Stupidity of the Extremes

Civilizations are built on cities, not on small isolated or rural communities. Even the word “civilization” is based on the Roman word for city, not the Greek, possibly because the Greeks never built a true unified civilization – only cities and a semi-shared culture. Given human nature, cities require rules, as do large cultures and civilizations.

Some of those rules have to be authoritarian, or cities and civilizations will collapse. The idea behind this is the public good, often expressed as the maximum good for the most people, without creating actual physical harm to the minority. We don’t allow the “freedom” to shoot people you don’t like, or to dump garbage anywhere or force people to breathe toxins or drink poisoned water [or at least we didn’t].

Because rules for the maximum good infringe on everyone’s behavior, such rules should be applied to preventing those actions which could harm the most people. That’s why laws against murder and theft or requiring clean air and water and vaccinations against diseases that could kill millions are a good idea.

It’s also why zoning laws that prohibit modest dwellings anywhere in a municipality or town are a very bad idea – simply because most people aren’t well-off and that includes most of the people who provide basic services. So, as could have been predicted, such zoning increases homelessness, imposes huge burdens on low income earners, and increases the costs of doing business.

As in everything, a middle course works better. If you over-regulate, you get less progress, less innovation, higher costs, and, in the end, a lower standard of living for everyone but the very wealthy. If you under-regulate, you get more deaths, more monopolies, less progress, less innovation, higher costs, and, in the end, a lower standard of living for all but the rich.

Neither extreme freedom nor extreme regulation works well. History shows this fairly convincingly… if one bothers to look closely and carefully.

And yet, today, the United States seems polarized into the extremes, neither of which provides the maximum good for the greatest number.

10 thoughts on “Stupidity of the Extremes”

  1. Joe says:

    I agree in principle. In practice, it depends on the quality of the regulation.

    Unfortunately, we can’t just use maximum-likelihood-expectation to determine what regulations would maximize well-being for most people. Instead we have to talk to each other.

    In practice, this requires that the sense making institutions of the country provide a good understanding of the entire problem to be solved by regulation. If that occurs, only the few people who would benefit from different regulations would want to disagree, and their arguments would appear hollow to everyone else. Thus consensus would form around these regulations.

    Similarly, the regulatory institutions need to care that the regulations they enforce are supported by public consensus.

    Unfortunately, our sense-making institutions are currently incentivized to create division, not consensus. (e.g. selling subscriptions to people who want their point of view validated). That’s why there is so much polarization, and misinformation.

    (One way to see this, a little, is to read both sides of the media. Even so, most of reality isn’t visible from the Overton window.)

    Our institutions also seem incentivized to act poorly: asset forfeiture abuse, unjust fines, NSA surveillance, gerrymandering, useless military operations (looks like the Taliban are back in Afghanistan), torture, etc.

    Given this situation, good regulations will rarely arise. And bad regulation also benefits the rich. Our civilization could well be in trouble.

  2. Michael Creek says:

    I understand the motives behind eliminating regulations proscribing “modest dwellings”. I take this to mean higher density housing on smaller lots or even high rise developments.
    I can suggest one exception to this. This would be historically or artistically unique areas of a city. One of the joys of visiting Miami is wandering the streets looking at all the buildings that were built in the Art-Deco style and have been lovingly maintained in that style for almost a century.

  3. Hanneke says:

    This sounds a bit like some of the things StrongTowns talk about, how zoning regulations (in large swathes, 60 to >80% of most towns) prohibiting building anything other than detached single-family homes while prescribing high levels of parking provisions even in walkable town centers and near transit stations are leading to unaffordable housing and bankrupting towns.
    See this series of short videos by NotJustBikes explaining these StrongTown concepts, about the regulations which hinder American towns from becoming financially stable, attractive and future-proof:

    There needs to be more generalization of zoning rules allowing for “gentle density”, i.e. building duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes, and some mid-level (3-4 stories high) appartment buildings, perhaps allowing small business use on the ground floor.
    See here for a short explainer on the “missing middle”:

    And the rules about minimum parking space provided per dwelling on each lot need to be made a lot less stringent, as it makes it very hard to build cheaper appartments for people who want to live near transit, don’t own a car or can’t drive (anymore).

    There is however a need for a formal legal/regulatory minimum quality for anything sold or rented as human-habitable dwellings, regarding the minimum square feet per person, access to daylight, clean water, and electricity (or other forms of light and cooking) and sewage disposal, ceiling & door height, healthy air (no mold infestations) etcetera. In London they’ve let all such minimal demands go for developers changing offices to flats, and it is resulting in tiny uninhabitable one-room slums which will cause severe problems to the community in a very short while.

