Two friends independently linked me to YCombinator’s “New Cities” blog post and it interested me enough that I thought to write about it in brief. The idea of a new city started “from scratch” excites me as an advocate of the private property society. I have a hard time imagining how my preferred values and ideas for peaceful, voluntary social arrangements will come to be implemented incrementally within the existing coercive institutions we call “city governments”. Starting with a bare plot of land, wholly-owned by one or more sympathetic parties and going from there seems like the only viable option for realizing this ideal and building a working model.
I was excited, then, to see that some well-known and resourceful people in the Silicon Valley VC community seem to be on to the same idea. But then I started reading their short post and I ended up with a lot of questions, the primary one being “What are they really trying to accomplish with this?”
I’m having trouble trusting their motives as sincere because of this: if they’re trying to build new cities, and they think they need to conduct “research” to figure out things like…
- How can we make and keep housing affordable? This is critical to us; the cost of housing affects everything else in a city.
- How can we lay out the public and private spaces (and roads) to make a great place to live? Can we figure out better zoning laws?
- What is the right role for vehicles in a city? Should we have human-driven cars at all?
- How can we have affordable high-speed transit to and from other cities?
- How can we make rules and regulations that are comprehensive while also being easily understandable? Can we fit all rules for the city in 100 pages of text?
- What effects will the new city have on the surrounding community?
…they could prop open a free copy of Rothbard’s Man, Economy and State, Scholar’s Edition (with Power and Market) and start reading the basic economic theory underlying these questions, with special emphasis on the sections about “The Economics of Violent Intervention in the Market” which specifically deal with the problems they mention which relate to artificial scarcity of housing, zoning laws, street use permitting, mass transit policies and legislative efficiency. All the brainwork has been done for them, there is no need to reinvent the wheel and “discover” these effects independently if only they will consider what Rothbard has to say on the matter.
In fact, anyone who has read such material would immediately look at the “high-level questions” the YC Research project hopes to think through and notice the flawed premises evident in asking them. For example, asking “What should a city optimize for?” implies a city has some kind of monolithic identity and singular purpose, rather than being an unplanned, spontaneous outcome of the individual plans and values of the multitude of people who compose it. In asking the wrong questions, this project is doomed to arrive at arbitrary answers that are worse than wrong– they will be unknowledge which will set people back in believing it to be true and acting on it.
I don’t expect anyone at YCombinator or the research project to take a concern like this seriously, because I don’t believe their stated motivation is authentic. If it was, I would expect them to study the conclusions of 350+ years of economic pondering on these very unoriginal curiosities before proceeding with their experiment, which will never happen.
So my question remains. What are they really trying to accomplish with this? (And their Basic Income research project, which almost seems like expertly engineered trolling for the same reason I question the motivation of this New Cities project.)