intended) from a total alcohol prohibition, which had been introduced in 1915, but otherwise lifted in 1935.

The beer ban is a great illustration of the tyranny of the status quo. No sane person would have introduced it in this form, but once a regulation like that is there, people make up the most spurious reasons to defend it.

If we had a law like that in Britain today, it would be fairly easy to justify its continued existence. You would merely have to point out that if it were overturned, some people would make money from it. Forget about the (would-be) beer consumers. Make it all about the sellers. In the current socialist zeitgeist, merely pointing out that someone stands to gain financially from X is enough to convince most people that X is per se illegitimate.

If you framed it in this way, you would make it especially hard for the political Left to oppose the hypothetical beer ban. You would force them to position themselves on the same side as people with commercial interests, and worse still, on the same side as free-marketeers. Repealing a beer ban is a deregulatory measure. Milton Friedman would have approved of it. Friedrich Hayek would have approved of it. People at 55 Tufton Street would approve of it!

Fortunately, Britain doesn’t have a beer ban, but our quasi-ban on housebuilding is not much better than that. No, please stay! I swear that this is not going to be yet another rant against the planning system, greenbelts and NIMBYs. I’ve done this millions of times, and I’m as bored of saying it as you are of hearing it.

But this isn’t about my own support for YIMBYism. It’s about how, curiously, the socialist Left’s attitude to YIMBYism ranges from indifferent to hostile.

For example, Nathan Robinson from the socialist Current Affairs magazine recently wrote an article with the self-explanatory title “The Only Thing Worse Than A NIMBY Is A YIMBY”:

“[W]hile YIMBYism is presented as the forces of progress […] fighting against wealthy entrenched interests, the picture is misleading. […] YIMBYs are not anti-capitalists. They are allies of developers who believe in letting the “free market” determine what kind of housing will be built […]

YIMBY groups tend to embrace economic ideas associated with free-market thinkers like [Ayn] Rand. The idea, generally, is that the problem of affordable housing is a problem of supply.”

Meanwhile, Michael Walker from the socialist platform Novara Media is a little bit more sympathetic, accepting that “there is some truth to the Yimby argument”. But he nonetheless quickly brushes that aside by claiming that “the origins of the housing crisis lie elsewhere. If it is the planning system and local democracy that caused the affordability crisis, why did the situation begin to deteriorate in the 1980s? […] [T]he defining change to housing policy in the 1980s wasn’t a strengthening of planning laws and local democracy.”

Walker is clearly trying to retreat into a socialist comfort zone (Boo, Thatcher!), and in doing so, he gets it all wrong. The decline in housing completions per 100,000 people predates the 1980s, and the 1980s did see a strengthening of planning laws, in the form of a massive expansion of the greenbelt. The provision of non-market housing declined in the 1980s, but it declined from an exceptionally high level, and Britain still has a higher share of social housing than most of its neighbour countries. In any case, it is not unusual for regulations to gradually develop a bite over time. Their impact does not have to be sudden, and drastic.

Specifics aside, though: why are socialists so reluctant to make the case for supply-side reform, and side with the YIMBYs against the NIMBYs?

Let’s take a step back. Most of the time, liberals and socialists disagree over the merits of government intervention in markets, because the latter believe that such interventions benefit most people, while the former believe that they don’t. Socialists look at the stated intention of an intervention, while liberals look at the indirect, longer-term effects. Socialist believe that, for example, rent controls are good, because they lower rents. Liberals believe that rent controls are bad, because they lower the supply of rental housing, increase demand, and gum up the market.

But the NIMBY/YIMBY issue is not like that. It is true that Randians believe in things like “supply”, but this is not specific to them. You don’t need to be a believer in free markets to see that restricting the supply of something increases its price. You don’t need to be a Public Choice cynic to see that if you give time-rich homeowners the right to block nearby housing development, they will use that right to further their own self-interest, not “the common good”. You don’t need to look at indirect, invisible, second-order effects of restricting housing supply. The direct, visible, first-order effects are bad enough. It doesn’t take a subtle mind to recognise them. It doesn’t take any economics training. It doesn’t take sophisticated econometric models of housing markets (although there’s plenty of those as well; see pp. 14-16 for a summary).

So if there is one issue over which liberals and socialists should be able to form a loose alliance, YIMBYism should be it.

No, this is not just a long-winded way of saying “If Lefties were smarter and more rational, they would agree with me” (although I obviously do believe that as well). People can end up on the same side of a divide for very different reasons, especially if it is an anti-side.

There could still be huge differences over what should replace the current NIMBYocracy. Liberal YIMBYs want to replace it with a market-led, private-sector-driven housing boom – basically an upgraded version of what happened in the 1930s. Socialists could take the view that the state should become the principal actor in the ensuing building boom, and that public housing and social housing should take precedence over market housing. It could be an alliance in which the differences between the constituent parts remain visible throughout, and which ends the moment the common enemy is defeated.

The reason why such a loose YIMBY alliance won’t happen is that the modern Left is hyper-tribal, and status-obsessed. For too many people, signalling their hatred of “Tufton Street” has become a substitute for a personality. They could not bring themselves to support a deregulatory agenda, even if it is about a set of regulations that are clearly regressive, and only serve to protect well-off incumbents. They could not bring themselves to support an agenda which The Bad People would also support.

The Left is the culturally dominant force in Britain. They did not manage to get Mr Corbyn into Number 10, but they are the ones setting the national agenda. They have the power to force their obsessions on the whole country, whether that is the latest woke fad or Doomsday environmentalism. They are the only ones in the country who have the power to “cancel” their opponents, and they could cancel NIMBYism too if they chose to.

By refusing to step outside of their comfort zone, the socialist Left shares the blame for perpetuating Britain’s housing crisis.

Head of Political Economy

Dr Kristian Niemietz is the IEA's Head of Political Economy. Kristian studied Economics at the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin and the Universidad de Salamanca, graduating in 2007 as Diplom-Volkswirt (≈MSc in Economics). During his studies, he interned at the Central Bank of Bolivia (2004), the National Statistics Office of Paraguay (2005), and at the IEA (2006). He also studied Political Economy at King's College London, graduating in 2013 with a PhD. Kristian previously worked as a Research Fellow at the Berlin-based Institute for Free Enterprise (IUF), and taught Economics at King's College London. He is the author of the books "Socialism: The Failed Idea That Never Dies" (2019), "Universal Healthcare Without The NHS" (2016), "Redefining The Poverty Debate" (2012) and "A New Understanding of Poverty" (2011).

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