YIMBYism: A Primer (Part 2)
I finished university before the “Great Awokening”, at a time when “Cancel Culture” and “No-Platforming” where still very ad-hoc and underdeveloped.
This does not mean that there was a climate of openness, tolerance and intellectual curiosity, which welcomed debate and diversity of opinion: very far from it. There was already a stifling climate of left-wing conformism. But it did not yet express itself in the way it does today. If, for example, the university invited a speaker, that speaker had a right to speak. If progressive students had complained to the university administration, claiming to feel “threatened” or “unsafe” by the presence of that speaker because of their “problematic” views, the administration would have shrugged and replied “Don’t attend it, then.” It is not that progressive students of my generation were more tolerant than today’s. It is just that they did not have the power to shut down everything they didn’t like, and so, most of the time, they didn’t bother trying.
That is also why there was no pro-free-speech movement. It was only with the Great Awokening that a movement which actively defends freedom of speech became necessary. Before then, an attitude of “Some people say things you don’t like, and there’s nothing you can do about that” was good enough.
I know you’re probably thinking “What’s all this cringe Culture War nonsense? I came here to read something on NIMBYism and YIMBYism!”. But it’s not such a bad analogy for what happened in the British housing market, if over a much longer period. During the building boom of the 1930s, the British housing stock grew by 2.6% per year. Was Britain a nation of YIMBYs then? Almost certainly not. Were there people who had misgivings about the housing boom, and who would have stopped it, had they been able to do so? Of course there were. Lord Of The Rings – as much as I like it – is, in essence, a NIMBY manifesto.
But under the more permissive pre-war planning system, those proto-NIMBYs had far fewer options to block development, and so, most of them did not bother trying. There was no need for a campaign which explained the benefits of housebuilding to a hostile public. An attitude of “Some people build houses – get over it” was good enough. But such a campaign is very much needed today. Hence, YIMBYism.
Some critics have argued that NIMBY-vs-YIMBY is too binary a distinction. Nobody is unconditionally in favour of all development everywhere, and most people are not saying that nothing should ever be built anywhere. Most of us are YIMBY on some things, and NIMBY on others.
But I would argue that this is a misunderstanding. A YIMBY is not someone who wants to build a Wetherspoons at Stonehenge. (Although if such a place existed, I’d probably go there, at least once.) YIMBYism is more like a default setting. When I read something about a planning dispute, and I don’t know the details yet, I start from the presumption that the people who want to get something done are probably the good guys, and the people who want to block it are probably the baddies. That is not going to be a strongly held view, and as I learn more about the case, I may change my mind. But you need to give me a good reason why I should. The burden of proof is on the “No” side. The people on the other side have no comparable obligation. If somebody is willing to risk their own money on a project which can turn sour, they deserve the benefit of the doubt.
A YIMBY is also someone who does not make the perfect the enemy of the good. Other things equal, I obviously prefer beautiful housing, and it would be great if everything we built was a delight to look at. But when that is not on offer, I prefer plain housing to no housing at all. Sometimes, a functional, inoffensive development is good enough. Not everything has to win an architecture prize. We are in the middle of a housing crisis, and beggars can’t be choosers.
Meanwhile on the opposite side, we need to bear Social Desirability Bias in mind. Of course, nobody would literally say “I’m a NIMBY because I already have a nice house, and I don’t care about anyone else.” What NIMBYs say instead is “I’m not a NIMBY! I’m in favour of housing! But I want the right kind of housing in the right places!” Which, if you’re new to this debate, may sound reasonable enough, but the problem is that if you ask a NIMBY campaigner for an example of a development project which they have supported, you won’t get an answer.
A NIMBY is not someone who openly says that they oppose all housing everywhere. A NIMBY is someone who claims to be in favour of housebuilding in the abstract, but then opposes every individual housebuilding project. A NIMBY is someone who claims to be in favour of “the right kind of housing in the right places”, but for whom the “right place” is always somewhere else, and the “right kind” is always some other kind. NIMBYism is a “revealed ideology” rather than a “stated ideology”. You do not become a NIMBY by identifying as one, but by acting like one. And since plenty of people in Britain clearly do act like one, “NIMBY” is a perfectly useful word. As is “YIMBY”.
In the third and final instalment of this blog series, we will look at where NIMBYs and YIMBYs fit into the political/ideological spectrum.
Continue to Part 3…