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This post will ruin your property values

Slacktivist references an all-too-common outcry, in response to a proposal to build a mobile home park: "It will ruin our property values!" It's a common complaint, whenever some development is planned that the neighbors don't like -- "You can't build a homeless shelter or a halfway house, it would ruin our property values!" "I hope those people don't move in, because it would ruin our property values!" "Don't dry your clothes in the free Arizona sun, or put up a sign supporting a candidate -- it might ruin someone's property values!"*

In the modern industrialized world, our society is a market society. The common way to complain about this is to say people are just too greedy and selfish, too focused on making and spending money to care about the things that really matter in life and the true meaning of Christmas. But I think that's one of the more shallow critiques of the market's functioning in our society. The property values complaint reveals one of the deeper issues.

What the market does in our society -- as any other hegemonic institution, like Church or The Party, would -- is enable us to turn responsibility over to it, to launder our prejudices and anxieties through its objective and inarguable logic. "It's not that I'm against having that in my neighborhood," we say, "but other people aren't so enlightened, and therefore they wouldn't want to buy my house, so my property value will go down. And I have a right to protect my property value." The market becomes an instrument of social control, a powerful reason to oppose improvements beneficial to those lower on the ladder but perhaps only diffusely (if at all) to oneself, an incorporeal IT defending our little piece of Camazotz.

And the thing is, we may be perfectly sincere. Slacktivist is too glib when he chalks up property value talk to the mobile-home-park-opponent's asshattery. If it were just asshattery -- an effect of a consciously antisocial personality disposition -- the cry of property values wouldn't be so common. What we're dealing with is a structural phenomenon. The modern market system makes it perfectly rational for many people, whose lives are dependent on the massive investment they've sunk into their homes, to bow to the prejudices of the masses (or at least assumed prejudices -- there's a serious potential for emperor's new clothes-type collective action problems in basing your valuation of something on how you assume others will value it).

The larger point here is that social dysfunction is not a matter of bad individuals doing bad things -- as easy as it is to slip into this way of thinking**. It's a matter of social structures -- patterns of human interaction -- that make it perfectly rational, even justifiable, for individuals to do things that are bad when taken in a broader perspective. So what's needed is people who can stand up and ask that we (collectively) challenge the way the situation is set up, rather than simply looking for the best way to navigate within it -- to do something irrational for the sake of morality.

*I wish we had a punctuation mark that would be something like a "paraphrase mark" or "ersatz-quotation mark" -- to be used to signal that something represents another's voice without implying that you're using their exact words (or even that they would necessarily approve of the interpretation you're making of their position).

**Many social theorists would blame this kind of thinking on the market or Western liberalism, but I think it's wider and more basic than that (indeed the causality may even run the other way). For that reason, I don't fall in with the camp that says simply getting rid of markets is either possible or a solution.


Blogger Alon Levy said...

I suspect there's more than just prejudice at work. Projects that enhance property values, like mass transit, draw fire from NIMBYs as well. Often you get NIMBYism from people who don't own their homes, who instead voice concerns about crime, noise, neighborhood character, or infrastructure. As with property values, these concerns are often specious. The infrastructure argument is currently used to block upzoning in a Brooklyn neighborhood where the subway runs at less than half capacity.

I chalk it up more to risk-averse behavior and bargaining. Most people accept the risks associated with where they live, and almost all long-time residents, who carry the most weight in community activism, by definition do. The risks associated with change not only are unknown but also haven't been accepted by the residents. They're also usually induced by outsiders or people who look like outsiders. In New York it's typically a developer who wants to make millions off of condos and in Irvine it's usually a homeowner who wants to paint his house in a different color from everyone else, but the principle is the same.

8:25 AM  
Blogger Alon Levy said...

On another note, I've just discovered a paper that argues that NIMBYism is a form of insurance against the possibility, however unlikely, that new development will reduce property values. It doesn't offer much evidence that renters are less likely to be NIMBYs, but the other points are well-taken.

9:45 AM  
Blogger ogre said...

It's a part of the social question that often doesn't get asked: Who benefits, and who pays for it?

In the development model... the developer does. There are a few token benefits that are offered to sweeten the pot to the society (and its decision makers), and the people who pay for it get to go hang. Yet when it's something huge in some Third World nation like a dam that's going to displace many thousands, we *expect* that they will be provided for, compensated. Same's true--sort of--here. But the compensation is almost always at artificially reduced rates (again, who pays?). Our models and expectations are screwy.

Stentor, having observed the need, it's time to push into common net usage some sort of punctuation. I think I'd recommend hash marks.

#Don't dry your clothes in the free Arizona sun, or put up a sign supporting a candidate -- it might ruin someone's property values!#

It sort of acknowledges that one's making a hash of it, but even so....

9:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


10:42 AM  

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