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Smart Growth for Conservatives (Part 1 of 3)

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Smart growth is too important to leave to liberals. Conservatives must articulate their own vision for creating prosperous, livable and fiscally sustainable communities.

(Part One of three — This essay has been adapted from a speech delivered at the 2012 Congress for the New Urbanism.)
Few aspects of government policy touch peoples’ lives as profoundly as transportation and land use. The built environment exerts a tremendous influence upon the cost of transportation, housing, utilities and government services as well as quality of life and the environment. The “smart growth” movement has gained momentum in recent years as Americans have sought solutions to the problems arising from the dysfunctional land use patterns commonly referred to as suburban sprawl.

Liberals have spear-headed the critique of sprawl, to their credit, and they have largely defined Smart Growth. As is their wont, however, they frequently call for top-down solutions. There’s no social problem that a good strong dose of government intervention won’t fix! Allergic to calls for bigger, stronger, more coercive government — herding people onto mass transit and into multi-family housing are the exaggerated images they react to — conservatives have thrown out the smart-growth baby with the liberal bathwater.

Big mistake. There is nothing intrinsically liberal or conservative about the idea of creating more efficient human settlement patterns that expand the range of housing and transportation options while reducing the cost of government. Rather than getting stuck defending an indefensible status quo, conservatives need to articulate their own vision in a manner consistent with conservative principles.

Conservatives! It’s time to see the light. Smart Growth is too important to leave to liberals!

So, what conservative values are we talking about? Conservatism is a diverse movement, encompassing secular libertarians, religious evangelicals and Main Street businesses, but I think it’s fair to say that most conservatives are dedicated to the following:

  • Small government. Government should focus on a few core responsibilities and do them well. Government that governs the least governs the best.
  • Low taxes. Some taxes are necessary to fund core government responsibilities but they pose a burden on citizens and, if too high, undermine economic growth.
  • Reasonable regulation. Some regulation is necessary for the protection of the public health and safety. But regulations have unintended consequences and regulators tend to get captured or gamed by special interests. Generally speaking, regulations need to be rolled back.
  • Strong property rights. A man’s home is his castle. A property owner should be allowed to do what he/she wants with her property as long as it causes no harm to others. Property owners should be properly compensated for the loss of property rights.
  • Distrust of elites. Most conservatives are of the live-and-let-live, don’t-tread-on-me variety (some social issues excepted) and they distrust the social-engineering schemes of progressives intent upon “making the world a better place.”
  • Global warming. Society needs to make reasonable investments in clean water, clean air and habitat protection. But conservatives are highly skeptical about the proposed antidotes to Global Warming, a controversy they believe is ginned up by liberals looking for an excuse to re-order the world in their image.

(Part 2 will be featured in the next issue of Jefferson Policy Journal)

This essay has been adapted from a speech delivered at the 2012 Congress for the New Urbanism.

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