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The Ethics of SimCity and the Assumption of Central Planning: A Left-libertarian Perspective

Donuts, donuts, donuts

Since I was a wee tot with Jurassic Park velcro shoes and a bowl haircut I’ve played SimCity in one incarnation or another.  I don’t mean that I’ve played it consistently for that long, but the concept of SimCity is burned into my motor memory right between potty training and coloring inside the lines (which I later stopped doing because it is a form of programming: going “outside the lines” is considered wrong, you do the math.  I still do use the toilet though, quite routinely).  The first SimCity I played was, well the first SimCity game ever made on the Commodore 64, then I upgraded to the Super Nintendo version when it came out.  I remember very little about the Commodore version but the SNES version was one of my favorite games at the time.  For those unfamiliar with the SimCity series, the premise is pretty simple: you are the omnipotent, perpetually incumbent, de facto mayor of a city that does not yet exist.  You must then build a city starting with a power plant and then add “zones”, i.e. residential, commercial, and industrial zones.  There is a meter that informs you of the demand for each type of zone so you get a sense of what to build.  You can also build various civic and utilitarian structures like police and fire stations, airports, and of course roads and rails for transportation.  And on you go like this, expanding, bringing in more and more citizens while managing a budget, balancing spending and tax revenue.

The entire point of the game, really, is merely to add to the population.  You progress to the next stage of the game by accumulating a certain number of people.  The ultimate goal is to reach 500,000 and become a “megalopolis” (though the game doesn’t end there, it’s very sandbox).  When you reach the megalopolis stage you receive a Mario statue (the SNES version was very nintendized) and the satisfaction of being a super-efficient urban planner!  Sadly, the most I ever got was about 350,000.  The thing is, it’s nearly impossible to get 500,000 people due to map size limitations.  There are specific techniques to cramming that many people on the map.  The most commonly expounded of these is “donuts”.  The donut method consists of building 8 “zones” in a square pattern with an empty space in the middle.  The zones typically consist of 3 residential (houses, condos), 3 commercial (businesses, office buildings) and one utility (police or fire station) and the empty spaces consist of trees or a municipal park if you are granted one.  To create a truly prosperous (read: populous) city, you must create a grid of these donuts divided by roads or train tracks with some industrial zones along the edges of the map.  And that’s it, that’s the ideal strategy.

It’s easy, especially when you’re a young gamer, to confine your perception of the game to the goals outlined within it.  However, think for a moment about the sims living within your functionalist wet dream.  Do the sims really want to be crammed into a homogenous sea of donuts?  Perhaps it is not the worst scenario to live in a city where every block is basically identical for miles and miles, the housing is affordable certainly, but there is no choice exercised on behalf of the sims.  An anarcho-capitalist (or any kind of capitalist for that matter) might argue that the act of moving to the city is in itself an exercise of choice, but if every SimCity mayor is as eager to reduce each individual sim to an inhuman digit on the population counter and cram as many of them per capita into every square inch as you are, what choice is really being exercised?  It is merely the preference of your shitty donut metropolis over other, shittier donut metropolies.  There is something deeply flawed in the premise of this game, and that is the idea that cities must be constructed in a top-down fashion.

Let us examine the idea of land ownership for a moment.  According to the labor theory of property first explicated by John Locke and later refined by American anarchists Lysander Spooner, Benjamin Tucker, and Murray Rothbard, land is acquired by applying one’s labor to unused natural resources or disused land previously acquired by the former method.  This theory is derived from the idea that one owns his or her own labor and thus the products of his or her labor.   In a free society, homesteading would be considered the primary method of space acquisition.  In the monarchical SimCity (and most often in present day nations, democratic or otherwise), the repressive state apparatus does not recognize property obtained through these means.  Within any particular nation the state is the default owner of all land and ownership is transferred, for a fee, to a person or group via title deeds.  If a person does not acquire the space they occupy through state-controlled means, their land claim is deemed illegitimate and violence may be used to eject them from that space.  This is especially true of squatters, those who take advantage of the extended absence of the person or persons holding the title deed to a particular space.  Often this property has been entirely neglected by the titular owners, yet the oppressive arm of the state enforcement apparatus is called upon to forcibly remove those who actually put the abandoned space to use.  This appalling example of territorialism is in part the result of incentives for preserving the assets of the wealthy, the state collects property taxes from these plots of land so long as the title holder continues to “own” them.  Corporatism, as we can see, tends to go hand in hand with territorialism.  A group of ragged peasants with no source of income are worthless to the state and its agents.  There are, of course, myriad social aspects to this horrific scenario but these are best reserved for discussion at a later date.  To clarify: the state assumes ownership of vast quantities of unused land that none of its agents have any legitimate claim to; the ownership is purely nominal but enforced through violence; the state sells or rents the land that it never rightfully owned to its citizens—those who happened to be born within its arbitrarily-defined borders—usually on a highly conditional basis.

