Liberty through Sustainable Development

For the sake of argument, let’s assume we agree that members of our community, whether or not they own property, deserve the liberties of free speech, religious choice, voting in elections, privacy in their homes, freedom from fear of bodily harm by thugs operating outside the rule of law, due process under the law, and honesty in business dealings and contractual agreements. We agree that these liberties are good things, things we want protected, enforced, and available in our community, things that we agree would make us worse off if they were lost or degraded.  These things define our community; a condition of membership in our community is to respect these liberties.

Now allow me to describe some other things that I want to define our community.  I want there to be a convenient transportation system that reduces our dependence on petro-dictators and our need to spend so much of our blood and treasure on defense. I want good schools, shopping, recreation, and employment opportunities nearby, ideally within walking or biking distance.  I want careers for our children that provide them dignity, and ideally the opportunity to stay in our community, should they want to.  I want to reduce the risks of the worse-case, catastrophic consequences of climate change.  I want the soil, water, farms, forests, rivers, and aquifers in our region to be healthy so that our children continue to enjoy the life-support ecological services they provide free of charge. I want to sustain the biodiversity—whether created by evolution or God matters not—that, because of civilization’s success, now requires our stewardship.  To take or degrade these things is to take or degrade things I value and hence deny me the liberty to pursue the good life as I define it.

Allow me to argue further that these things I just described are produced by smart growth and sustainable development.  If you use your property in ways that are inconsistent with sustainable development and smart growth principles, you are taking away my liberties.

Enough of us agree that freedom of speech and religion, justice, honesty and other values described in the first paragraph are good things, so much so that we willingly fight wars to protect them, tax ourselves to enforce them, and restrict what we do with our property so as not to degrade them.  We argue amongst ourselves over the nuances of how to translate these ideals into practice, but we don’t question the basic liberties.

If the majority of people in our community want, as I do, land uses reflecting smart growth principles, then people in that community must develop their properties in accordance with those principles, otherwise they are harming liberty.  Respecting smart growth principles, like respecting free speech, becomes a condition of living in the community.

Yes, sustainable development can limit a property owner’s opportunities for economic gain.  Some will argue that in these cases the property owner must be compensated financially, but I disagree.  We do not compensate people for economic opportunities lost by respecting free speech, honesty, or the rule of law.  Respecting these things is a condition of living in our community.  These liberties, established through democracy and enforced through governance, set the boundaries within which economic activity and profit making occur.

Public debate about sustainable development and smart growth is heated because it is a debate about the core ideals and liberties that define our community.   We should expect emotions to be on display and expect our beliefs to be challenged.  We are confronting difficult decisions that define who we are and who we want to become.  Public debate about these issues is a necessary part of our functioning and growth as a community.  Let’s not disguise or derail these debates with confused rhetoric about property rights.  Let us debate the real issues before us.

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Hull is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability
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