What the hell is any of this for?

It is my understanding that we, as a society, decide to have laws to serve one of two purposes. Either a law is written to attempt to protect citizens and their property from random acts of violence (what I suppose some theorists might call “a monopoly on the means of violence”), or it is written to protect citizens from the negative consequences of their fellow citizens’ actions (in Economics speak, “negative externalities”).

An example of the first is murder. Murder is illegal because it is morally wrong, sure, but it’s also illegal because none of us would want to live in a society in which anyone can be murdered with impunity. Just ask people in Ferguson. An example of the second is speeding: the act of speeding may not inflict harm on either the driver doing the speeding or on anyone around him at the time, however, if everyone drove as fast as they could, our roads would be much more dangerous and we’d all suffer as a result.

As I learn more and more about Austin’s–and, really, every other city’s–building codes and zoning restrictions, I’m increasingly starting to wonder which of these purposes these rules serve. If you look at Austin’s 100-page “Zoning Guide” (a handy PDF published by the city), you’ll find that the city has very specific laws governing how far your property is from the curb, how far it is from your neighbor’s house, what the allowed square footage of the lot is, how much of the lot can be covered by buildings (of course, only certain things count as buildings, while other things that you might think of as buildings don’t)… and on, and on, and on. The level of granularity and complexity in the building code is kind of astonishing, and as I read it, I can’t help but wonder: what the hell is any of this for?

I’m sure that anyone wanting to support the existence of a building code (and by this I mean anyone who wants to defend it for reasons other than wanting not to bite the hand that feeds) could make the argument that it falls into the second category, namely, that it protects us from the negative consequences of our neighbors’ actions. But, the thing is that every city in the nation–and Austin is no exception–has at least one part of town that was constructed before it adopted any building codes. These neighborhoods are usually thought of as the most charming, desirable parts of town to live in, and not only because they’re close to downtown. Part of their charm is in their non-compliance, the fact that they were built at a time before people constructed every building to excruciatingly exacting standards.

Right now, the city of Austin is going through the process of rewriting its Land Development Code, and that’s probably a good thing. The current state of affairs is far too complex to no good purpose, and that’s really bad for everyone.


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