NIMBYism, Technocracy, and Democracy: When do we let people and communities make decisions that might be bad policy?
by New Dealer
Matt Yglesais writes about a fight that happened in his D.C. neighborhood recently. One group called Shaw DuPont Citizens Alliances wanted a moratorium on liquor licenses in the neighborhood. A counter group called In My Back Yard-D.C. wanted more liquor licenses and seems to have won the battle for now. Matt Yglesais is elated and – as only he can be – is absolutely dismissive of any argument that is not economic or pro-growth.
I have always had issues with NIMBYism as an argument because it tends to be one of those things that it is very easy to hurl at your enemies and opponents and not realize your own limits. I am an advocate of mixed-use zoning as well but there are limits and I am rather sure that Matt Yglesais would be upset if someone opened a glassworks, forgery, or slaughterhouse next to his home.
The example above is one that is hyperbolic, but I hope it still brings out the point that we need to have a more honest conversation when it comes to NIMBYism. I live in a similar urban community to Matt, and a few blocks away there are plenty of bars and restaurants with liquor licenses – including a few that have licenses for street drinking. I am largely okay with this but they do create a nuisance, especially during the wee hours of a weekday morning when people are trying to sleep and you are dealing with very drunk twenty-somethings howling like banshees through the streets. Or when you see a bunch of empty beer bottles and 40s on the street in the morning. I can see why wanting a limited number of bars in a community is a good thing.
Neo-liberals and technocratic types tend to favor policies based on what they perceive to be as being pro-growth (in an economic sense) or good data. The problem is that people are not Vulcans and we often have preferences and desires that are not based on economics or data but on more simple emotions, both good and bad. This often leads to the neo-liberal and technocratic set seeming to be vaguely anti-Democracy. It is often hard to read a column by Matt Y and not wonder if he thinks “Damn, those pesky voters. If it were not for them I would be in white-paper and good policy heaven.” You could see a similar dynamic in those who supported Mayor Bloomberg’s recently defeated soda-ban.
My question is when do we allow communities and people to make decisions that are not proper policy but are a matter of personal preference or majority will? Obviously the tyranny of a majority should not be used to oppress or attack minorities: religious, ethnic, gender, sexual, national, political, etc. However, I don’t see why it is so horrible for a city or neighborhood to say that they do not want more bars and to make a decision that is not economic in nature but based on desires that are less quantifiable like quality of life and peacefulness. Matt’s view won the day in his neighborhood and that is fine but he seems a bit disturbed that other places would decide differently.
So League, when do you think we should let people and communities make decisions that are not necessarily good policy? Or at the very least are not economically based decisions?