Is Houston the Most Libertarian City in America?

May 20th, 2013

The WSJ profiles Annise Parker, the mayor of my new hometown, Houston. The interview touches on a lot of the reasons why Houston has become such an economic success story. One discussion in particular stuck out–that Houston is the most “libertarian” city in the country. Among other evidence cited is Houston’s lack of a zoning code:

Like Texas as a whole, Houston sells itself as “business friendly,” and Ms. Parker ticks off the attractions—ease of permitting, unobtrusive regulations and low taxes. She also supports Houston’s limited restrictions on land use, which some here call its real secret sauce. Without zoning, Houston can adjust to shifting market demands—whether for townhouse complexes or retail outfits—faster than most any other city. It looks unwieldy to anyone of the urban-planning persuasion, but it also keeps prices down.

Tory Gattis, who writes the Houston Strategies blog, says: “I’d argue we may be the most libertarian city in America. Live and let live; strong property rights; not much corruption; small business culture.”

While it is true that Houston lacks a formal zoning code, the city has implemented a number of land-use measures–including minimum lot sizes, mandatory parking allocations, street sizes, etc–that serve as a de facto zoning code. However, the entirety of Houston’s land use regime can be taught in a single property class (such as this one).

The same cannot be said for New York, or any other comparably-sized city.

But does this make Houston the most libertarian city in America? Mercatus ranked Texas as the 14th most free state in the country, but is number one for labor market freedom:

Texas is first in the country in terms of labor market freedom. It is a right-to-work state and remains the only state not to require employers to contribute to workers’ compensation coverage. Indeed, it has excellent workers’ compensation laws overall. While Texas has only light community rating and no individual rate review, it has imposed mandated coverages on health insurance that add significantly to the cost of insurance premiums (it is two standard deviations above the mean on them). Texas led on telecom and cable deregulation. It has also passed eminent domain reform and performs well on land-use regulation. The state’s liability system is below average, however.

Where it suffers though is with respect to personal freedom, where it doesn’t crack the top ten.