Viewpoint: On Shoe Clerks and Tennis Courts


The number of persons who understand the true stakes of politics is probably on the same order as those who understand some of the more bizarre examples of modern poetry. Even folks who know it's bad don't know what it means. Thorough familiarity with the arguments, learned and silly, which are bandied about in political debate often merely misleads you into focusing on the rationalizations for a given policy rather than on the reasons it is being pushed. It is much like going to the dictionary to look up words in a poem by Robert Kelly. You just confuse yourself because the words are not being used in their normal meanings.

Consider, for example, the long-standing fuss over land-use planning. Legislation mandating what amounts to a nationwide land-use apparatus has come within a hair of being passed. If one vote had been changed at several stages in what is laughingly called "the world's greatest deliberative process," we'd have land-use planning right now.

What is it all about? If you listen to the speeches of the planning advocates, you may be hard-pressed to know. Certainly, there is an obvious sentiment on the part of the planning profession to create more jobs for itself. But that hardly explains the massive and powerful push on behalf of land-use planning. It is another power grab centralizing clout in government and reducing the range of individual freedom in America.

But that is a descriptive truth, not an explanation. The vast majority in Congress is totally oblivious to all sides of the power issue. The Congress would no more vote for some legislation for the theoretical purpose of centralizing power than it would for the theoretical purpose of returning it to the people. So that isn't the reason that land-use planning is in vogue.

Could it be that the proponents of planning are truly convinced that their legislation will make for a better country with more economic production and cheaper, more beautiful housing for all? This is what they say. But those who have read Bernard Seigan's Land Use without Zoning realize that mounds of evidence dispute the social usefulness of governmental land-use controls. If the Congress were to do its job on that basis, it should be providing federal incentives for the repeal of local zoning laws, rather than working the other way.

So what are all of those good liberals up to? For an insight, go to a public tennis court on Sunday afternoon. Unless it's the middle of the winter and raining (and sometimes even then) you'll find folks lined up for hours waiting for a court. Most are average people who are known affectionately to the bluebloods as "shoe clerks."

In the good old days, the "shoe clerks" were too poor to play tennis. So they obviously were not clogging the courts on Sunday afternoon nor at any other time. Persons with good breeding and family wealth (the same folks who turn out so often to be liberals) had no trouble playing tennis all day if they wished.

And when the tennis was tiresome, these same good people could take a drive out to their country homes (no lines of traffic clogging the roads) and relax in bucolic splendor. What a life. They could buy a place in Vermont, for example, for a few dollars an acre and lie back like country gentry to watch the poor farmers scratch out livings in the summer. In winter, the good people came to go skiing.

But then, damnitall, the shoe clerks caught up. The union foremen and the managers of every doughnut shop in Manhattan decided that they too would like to have a wee place in the country. So they started to sneak up to Vermont to buy cabins on half-acre lots.

With demand for land rising dramatically, the native Vermont dirt farmers who had never in their lives made more than $10,000 a year suddenly discovered the possibility of becoming millionaires simply by selling out. And why not? The property tax structure was driving them to ruin anyway.

Here you see the clear origin of the push for land-use planning. It is pure class-interest legislation that benefits the good "liberals" by depriving other persons of the value of their property. Former governor Thomas Salmon of Vermont told the House Interior Committee why land-use planning is "necessary" everywhere. His comments come closer to revealing the real reason why land-use planning is popular with the "establishment" than anything spoken to date. His complaint: "The demand for land was simply extraordinary, with special emphasis on the second home syndrome.…Despite inflation, discretionary income is up."

Back in the days when the shoe clerks didn't have enough money to go buy summer homes in Vermont, no legislation was needed to keep them out. But now things are different. So land-use planning was dreamed up to "preserve irredeemable aesthetic values" that were lost every time a shoe clerk pitched his tent on a half-acre lot. The good people do not want Kew Gardens moved out to spoil the pastoral splendor of their country retreats.

As to the poor farmers, let them keep farming. It's good if they can't sell out. They owe that much to the poor of the world. There are people starving. It would be a shame to take that beautiful agricultural land with green fields and stone fences, and turn it into another tacky middle-class development. As Salmon says, we cannot sit back "idly in this country and…permit every month of every year thousands of tillable acres of land to be converted to nonagricultural uses." We can't allow "competition between the farmer…and the developer" when "this planet may face a shortage of food."

That's the amazing thing about liberals. They always seem to have the interests of the poor at heart.

James Dale Davidson is founder and chairman of the National Taxpayers Union. His book The Squeeze is being published by Simon and Schuster this month.