Thursday, June 2, 2016

Historic preservation: a tool of the chronocolonialists?

Alex Tabarrok says historic preservation laws should be abolished:
First, it’s often the case that buildings of little historical worth are preserved by rules and regulations that are used as a pretext to slow competitors, maintain monopoly rents, and keep neighborhoods in a kind of aesthetic stasis that benefits a small number of people at the expense of many others. 
Second, a confident nation builds so that future people may look back and marvel at their ancestors ingenuity and aesthetic vision. A nation in decline looks to the past in a vain attempt to “preserve” what was once great. Preservation is what you do to dead butterflies. 
Ironically, if today’s rules for historical preservation had been in place in the past the buildings that some now want to preserve would never have been built at all. The opportunity cost of preservation is future greatness.
Totally! His third point concerns a key idea in 'market urbanist' thinking, namely that our current zoning and land-use regulatory setup grants too much power to landowners to decide nearby land-use decisions (via local government institutions). The market urbanist solution basically holds that if neighbors value the architectural destruction of a building highly enough, they will all get together and purchase the property outright, ensuring its preservation.

This moral intuition seems basically correct, although an intriguing case can be made for the public good/market failure justification for the public provision of historical preservation. Most of the time, however, empowering NIMBYism is not in the public interest.

A low-density Mpls library in a hot hot residential market Source
The current historic preservation rules are overly-generous, and lead to terrible public choice and rent-seeking issues. The current system means that rich, organized folks get their neighborhoods protected, while poor, unconnected people get 'gentrified'. This is a problem, and it fuels the current unjust system of unequal housing affordability. I wouldn't go so far as to abolish the historic preservation system outright, but probably 85% of it should go go go.

I can see a world where some historic preservation is justified, but such buildings should be vastly more awesome compared to the current norm. A regulatory cap on how many buildings can be preserved each year, or perhaps a limited number of public referenda on notable destructions would work. Either way, the current system errs way too far towards preventing bad destruction in exchange for necessarily preventing good destruction. This is a classic Type I vs Type II Error issue, and current historic preservation laws are not at all close to optimal.

Are these Mpls towers historically protected? Could they be? Should they be? Source
Aside from the cost-benefit optimization policy justification for historic preservation rules (which is obviously weak), the philosophical idea is also shaky.

Tabarrok touches on the topic, and it reminded me specifically of the ongoing project to build a clock that will last for 10,000 years. Every decade or so, a brilliant young engineer comes along and develops a new, more innovative and resilient design. Surely that's the final design that will ensure long-run survival!

Not so much.

Mapping previous values and technology onto current facts is incredibly difficult, and a high level of humility is called for. Historic preservation regulations, although nomically designed to address a real cultural market failure, ultimately end up mostly benefiting NIMBYs and rich landowners.




In a future blog post I'll generalize my thoughts about the concept of chronocolonialism, and to what degree past values should influence our current values, meta-values, and value-affecting institutions.

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