Whatever else one thinks of how we live these days, it’s hard to not see it as temporary, historically anomalous, a peculiar blip in human experience. I’ve spent my whole life riding around in cars, never questioning whether the makings of tomorrow’s supper would be there waiting on the supermarket shelves, never doubting when I entered a room that the lights would go on at the flick of a switch, never worrying about my personal safety. And now hardly a moment goes by when I don’t feel tremors of massive change in these things, as though all life’s comforts and structural certainties rested on a groaning fault line. ~ James Howard Kunstler
Perhaps the most compelling argument I’ve read against Walmart is the very same argument that one hears against sprawl – namely, that it is the result of a vast network of government intervention and central planning. The very nature of Walmart is one which requires a car culture, and as we all know, the car culture would not have been possible without enormous amounts of state subsidies, draconian zoning laws, and so forth. In other words, without the highway projects, the protection of the auto industry, and the many zoning practices in place in modern America, Walmart would not exist – at least in its current form. As it stands, given our car culture, given our sprawl, Walmart acts as a benefit to many consumers.
That is the stumbling block I come back to when I consider my own distaste for Walmart. In a real free market economy, sans all the government regulations and subsidies, Walmart would not even be an issue. The many more diverse and denser places in America would not wanted or needed a Walmart to come set up shop. But given the world we have created for ourselves, what is the alternative? Can we very well deny poor people one of the only places that they can afford to buy cheap goods at? Or, more to the point, should we demonize what is quite obviously a symptom of the larger problem?
Stossel defends suburban sprawl and accuses its opponents — like Kunstler — of forcing lifestyle choices onto others “by limiting where they can build.” The fallacy of this view has been pointed out about 100 times. For the 101st time: sprawl — an umbrella term for the pattern of development seen virtually everywhere in the United States — is not caused by the free market. It is, rather, mandated by a vast and seemingly intractable network of government regulations, from zoning laws and building codes to street design regulations. If Stossel wants to expand Americans’ lifestyle choices, he should attack the very thing he was defending, namely, suburban sprawl.
It’s odd that self-described libertarians such as Stossel are so slow to grasp that government planning makes sprawl ubiquitous. You would think that libertarians would instinctively grasp the deeply statist nature of suburban development. First of all, with a depressingly few exceptions, virtually every town in America looks the same. That is, it has the same landscape of arterial roads, strip malls, and residential subdivisions, accessibly only by car. Surely, given America’s celebrated diversity, you would also see a diversity of places. As it turns out, all but a few people live the same suburban lifestyle. Government, as libertarian assumptions would predict, is the culprit.
Second, the few places in America that have a distinctive character are also exceedingly expensive. John Stossel himself admits to living in an apartment and walking to work most days. Now, I don’t know where exactly Mr. Stossel lives, but it sounds as if he lives in Manhattan, where residential space costs over $1000 a square foot (that means a two-bedroom apartment where a family of four could fit costs at least $1.5 million). If Mr. Stossel’s lifestyle, as he puts it, is less popular than the suburban lifestyle, then why does his cost so much more? He apparently never asks himself the question. Had he done so, he might have discovered that government artificially restricts the supply of Manhattan-like places but artificially increases the supply of sprawl. That’s the reason Americans “prefer” to live in the suburbs. They don’t have a choice.
At this point ‘choice’ becomes a very tricky thing indeed. Now that we’ve been, essentially, pushed into the suburbs – where cars and big boxes are simply a matter of life – what should we do about it? Should we choose somehow to limit the existence of these big boxes? Would this help us in our addiction to vehicular transport? Many of the restored walkable communities around the country are either prohibitively expensive or Disney-fied versions of the America that once was. Those who benefit the most from Walmart and its big box counterparts in this sprawling world of ours are also the poorest among us. Would they benefit, also, from some other world? I think so – but getting there is fraught with danger.
To put an end to the sprawl by mandating its destruction… Far more sensible and humane, I think, to limit the government that has brought us here instead. Quit subsidizing roads as heavily, quit subsidizing fossil fuels, work to reform zoning laws across the country to allow more freedom, mixed zoning (a term we now use to describe simply how places used to be built) and other ways to remove the artificial influence of the state from how we build America. At this point – so intractable is the mess we find ourselves in – I’m not sure how it can be done. The infrastructure of sprawl stretches over everything now, a vast web of concrete and sameness. The year I lived in Denver drove this home for me, as does every trip to Phoenix. “There’s no place like home,” has become my mantra whenever I’m in other places.
And people have come to like the sameness. Even I take some comfort in it. Or else it has simply become easier for us to stay at the Motel 8 than to find the local establishment. Norman Bates would never work at a Motel 8. I don’t begrudge Starbucks or Barnes & Nobles. I just prefer the local joints, the used book stores, the organic landscape of an America without such cheap gas and such abundant roads. We have imagined ourselves a much more boring, repetitive America.
One last point – there was really never going to be an extraordinarily strong central government in this country without this sort of interstate network of roads we have built (nor such strong corporations, for that matter). However haphazard our sprawl has been, it was no accident.