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A while ago I linked to a few stories highlighting some miserable failures in urban planning in Cleveland and Pittsfield. I received several e-mails asking things like, “propose something better” and “should we let them all die?” Without discussing either of those (I will soon) allow me to make a methodological argument about the problem with even thinking about “urban planning” and why the knee-jerk antipathy to all things laissez-faire is shortsighted.

The methodological argument has to do with understanding that a chief role of a social “scientist” is to avoid making scientistic arguments (to take a term from Hayek). My point is that many of the arguments (or lack thereof, many urban planning supporters simply think that cities and our lives need to be planned, without giving further thought to the matter) in support of urban planning or at least that are skeptical of freedom are in fact scientistic arguments.

Broadly speaking, scientism is blindly applying the methodology of the natural sciences to the social sciences and think that all the same procedures and conclusions follow naturally. For example, (in the words of Bruce Caldwell) “Natural scientists typically begin with:

  • empirical regularities that they have identified among observable phenomena.
  • Then they show the regularities are the result of hypothesized elements interacting according to certain rules.
  • The movement from the macro phenomena to the hypothesized elements is a movement from the known to the unknown.

” However, in the social sciences, things are reversed. We know from our own experience that our actions are based on beliefs and perceptions. Our task is to show how such actions lead to the creation of complex but unintended social phenomena.”

The planners and other like-minded folks like modern Progressives and other collectivists completely ignore this distinction. Instead, “they seek for empirical regularities in the complex phenomena themselves.”

You can see this in the use of collectivist and Progressive language relying on various conceptions of “we” that simply do not exist. After you and I finish a conversation, there is not a third entity called “us” that is left behind. Invoking names for groups and collectives does not mean that there are definite objects corresponding to them – they are merely shorthand for “lots and lots and lots of people with something in common.”

“Indeed, these are not objects; they are simply the terms that are used in theories about social phenomena. … the error of the collectivist approach is to mistake speculative ideas for the facts of the social sciences.

(ASIDE: Hayek made a distinction between to sets of datum for the social sciences. That which he called constitutive ideas are opinions that because people actually hold them end up causing social phenomena to occur. As an example, think of why Sillibandz were selling like hotcakes and for so much money earlier this summer. That which he called speculative opinions are those that people form to explain to themselves why certain things happened. The former are the fundamental requirements for understanding human action.)

You can think of the idea of urban planning as applying speculative ideas in situations that require a respect and understanding of constitutive ideas. That subtlety seems to be lost on many of those who romanticize the state.

Thus, those in the urban planning camp believe that if something serves a human purpose it must have been designed. And as a direct corollary if something does not serve a human purpose it must have been the result of laissez-fairism.

It is not a difficult stretch to see where a little bit of pragmatic and better planning can lead to a tyrannical and despotic outcome – and certainly one that dispenses with any reasonable notion of the rule of law. Ultimately, the urban planners and others with similar mental frameworks are led to the erroneous conclusion that consciously planned institutions are always preferable to those that arise spontaneously, even without any evidence suggesting this is the case.

Thus it is this scientism that is the basis for the cacophony of ideas for planning (dressed up under the misleading heading of “change”) today. It is what gives Progressives and their supporters the engineering mindset which thinks that one only needs to solve some technological problem, and that costs are not important factors in solving problems. Further, such a technical-engineering mindset is unable to deal with the constraints of reality – a world of ever changing prices and scarcities, for they believe that such changes are unnatural, prone to manipulation, and “sand in the gears” of their great social machine.

· And this belief leads to the erroneous idea that consciously planned institutions are always preferable to those that arise spontaneously

One Response to “What Methodology Tells Us About the Ineptitude of Urban Planning”

  1. Harry says:

    You have to file that last paragraph away in your archives for one of your future books.

    Once one is a planner, even one on a municipal planning commision, it is easy to become intoxiated with power.

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