This mechanism serves the interests of the state and its agents in two important ways.  1. In order to purchase space to occupy, a person must render a fee to the state.  In order to secure the wealth necessary to render this fee, a person must labor.  Since a condition of existence is occupying space, existing necessarily entails laboring for the benefit of the state.  In this way, the agents of the state, the privileged class, acquire wealth, the product of another’s labor at no expense to themselves.  Of course, this becomes a little more complex when banks of private individuals own the land on behalf of the state and houses are built by developers and sold by realtors.  The basic power structure remains intact though, but with several intermediaries also parasitizing on the citizen’s labor.  The state still retains ultimate sovereignty and now collects property taxes in exchange for these bureaucratic functions.  2. Because the state dictates the terms and parameters on which it distributes land, it can essentially shape development as it sees fit.  This is a tremendous source of power.  Even the ability to “zone” land has wide-scale social implications.  For instance, in older urban communities and those that emerged more spontaneously, mixed zoning is common.  That is, commercial and residential spaces with no clear separation between them.  In these communities, human interaction is a much more prominent feature of daily life due in part to the practicality of pedestrian transportation.  In newer urban and suburban communities, zoning tends to be quite rigid with blocks of residential zoning and commercial plazas with distinct boundaries.  As you may have guessed, this arrangement tends to produce highly insular communities where alienation of people from one another is a common feature of daily life due in part to dependence on automobile transportation.  Why then, given its negative social (and environmental) impact, is this arrangement becoming increasingly common?  The profit potential for single-use zoning greatly exceeds that of the more humane mixed-use zoning.  Single-use zoning drastically reduces construction costs and encourages consumption of commodities.  The shopping mall is an excellent example of how this dictum holds true.  We can see then how the privileged land-owning class benefits from the state-mandated segregation of space functions—it is a tool to consolidate wealth.  As I mentioned before, corporatism is a mutually beneficial arrangement whereby the state and business may both parasitize on the citizen’s labor.

The truly disheartening aspect of this whole arrangement is that its legitimacy is seldom questioned.  Sure, some of the so-called liberals of today may concern themselves with the practices of major businesses and some of the so-called libertarians may oppose the state’s de facto absentee land ownership (often on a very inconsistent basis), but the collusion between the state and business is a connection that few either make or acknowledge.  This is a shameful state of affairs.  The tendency of contemporary libertarians to defend the exploitative tactics of corporations and ignore the dependency of land developers on statist propertarianism is nothing short of appalling given the anti-authoritarian roots of the movement.  Equally unacceptable is the utilitarian defense of central planning by state socialists and social democrats.  Not only is central planning wildly unethical in its means, but its end is pretty shitty too, thus failing the utilitarian acid test.

Given how ingrained the concept of central planning is in most people’s minds, it should come as no surprise that an urban development game bestows grossly-magnified powers upon the player.  Like the state, the player determines the type and placement of all the single-use zones, decides where all the roads go, commissions utilities, and adjusts the budget and tax rates as necessary or just on a whim.  Maybe Mr. Mayor and his friends need new swimming pools?  Not a problem because you can jack up taxes and collect all the revenue you please.  Granted, people may not want to move to your town if income tax is 25% but it’s pretty astonishing how many people will actually stick around.  Urban sprawl is hard to crawl out from under I guess.  Even if you decide to treat your sims (yes they are yours, people are the property of the state) with a modicum of human dignity, you have still defined the spaces they can and cannot occupy and since you built the police station and allocated the law enforcement budget using the spoils of plundered labor, you are presumably responsible for oppressing any one of them that does not abide by your authoritarian property laws.  No matter, sooner or later the urge to expand like a concrete cancer will strike you.  That Mario statue is starting to sound pretty badass.

That is the real SimCity, a centrally planned urban sprawl owned by a greedy donut-building tyrant with his sticky fingers in the communal chest.  And as your blood starts to boil thinking about the elitist prick in his top hat and monocle living up on the hill in an extravagant mansion build by the hands of chattel slaves, you take another sip of cognac and turn in your chair.  You halt as a tall vanity mirror meets your eyes and discover that the elitist prick is… you.