Without government imposing order and providing services, many believe life would not be worth living. But two local professors, one in Virginia and one in Maryland, are questioning that long-held assumption.

Both George Mason University economics professor Alexander Tabarrok and University of Maryland public affairs professor Robert Nelson contributed to "The Voluntary City," a book published by the Oakland, Calif.-based Independent Institute (www.independent.org), which challenges "the presumption that markets cannot provide adequate urban infrastructure."

That’s an "urban myth" easily dispelled by history, Tabarrok—who is also the institute’s director of research—told The Journal. "The more we study it, the more we are finding out that there are more benefits when less focus is on politics and more on economic efficiencies."

The GMU economist says a fresh look at the historical record provides ample proof that private communities built and maintained through mutual cooperation, not coercive government, are not only possible but a "historical reality."

"For example, in Great Britain during the Industrial Revolution, housing was entirely private property, from the castles right down to housing for the poor. A lot of people believe this housing, especially for the poor, was of low quality. But much of it still exists today, while public housing built in the United States during the 1950s and ‘60s is a complete shambles, and much of it had to be torn down."

Tabarrok maintains that his fellow economists have failed to account for the scope of private initiative, and their theory of "market failure" in such areas as public order, social services and education fails to include "a theory of government failure."

The book maintains that "most proposals for improving communities rely on renewed government efforts—without recognizing that the inflexibility and poor accountability of governments have often worsened society’s ills."

The voluntary city is, they argue, "a paradigm for the community of tomorrow." If that sounds fanciful to a generation accustomed to government programs covering all aspects of life, the authors contend that "all of its key pillars - the physical infrastructure, services and institutional framework that make communities liveable—have at various times and places been provided by private initiative."

In fact, U.Md.‘s Nelson argues, the spread of what he calls collective private ownership in the form of condo, homeowner and neighborhood associations "may yet prove to have as much social significance as the spread of the corporate form of collective ownership of private business property in the second half of the 19th century."

He proposes ditching existing zoning laws and establishing voluntary associations in older neighborhoods, which would benefit residents by giving voting rights to people who own property and live there, not elected politicians influenced by people who live elsewhere.

Such influence on the fine details of architecture, maintenance and other aesthetic matters by outsiders often results in a neighborhood being forced to accept something it does not want, Nelson correctly points out.

And let’s face it: In the complicated system of "bargains and exactions" in current zoning practices, which amount to "little more than zoning for sale," it’s not the wealthy who most often wind up on the short end of the stick.

This article appeared in The Northern Virginia Journal on August 21, 2002.

© The Journal Newspapers. Reprinted with permission.