My Theory of NIMBYism

As the name of this blog implies, I was motivated to be an opposing force to the NIMBYs.  As many people seem to agree, the NIMBYs are standing in the way of the progress we need to achieve as a city, state, and country.  Also, it's fun to tease the NIMBYs and laugh at the crazy things they say.  I get it.

But as I spend more time looking at these issues and trying to imagine a solution, I think we are all doing a disservice by throwing our hands up in the air and mumbling "NIMBYs, whaddya gonna do?" or becoming consumed with hatred for those that disagree with us. Because here is the thing: the NIMBYs are not the real problem.

To stay sane, my worldview has to include three key principles:  Most people are reasonable.  And most people want to be rational.  And it's reasonable and rational to act in your own self interest.  We even put it in our Declaration of Independence: we are endowed with the inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  We all want to be happy, and it's perfectly fine to pursue that goal.

The problem arises when one person acting in their own self-interest harms the community's overall best interests.  The classic example of this is the Tragedy of the Commons, where, in the absence of regulation, each person acts in their own immediate self interest, but with negative consequences for the interests of the collective community and, ultimately, every individual.  This, in part, is why we need government.

Moreover, despite their best efforts, people acting in their own self interest are sometimes irrational and often misguided by inherent biases that we all have to one degree or another.  As a general rule, people prefer the status quo to change and are scared of losing what they own even if they stand to gain even more.  We tend to believe that other people agree with us more than they actually do.  We tend to have difficulty relating to people of a different race.  We remember the past to be better than it actually was.  The list goes on and on and on.

These tendencies were perfectly exemplified in the recent rejection of housing for low-income veterans in Poway.  Several Poway residents spoke out against the development, often using horribly biased language and ignoring the actual facts.  To be clear:  this is wrong and bad.

But I was somewhat disturbed when reading the comments: people were focusing their ire and frustration on the residents, as if these NIMBYs were the problem when the real fault lies elsewhere.

If an entity has a decision-making process that can lead to bad results because of only a few irrational actors, that process is going to fail and needs to change.  The real problem in Poway is not that a few people acted irrationally.  That has always happened and will always happen.  No, the real problem is that Poway's City Council ignored the multiple, evidenced-based studies that showed no major adverse impact and instead sided with a small number of NIMBYs.     

If your solution to achieve our YIMBY goals is to convert every NIMBY or shame them into silence, you are going to fail.  Irrationality is inevitable and will always appear: we cannot allow this to result in failure.  Instead, the solution has to be building and enforcing processes that account for irrationality and misguided self-interest, attempting to communicate with and educate those acting irrationally, and building a counterforce to the irrationality if it doesn't subside.

Sure, the NIMBYs were wrong.  We don't have to agree with them and they aren't blameless.  But attacking them will not solve any problem other than making ourselves feel a little better. Too often, we allow our institutions to favor the status quo and respond to irrationality. It is far worse that we have fostered a belief that individual property owners are allowed to exert control over property they do not own to the detriment of others and our collective well-being.  It's wrong that a city council is willing to reject the scientific studies by staff and accept the uneducated opinions of a few biased individuals.  And it's wrong that our institutions amplified the voices of these few individuals while making it difficult to hear the voices of the rest of us that would have supported this housing.  But when we attack these individuals and don't demand change elsewhere, we allow the real problem to persist and set ourselves up for failure in the future.