Monday, February 22, 2010

Imposing the Grid

I love hiking through the deep canyons of Southern Utah and experiencing the wide open spaces of the mountain west.

One thing that I've noticed on my outdoor excursions is that nature does not work in straight lines. Nature works in curves. Rivers dig their canyons in wide meanders. While there are some vertical cliffs caused by rocks sheering off rock walls, the majority of canyon walls have slopes with subtle curves.

In the rush to develop the West, our political leaders imposed a grid on the nation and parceled things up into regular tidy squares. This process of making things regular is called "regulation."

The grid allowed bankers on Wall Street to trade land that they had never seen. The real development of the land has always been at odds with this political grid.

For example, in the West one often find fences jutting up steep mountain slopes to fence in the artificial square printed on the map, and one will find roads or agricultural developments failing to make best use of the natural contours of the land.

If you look at backyards, you will find that all of the little square corners are usually poorly used. The square grid means people have great deal of wasted space.

While sitting on the rim of a deep desert canyon, I thought about the grid and the market. I had just been involved in an argument about the stupidity of the free market system and how the free market had caused a flawed development of the west. The person attacking the free market used the patchwork grid as a prime example.

As I stared at the patterns created the artificial grid imposed on the land by the political class in Washington DC, a thought burned to the forefront of my conscious: "Would a truly free people develop land in this artificial grid?"

I had traveled through the old world. During these international escapades, I could not help but notice that most old cities were developed in a much more organic fashion than American grid based cities. As builders optimized space, they would create buildings and walls in all sorts of bizarre curves and arches.

I finally decided that the grid system is not inherent to the free market. The grid was designed by the political class to facilitate political control of trade and taxation.

Yes, the free market latches onto the political reality. It is true that when regulators have divided the world into squares, the free market trades in squares.

However when one assesses the true value of a property, the overall topology and interconnections in the community are far more important than acreage. Realtors often repeat the observation that location is more important than acreage in determining the value of a parcel of land.

As a mathematician, I would be inclined to say that the way a piece of land fits in the topology of the community is more important than size. Location is simply a component of that topology.

The reason for this post is that many people point to the wasted land in our communities created by the imposition of the grid as an indication that the free market is inherently flawed and that we need regulation to overcome the faults of freedom.

I look at the grid and contend that the process of dividing everything into regular squares is regulation and note that it is the zoning laws that keep people from developing more organic communities.

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