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The "Defense of Privilege" Issue

Beyond the purely financial issue of winners and losers is a larger but less demonstrable issue. Much argument over environmental and planning issues is bedeviled with the question of "defense of privilege," with charges of hypocrisy by opponents of growth management and protestations of virtue by its proponents. Without trying to pass a blanket judgment over a complex situation, let us simply present an argument.

There are some goods whose enjoyment by one party does not diminish the enjoyment of comparable goods by another party. If I enjoy a fine steak, that enjoyment does not diminish your enjoyment of another steak. On the other hand, my enjoyment of a day on the ski slope may well diminish your enjoyment of your day on the slope because my presence makes the trails and the lift lines just that little more crowded for you.

When people become more prosperous, the possession of goods of the first type becomes less significant as a way of distinguishing between the affluent and the nonaffluent. Instead, the distinction increasingly becomes a matter of being able to enjoy goods and services of the second type—those whose value is lessened the more that others have access to the same or similar items. Increasingly, wealth becomes important not because it buys consumer goods but because it buys quiet, solitude, clean air, or access to relatively unspoiled nature. We can always produce more consumer goods, but the supply of mountain streams is fixed.

If one accepts this argument, it is only a short step toward seeing some environmental and planning conflict in terms of the defense of privilege. The population of a prosperous, attractive community that seeks to limit growth is simply defending its privileges. It is seeking, by means of political action, to protect or enhance the value of those goods of the second type that it now enjoys. One might say that it is using the political process to impose losses on outsiders; that is, denying them temporary or permanent access to the community.

An interesting aspect of this argument is the lineup of combatants in fights over environmental issues. Very often business and labor will be allied in favor of development, and the opposition will be largely upper-middle class, perhaps as represented by a coalition of environmental groups like the Sierra Club. The lineup of players is not hard to understand. The same project that means profit to the developer means jobs to the construction worker, and so they make common cause. The upper-middle-class opposition earns its living neither by investing capital nor by doing construction or industrial labor. If one accepts the defense of privilege argument, this class opposes the project for the reasons presented earlier.8

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