I have argued before why zoning laws are inconsistent with a free society's principles, in particular with the principle of private property rights. Basically they amount to impositions by some people on others of conditions for using property that the owner is authorized to determine. No one else has that right, however tempting and desirable it may appear to imagine otherwise.
But what about the perfectly honorable wish to have a nice neighborhood in which to live, work and play? How, besides by means of zoning ordinances, could people protect their neighborhoods?
Before answering this question it must be noted, quite emphatically, that zoning ordinances by no means achieve what their advocates claim justifies their use. Indeed, in many communities that have stringent zoning ordinances there are neighborhoods that are a mess, to put it mildly. Especially right where the zoning provisions change, say from commercial to residential use, the areas are usually in a deteriorating condition. That is where buildings are usually dilapidated, shabby. And it is usually those who lack political clout who must live there.
In more general terms, by no means is the institution of zoning laws a panacea. Just as with the welfare state in general, which simply shoves around the misery it aims to eliminate, zoning laws, too, are mostly an expression of special interest clout. A drive through any of the heavily zoned communities will demonstrate this right away.
In fact, the record of the institution of zoning as far as making areas of residential, commercial and recreational living orderly and pleasant for all is by no means a good one. Let us look at this briefly, without entering the ample scholarship that exists on that topic. (But anyone wishing to check for detailed studies can examine William A. Fishel's works, The Economics of Zoning Laws: A Property Rights Approach to American Land Use Controls, Regulatory Takings: Law, Economics and Politics, Do Growth Controls Matter?: A Review of Empirical Evidence on the Effectiveness and Efficiency of Local Government Land Use Regulation, The Economics of Zoning Laws: A Property Rights Approach to American Land Use Controls, and Land Economics: Private Markets Public Decisions, as well as Bernard H. Siegan's seminal book, Land Use Without Zoning.)
For one, there is a city in the USA that has enjoyed zoning freedom and has worked pretty well while it lasted: Houston, Texas. No disaster, no catastrophe, no mess, no property devaluation, nada. Just a city where what zoning was supposed to achieve had been achieved without it, more peacefully, more through cooperation than through coercion.
Second, a little imagination and history should suffice to teach us all that it is better all around to strive to achieve goals without forcing people to accept what they would freely reject. And this applies as much to education or military service as it does to not keeping neighborhoods in good shape. Free men and women simply do better, on the whole, than do those who are regimented by their fellows, made to act as they do not choose to.
Third, what zoning aims for can easily be achieved through voluntary agreements among members of neighborhoods. Restrictive covenants work to this end wonderfully, provided those concerned make the effort to establish them. As with all things, the free approach always appears at first cumbersome – talking someone into a course of conduct takes more time than doing this by beating up the person. But in the end the result is much more rewarding – all kinds of political hostilities, vested interest battles and politicking in the worst sense of that term can be avoided if agreements are reached peacefully, through mutual effort.
Of course, in most communities this is at best an ideal, but more likely a political fantasy, along lines that abolishing prohibition had been at one time and substituting a private for a public education system is now. But that does not make it any less feasible and right! So in the current dispute about whether this or that kind of zoning ordinance is needed for a community, it is vital that some voices keep announcing what is the truly best solution, after all.
What is needed, once all the infighting has shown itself the fruitless effort it really is, is the abolition of zoning and the institution of market based, voluntary agreements among members of neighborhoods, commercial establishments and so forth to achieve what these members want to achieve. There will, of course, be limits to what is possible – one cannot live in Shangri-La if one isn't financially equipped to do so; one cannot live far in the woods if one's budget provides for only an apartment in the middle of town. But within the limits that one must live with in all realms of ordinary life, the solutions reached via voluntary negotiations and bargaining are far superior to those acrimonious ones that are reached via the political process.
Will this be done tomorrow morning at 9 AM? No. But should we stress its desirability and real availability for any community? Yes.