Government, Not Growth, is Nevada’s Problem

Doug French

To hear local politicians and pundits talk, the word “growth” is a dirty word. A Las Vegas SunLas Vegas Mercury recently: “I think the quality of life here has taken a major nosedive in the past 10 years. Excessive growth is the reason.” editorial screamed, “Literally, it’s growth plan—or bust.” George Knapp wrote in the

In response to this growth “problem,” three Clark County Commissioners—Bruce Woodbury, Mark James and Rory Reid—are now creating “a task force to address growth as a whole rather than the traditional method of separately looking at issues such as water, transportation and development.”

But, is growth a problem? Should a task force “made up of a diverse collection of residents and professionals, help determine what the Las Vegas Valley will look like in coming years?”

The number of residents living in Clark County has grown from 463,087 in 1980 to 1.62 million in 2003. This influx of people has created the supposed growth problem, since people need housing, shopping, recreation and places to work. If these elements were not in place, people might move here, but they would quickly turn around and leave.

All of the problems supposedly brought on by growth are actually problems brought on by government: Either key services are in short supply because government is the monopoly provider and is not providing those services, or private sector goods are in short supply because government is hindering the market from providing those goods.

Take, for example, traffic—the first thing people mention when asserting Southern Nevada quality of life is declining. Clearly government has not responded to the needs of the marketplace with more and better designed roadways.

Government zoning laws also contribute to traffic. “Planning is tough in this town,” architect Brandon Sprague told the R-J recently, “because everything is about the damn car.” Obtaining approvals for mixed-use projects that combine residential uses with commercial uses is nearly impossible. Government, not the marketplace, is dictating where developers build. Thus government is deciding that we must get in our cars and drive to shop or enjoy recreation. Without zoning laws, more projects such as American Nevada’s new multi-use project located at Green Valley Parkway and Paseo Verde Drive would be developed.

Uncertainty over the water supply also gets mentioned as a growth problem. Here again a government agency—the Southern Nevada Water Authority—has not responded to the marketplace. What private sector business would ever dictate that its customers use less of its product? None. Instead of just nervously praying for snow in the Colorado Rockies, the SNWA ought to use the millions in its coffers to seek out alternative supplies of water.

Columnist Steve Sebelius worries about a “shortage of cops, schools and firefighters.” All are services where the government aggressively maintains its monopolies. There is no shortage of applicants for any of these jobs. One local mayor told me that he has 1,000 applicants for every open firefighter position. However, as always with government monopolies, these services will be expensive and of poor quality. “Monopoly prices are consequential,” wrote Ludwig Von Mises in Human Action, “only because they are the outcome of a conduct of business defying the supremacy of the consumers and substituting the private interests of the monopolist for those of the public.”

The growing scarcity of affordable housing is often cited as a symptom of the Valley’s growth problem. Yet local municipalities and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) have created this problem. High demand for homes in Clark County requires that local governments nominate more acreage for public auction by the BLM—but both the nominating and the auctions seriously lag demand. Consequently, residential land prices in the past five years have increased exponentially. Plus, as fast as land prices increase, the prices of government fees and permits have grown at an equal or greater pace. Finally, the time required to gain government approval has increased dramatically, creating barriers to entry and driving up costs.

In response to the lack of affordable housing, local municipalities are considering inclusionary zoning, a Marxian approach that can only make the problem worse. 

We don’t have a growth problem in southern Nevada; we have a government problem.

As hard as they may try, local politicians will not be able to repeal the laws of supply and demand. Entrepreneurs in a free market can provide the roads, housing, law enforcement and schools that Nevada needs.

Government just needs to get out of the way.

Doug French is executive vice president of a Southern Nevada bank and a policy fellow of the Nevada Policy Research Institute