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Though often skeptical about the benefits of government intervention, I am by nature an optimistic person. Indeed, I consider my skepticism and optimism to be two sides of the same coin.
Experience and evidence have convinced me that, generally speaking, human beings possess the capacity to solve many kinds of problems by voluntary means — by persuasion, negotiation, and market exchange.
Governments are surely necessary to enforce rules and provide certain public goods. However, with regard to the vast improvement in living standards during the past two and a half centuries of human history — beginning first in Northwestern Europe in the 18th century and then expanding across most of the globe by the late 20th century — the primary actors in this amazing story were inventors, innovators, investors, merchants, and laborers engaged in private enterprise.
Some would grant my historical case but argue that the experience of the early 21st century teaches a different lesson, that today’s young people in America and elsewhere aren’t going to see anything like the same gains in human welfare that their parents, grandparents, and ancestors did.
A deep pessimism may well explain the origins of new populist movements on both the Right and the Left. I still think a great deal of it is untethered from reality. But the pessimists do make some valid points. Many of them involve housing.
Over the past two decades, average consumer prices in the U.S. rose about 58 percent. Average wages went up quite a bit more than that, more than 80 percent, so it isn’t the case that living standards have stagnated. But averages don’t convey the full picture.
By definition, there will be some goods and services for which prices rise faster than the average price level and others for which they rise slower or even decline. According to analysis by Mark Perry, an American Enterprise Institute scholar and professor at the Flint campus of the University of Michigan, the four big categories of goods and services with faster-than-average inflation have been health care, higher education, child care, and housing.
Progressives and conservatives disagree at least to some extent about the implications. Progressive argue government must intervene either to control these costs directly or to socialize them so low- and moderate-income people will have access. Conservatives point out that government has already been massively involved in these sectors for decades, distorting the market and inflating costs.
I’ve come to believe that the best example for the conservative case may be housing. It is a mismatch problem. On average, incomes have gone up faster than housing prices. But builders are producing disproportionately more houses and apartments aimed at upper-income people than they are capacity for those of low and moderate incomes.
It’s not as if you can’t make money at lower price points. As a Brookings Institution study of the Washington, D.C. market showed, the availability and affordability of housing varies quite a lot. The market still works pretty well in some places. But in others, regulatory impediments help to produce housing haves and housing have-nots. “Where zoning allows high-density apartments, developers build,” the Brookings authors observed. “Where zoning bans apartments, little new housing gets added.”
Conservatives and progressives may continue to disagree about to what extent government should intervene with public housing, rent vouchers, and other housing subsidies. But surely we can all agree to dismantle regulatory barriers that make it artificially expensive to build houses and apartments, including in some of our own state of North Carolina’s fastest-growing cities.
Perhaps wishing for such a consensus on housing affordability marks me as an irrepressible optimist. Guilty as charged, I suppose.
John Hood (@JohnHoodNC) is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on “NC SPIN,” on UNC-TV.