Government plans don’t work
After more than 30 years of reviewing government plans, including forest plans, park plans, watershed plans, wildlife plans, energy plans, urban plans, and transportation plans, I’ve concluded that government planning almost always does more harm than good. Most government plans are so full of fabrications and unsupportable assumptions that they aren’t worth the paper they are printed on, much less the millions of dollars taxpayers spend to have them written. Governments should repeal planning laws and shut down planning offices.
Everybody plans. But private plans are flexible, and we happily change them when new information arises. In contrast, special interest groups ensure that the government plans benefiting them do not change — no matter how costly.
Like any other organisation, government agencies need to plan their budgets and short-term projects. But they fail when they write comprehensive plans, long-range plans, or plans that attempt to control other people’s land and resources. Comprehensive plans fail because forests, watersheds, and cities are simply too complicated to understand. Chaos science reveals that tiny differences in initial conditions can lead to differences in outcomes — that’s why mega projects go over budget.
Long-range plans fail because planners have no better insight into the future than anyone else, so their plans will be as wrong as their predictions are. Planning of other people’s land and resources fails because planners will not pay the costs they impose on other people, so they have no incentive to find the best answers. Professional planners graduating from schools that are closely affiliated with colleges of architecture, gives them an undue faith in design. This means many plans put enormous efforts into trying to control urban design while they neglect other tools that could solve social problems at a much lower cost.
Some of the worst plans today are so-called growth-management plans prepared by states and metropolitan areas. They try to control who gets to develop their land and exactly what those developments should look like, including their population densities and mixtures of residential, retail, commercial, and other uses. “The most effective plans are drawn with such precision that only the architectural detail is left to future designers,” says a popular planning book.
Few people realise that the recent housing bubble in the US, which affected mainly regions with growth-management planning, was caused by planners trying to socially engineer cities. Yet it has done little to protect open space, reduce driving, or do any of the other things promised. Politicians use government planning to allocate scarce resources on a large scale. Instead, they should make sure that markets — based on prices, incentives, and property rights — work.
Unlike planners, markets can cope with complexity. Futures markets cushion the results of unexpected changes. Markets do not preclude government ownership, but the best-managed government programmes are funded out of user fees that effectively make government managers act like private owners. Rather than passing the buck by turning sticky problems over to government planners, policymakers should make sure markets give people what they want. — The Christian Science Monitor