Libertarians on the Road to Town Planning: A Note on the Views of Robert Mundell, Karl Popper, Friedrich Hayek, Robert Nozick, Milton Friedman and Ronald Coase towards Pollution

By Lai, Lawrence Wai-Chung | The Town Planning Review, September 2002 | Go to article overview
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Libertarians on the Road to Town Planning: A Note on the Views of Robert Mundell, Karl Popper, Friedrich Hayek, Robert Nozick, Milton Friedman and Ronald Coase towards Pollution


Lai, Lawrence Wai-Chung, The Town Planning Review


This paper surveys the leading works of five famous libertarian scholars, namely Mundell's Man and Economics; Popper's All Life is Problem Solving; Hayek's The Constitution of Liberty; Nozick's Anarchy, State and Utopia; Friedman and Friedman's Free to Choose; and Coase's The Problem of Social Cost, and shows that there is an apparent endorsement of government regulation of pollution by well-known critics of planning. The implications of such endorsement are discussed in terms of the resilience of town planning as a regulatory tool and the role of libertarian economic ideas for the development of the planning profession.

Given the fact that in terms of economic reasoning, modern town planning has emerged as a government activity that seeks to tackle market failure,1 which encompasses pollution, this paper has one simple objective. It provides evidence, in the words of famous passages about pollution, for the proposition that we town planners have indeed many leading and die-hard libertarians as friends, not as enemies. These 'real friends' of the planner examined here are Robert Mundell, Karl Popper, Friedrich Hayek, Robert Nozick, Milton Friedman and Ronald Coase.

To set the scene of this proposition, a brief historical survey of the key ideas of the libertarians about planning as commonly perceived is necessary. This survey commences with the debate between a planner and a libertarian on radio.

The ideas of Mundell, Popper, Hayek, Nozick, Friedman and Coase about planning as commonly perceived

MrKrueger: This book [The Road to Serfdom] is also an attack on planning. Professor Merriam, you are lecturing here right now on the relation between government and the economic order. How does the book impress you?

MrMerriam: I have been engaged in planning, now, for some 40 years- planning in Chicago, state planning, regional planning, national planning in Washington-and I have not found that our planning was leading to serfdom but rather towards freedom, towards emancipation, and towards the higher levels of human personality. I find this book is not particularly significant in our field except it tends to confusemen in regard to the meaning of planning in this country [USA].

MrKrueger: I foresee some interesting discussion here and some controversy. Your main assertion, Hayek, is that planning leads to totalitarianism. Are there any qualifications you make to that statement?

MrHayek: Surely, there are. In the way in which you use 'planning' in this discussion, it is so vague as to be almost meaningless. You seem to call all government activity planning and assume that here are people who are against all government activity. (Kresge and Wenar, 1994, 111)

The hardly friendly debate that followed the offensive opening remarks of Charles Merriam2 and Friedrich Hayek in a NBC radio discussion, 'The University of Chicago Round Table', on 22 April 1945, was not a single incident of the clash between an advocate for town planning and a libertarian.3The NBC broadcast concerned Hayek's latest book The Road to Serfdom (Hayek, 1944). In this book, Hayek warns people that even in democracies, planning may lead to the downfall of liberty of individuals. In the same year as the NBC broadcast, Barbara Wootton published her work Planning Under Freedom (Wootton, 1945). As early as 1933, in the book Town and Country Planning, Sir Patrick Abercrombie had anticipated such debate by warning against planning by 'the muddler who will talk about the Law of Supply and Demand and the Liberty of the Individual'. (Abercrombie, 1933, 26}27)

In the words of the late Professor Cherry, Wootton argued that

socialism creates conditions in which 'the wise and the public spirited' would rise to power; as with Plato's 'Philosopher Kings', they could be trusted to work wholly for the public good to administer the New Jerusalem. For the time being the pendulum of opinion stayed there, though in the same year Karl Popper, then living in New Zealand, published The Open Society and its Enemies (1945a; 1945b).

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Libertarians on the Road to Town Planning: A Note on the Views of Robert Mundell, Karl Popper, Friedrich Hayek, Robert Nozick, Milton Friedman and Ronald Coase towards Pollution
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