    In such places, where overseas investors drive up the prices and use the buying, building and remodelling of houses (that they may rarely or never live in, so often driving out local businesses like bakers and groceries that depend on local customers, as well as less-affluent locals needing a place to live) as a way of whitewashing illegal money or buying a citizenship, it might make more sense to cool down the overheated housing market by regulating this external excess.

    To address Michael Creek’s point:
    Towns with historic districts need to have an ordinance whereby they can designate certain parts of town, or specific streets or buildings to be *”protected historical districts or street views, or monumental buildings”* – any changes to buildings that would change the look from the street, or detract from the monumental buildings’ authenticity, needs to be okayed by a planning commission in which the local historical society is represented. This means tgat for a protected street view, as long as tge facades remain intact, the interior or back elevation can usually be changed and modernised. For individual monumental buildings, protection goes further. Sometimes one can get permission to gut the interior and build appartments inside, as long as the exterior shell remains (nearly) unchanged, but sometimes it means a lot of discussion about whether you can get permission to electrify the kitchen on a 16th century monument (e.g. if it’s one of the last authentic examples left in the state).

  4. R. Hamilton says:

    Even I’m not arguing for zero regulations, merely arguing that we’ve gone way out of balance toward rewarding breeding more than producing (paying the unproductive to have more kids, letting in illegals), too high density, any in part because of those, far too much regulation. High density cities are vulnerable to natural disaster, man-made disaster (infrastructure failure, attacks, large-scale disorder). We were competitive when our population was 200 million people (1967); at the present 328 million, we certainly don’t need more except of the best and brightest with skills in short supply. Sheer numbers of the useless, not failure to spend more collectively, are putting the non-useless at risk.

    But your suggestions don’t fully address the massive homelessness in certain cities. That’s a combination of climate that one can mostly survive homeless (Phoenix sees a seasonal influx, it’s tough there in summer unless one stays in shade and drinks lots of water, but very mild in winter), with some, however marginal, tolerance of homelessness and the sort of crime that typically comes with large-scale homelessness.

    Homelessness is more about mental health issues and addiction than about high cost of living (which in high-cost areas isn’t just housing costs, either). Those contribute to the failure of public housing, too.

    Rather than more compulsory collectivism, voluntary charity, and as a last resort, not preventing all Darwin Awards, have their place too.

    Some very brief remarks about the greatest good of the greatest number are here:

    1. Tom says:

      Michael Shermer’s argument turns from the societal to the individual, as expected from a skeptic. This concept may work well outside of a group but since we are not considering wearing a mask as martyrdom the extreme Skepticism of the 21 Century is not applicable.

  5. Grey says:

    One thing to note, is invariably it seems that whether there is low regulation or high regulation is driven by which outcome benefits the wealthy and empowered.

    1. R. Hamilton says:

      You could also say that the wealthy who stay wealthy (built their fortune themselves or built on what they inherited) have the means to have advisors capable of helping them grow their wealth in up or down markets, or under more or less regulation.

      Regular folks would do it too if they could; some regular folks that are nearly wealthy know how to do as much of that as they can.

      1. Grey says:

        Of course that’s true, but it sidesteps the issue, which is laws and regulations being written as a roadmap for legalized evasion.

        Ever wonder why after the S&L crisis, over a thousand people went to jail on felonies [1] but in the financial crisis of the 2000s, no one did? It’s not because of prosecutorial cojones lacking in recent times, it’s because the laws were changed and none of what they did was actually illegal, however risky it might’ve been. (Not to mention how the losses were socialized when the profits of course were private.)

        So here, I am less concerned about the person has done well from themselves, and has an advisor who really knows the bond markets, or whatever. I’m focused, for example, on multinational corporations and the deracinated ultra wealthy who are detaching themselves from the restraints of nation states (whether regulations or taxes) while profiting from the markets they provide.


  6. zach says:

    I have observed that western society seems to be polarising into extremes. I suspect the rise of social media plays has large in this.
    100 years ago people rarely moved and interacted with people in their physical neigbourhood. This meant they dealt with people of different socialeconomic groups and with different philosophies.
    30 years people moved more frequent and tended to move into neighbourhoods of similar people but still had to deal with people who had diffetent views.
    Today with social media people only need to deal with people who have same views. Not only but in the rush to be noticed and valued in the group they belong to they need to stand out. The only way the standout is by being more extreme. and never listening to other views.

    1. Tom says:

      Western societies/nations are dividing into extremes but so are the nations of other parts of the world. The difference is often that the divisions are not allowed to persist openly in other than democratic systems of government.

      It seems as if democracies have lost their appeal; perhaps through systemic self-destruction or just the appeal autocracy has to lazy people.

      I am starting to wonder if one is given the choice of kleptocracy, theocracy, or stratocracy that perhaps kleptocracy is less likely to cause as much pain as the alternatives. But then we would get Trump and an incompetent any-system is bad for everyone.

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