Modern-day Luddites

by | Nov 7, 2022

Modern-day Luddites oppose a different type of progress—gentrification.

In the early nineteenth century, textile workers in Britain burned mills and destroyed equipment to protest the increasing use of machinery. The machines were displacing them, allowing lower skilled workers to produce textiles more efficiently than previous methods. The Luddites, as the protesters were called, were opposed to the progress that technology was making possible.

Modern-day Luddites oppose a different type of progress—gentrification. They denounce the investors and developers who transform crime-ridden, impoverished neighborhoods into safe, vibrant communities. They decry the displacement of incumbent residents who can no longer afford to live in the more affluent neighborhood.

Displacement is part and parcel of progress. Textile workers were displaced by machines. Candle makers were displaced by the manufacturers of kerosene lamps, who were then displaced by the manufacturers of electric light bulbs. Print newspapers and magazines were displaced by the Internet. Such is the nature of progress.

Progress moves all of mankind forward, including those who are displaced. Kerosene lamps provided better and cheaper illumination for everyone, including former candle makers. The electric light bulb provided even better and less expensive illumination for everyone, including those who previously made kerosene lamps. New products have always displaced those who made the old products. Such is the nature of progress.

In the realm of production, progress means more than just creating new products. It also means using resources more efficiently and effectively. Appliances that use less electricity represent progress. Automobiles that can travel further on a gallon of gasoline represent progress. Using land in a more efficient and effective manner represents progress. And using land more efficiently and effectively is precisely what gentrification does.

In cities across the nation, demand for housing closer to a city’s downtown has increased. But land—a necessary component of housing—in a neighborhood exists in a finite quantity. To meet the growing demand for housing, developers and builders put more housing units on a parcel of land. For example, where a single-family home once stood, they might build multiple townhomes. They use the land more efficiently and effectively. This process often displaces many incumbent residents. Such is the nature of progress.

But this displacement is often beneficial to those who are displaced. The incumbent property owners often get a windfall when gentrification occurs. The house they occupy is virtually worthless, but the land it sits upon is valuable. That value was not created by their actions, but by the efforts of the gentrifiers that they decry. The property owners benefit simply because they own land in a desirable location. However, as with any form of change, there are those who do not necessarily benefit.

Rising rents in a gentrifying neighborhood often displaces tenants who can no long afford the higher prices. While this is unfortunate, renting is a trade of values. And like any trade, it is subject to the laws of supply and demand. Displaced tenants are not deprived of anything that is rightfully theirs. They have simply been priced out of the market. And that market is driven by the choices of existing property owners, developers, and investors.

Property owners, developers, and investors engage in trade when they believe that they will benefit. They are simply trying to improve their lives, and they are doing so in a voluntary, mutually beneficial manner. The anti-gentrifiers seek to stop these voluntary trades through intimidation and government edicts—through force or the threat thereof. Like the Luddites of nineteenth-century Britain, they seek to use coercion to achieve what they cannot do through voluntary means.

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Brian Phillips is the founder of the Texas Institute for Property Rights. Brian has been defending property rights for nearly thirty years. He played a key role in defeating zoning in Houston, Texas, and in Hobbs, New Mexico. He is the author of three books: Individual Rights and Government Wrongs, The Innovator Versus the Collective, and Principles and Property Rights. Visit his website at texasipr.com.

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