Friday, July 02, 2004

Preferences or Policies?

Critics of modern American cities and Americans' overwhelming choice of suburban lifestyles like to blame peculiar U.S. policies (interstate highways, favorable tax treatment of home ownership, large-lot zoning, etc.) because they cannot concede that they are challenging the free choices of free people.

This line of attack is buttressed by breathless reports from those coming back from the Grand Tour of European capitals with the sure knowledge they have witnessed superior European lifestyles -- and, by inference, policies that we should mimic.

A good test of the assertion is to study urbanization abroad, analyzing real data rather than gossip.

A small set of research papers along these lines have been accumulating over the years. Most suggest that preferences dominate policies.

Now, Wendell Cox shows us the nature of urbanization in all of the world's "high-income" regions (U.S., Canada, Western Europe, Japan, Australia and New Zealand, Hong Kong and Israel). Growth for the areas' 101 largest metro areas shows that 96% was in the suburbs. Moreover, variation across the regions was minor, ranging from 92% of urban growth in the suburbs in Japan to 114.2% in the suburbs in Western Europe (where core city growth was negative).

Celebrated policy differences apparently matter very little. Preferences overcome them and are remarkably similar everywhere.