Why Government Planning Always Fails

Because they can grow a tree, planners think they can plan a million-acre forest. Because they can build a house, planners think they can design an entire urban area. But there is a qualitative difference between these activities that is more than just a matter of scale.

Of course, government agencies need to plan their budgets and individual projects. They gang aft agley, however, when they write long-range plans (five to 50 years or more), comprehensive plans (plans that attempt to account for all of the various side effects of agency actions), or plans that try to control other people’s land and resources. Many plans attempt to do all three.

Who writes these plans? The Bureau of Labor Statistics says the United States has about 32,000 professional planners. About 30,000 of them belong to the American Planning Association, which says two out of three of its members work for government agencies. Most of the rest work for private consulting firms that either contract to government agencies to write specialized plans or help private developers negotiate the complicated planning mazes that must be followed to build any project.

Most professional planners graduated from a planning school that is closely affiliated with an architecture school. This gives them faith in what is known as the “physical fallacy,” the idea that urban design has a huge influence on human behavior. Planners love to paraphrase Winston Churchill by saying, “We shape our cities and then our cities shape us.” (Churchill actually referred to buildings, not cities.)

This arrogance leads planners to propose draconian rules on private property owners in the hope that such rules will reduce driving (which planners consider bad) and increase people’s “sense of community.” “The most effective plans are drawn with such precision that only the architectural detail is left to future designers,” says one popular planning guru.

Read the entire article by by Randal O’Toole on the Cato.org website.


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