By S.D. Plissken | October 24, 2019
Last Monday’s Milton Board of Selectmen (BOS) meeting featured an interesting and exceedingly rare split vote, or it would have, had it come to a vote.
Correspondents have sent me recently a variety of articles about official projections of New Hampshire’s population over the next decade or so. New Hampshire’s population is both aging and declining.
The total New Hampshire state population is projected to be 1,432,730 in 2040, an increase of 116,260 or 8.8 percent from the 2010 Census population of 1,316,470 (RLS, 2016).
That is a projected net increase of only 116,260 (8.8%) over a period of thirty years, i.e., more than a generation. Most of that net increase will be a result of people moving into the state from elsewhere. New Hampshire’s congressional representation will drop from two US Representatives to only one in or after 2040. Yes, there will be more US Senators from New Hampshire than US Representatives.
How might this affect Milton? Let us step through it logically. The few incoming people will not distribute themselves evenly across the land area of New Hampshire. They will settle in greater numbers in places that have most to offer and, conversely, they will avoid like the plague places with less to offer. And this effect is not limited to newcomers. The existing (or surviving) population will want also to relocate themselves to the most advantageous places.
What are they avoiding? Economics embraces a concept known as “utility.” In this context, utility may be defined as the relative ease of obtaining one’s economic ends. The converse of this concept is “disutility,” in which it is difficult (or even impossible) to achieve one’s ends without undue effort.
Milton is currently in the eighth year of its fourth ten-year plan (the first having been put in place in 1982, and updated at ten-year intervals). Chairman Thibeault put forward the Town’s so-called “Master Plan” in support of his notions in the most recent BOS meeting. Most people associate Master Plans with fictional and cartoon villains, as well they might.
Master plans are hopelessly ineffective because of Hayek’s Knowledge Problem. Briefly, it is impossible for any of us, or any committee of us, to assemble and possess the knowledge necessary to manage an economy. That knowledge resides in the whole of us, but in a distributed fashion. To suppose that one has, or can ever hope to acquire, sufficient knowledge to order the economy is an admission of folly.
Bastiat spoke of the Broken Window Fallacy. His important insight was that there exist possibilities or outcomes that are readily “seen.” But there are also possibilities or outcomes that are “not seen.” One may encourage, or subsidize, or even compel some particular outcome. That result can be readily seen, by which it might be judged a “success.” Of course, there it is, I can see it! But other possible outcomes might have occurred, might have occurred more naturally, and might have occurred in preference to the one forced upon us. Those are the outcomes that are not seen. Those outcomes were displaced by the one forced upon us.
It emerged that the old fire station has been sold. The owner’s representative came to the BOS meeting. Chairman Thibeault wanted to hold the new owner to his preference put forward at some prior meeting (there have been several). That preference would have had the old fire station renovated as a commercial property only. In the interval between preliminary discussions and sale, the new owner envisaged instead a mix of one-bedroom apartments and commercial space. They did not seem to feel that the commercial limitation was either necessary or desired, but had retained it only as an accommodation. Chairman Thibeault dug in his heels – as he is wont to do – and insisted that the new owner restrict themselves to a commercial use only. Because that better satisfied the sacred “Master Plan.” Blessed be the Plan.
The owner’s representative pointed out that the final purchase-and-sales agreement contained no such commercial requirement. Chairman Thibeault turned somewhat petulant. The Planning Board and ZBA might have something to say. (Get ready for another lawsuit).
Now, this was the path taken in the Binker Brothers’ opening, a process bitterly criticized at the time, and rightly so. Someone invests in a property in order to establish a business (or any other use) in a legitimate way. Only after purchasing a Milton property does the hapless owner learn that there are many other requirements above and beyond those set forth in the ever-increasing pages of the zoning regulations. They must pass also the conditional approval of the BOS, the Planning Board, the ZBA, etc. In the case of the Binker Brothers, the Police were also invited to put in their oar.
Vice-Chairwoman Hutchings and Selectman Rawson balked. They pointed out that Milton had already a number of vacant commercial properties. Too many, and vacant for far too long. They could see no reason to compel the new owner to conform to the commercial-only requirement. Chairman Thibeault’s dissatisfaction was manifest. He dislikes being thwarted and we have likely not heard the end of this. (The Chairman experienced some strong disapproval from the audience too).
The dissenters may or may not have penetrated to the root of the problem. The Master Plan is impossible. It lacks the necessary knowledge to be effective. If empirical evidence is required, Milton’s economic activity has declined, rather than increased, over its thirty-eight-year tenure. Its visible results, few as they have been, have no claim over other unseen outcomes that were forced aside.
Will the few incomers of the next twenty years gravitate towards Milton? That seems highly unlikely. We have been led far down the wrong path. We have too much government, too many regulations, poor results, and all at too high a price. And our budgets have been increasing at an unconscionable rate. All these characteristics impose a major “disutility” on its residents, taxpayers, and prospective incomers.
A static or even dwindling population would be left to carry the load. Those able will want to escape. (And a major economic downturn – some say it will be “The Big One” – is expected at any time).
Franz Oppenheimer explained the fundamental difference between the means employed by the free market versus those of government.
There are two fundamentally opposed means whereby man is impelled to obtain the necessary means for satisfying his desires. These are work and robbery, one’s own labor and the forcible appropriation of the labor of others … I propose to call one’s own labor and the equivalent exchange of one’s own labor for the labor of others, the “economic means” … while the unrequited appropriation of the labor of others will be called the “political means.”
Chairman Thibeault has in his time shown a dogged and regrettable preference for achieving his fevered visions through use of the “political means.” He is wrong, of course. Should he not change his approach radically, so as to favor market solutions over compulsory political ones, it would be difficult to recommend his continuation in office.
His colleagues vote with him all too often but, in this case, they favored correctly allowing the freedom of the “economic means” to work.
RLS Demographics. (2016). State of New Hampshire Regional Planning Commissions. County Population Projections, 2016, by Age and Sex. Retrieved from www.nh.gov/osi/data-center/documents/2016-state-county-projections-final-report.pdf