Planning: Good or Bad?

Book Review by Nathaniel R. Dickinson
The Best-Laid Plans, How Government Planning Harms Your Quality of Life, Your Pocketbook, and Your Future
By Randal O’Toole, Cato Institute 2007


Randal O’Toole’s book The Best-Laid Plans is dedicated to Chip, his fun-loving friend and quiet companion on some 20,000 miles of hikes. This makes the reviewer rather jealous, since, although he could win the mileage contest, the vast majority of the time the wild creatures were his only company.

O’Toole introduces Best-Laid by saying this book should not be necessary. There already are many good books identifying why government planning does not work. Obviously, he sees the need for intensifying the hammering in an effort to wake up a decidedly apathetic public.

He states that government planning almost always leads to disaster, because governmental planning is not possible. The reviewer takes exception to this after devoting about forty years to the management of the public’s valuable wildlife resources while employed by a number of public agencies. These efforts resulted in the creation of a vast array of sound management plans, with the last being the most sophisticated and successful deer management program in the nation.

The third section of the reviewer’s book Common Sense Wildlife Management is entitled “Yes, A Plan Is Essential.” It notes that for those who are content wandering through field and forest, planning is indeed a superfluous activity.

The blame must be placed where it belongs, on the horribly intrusive governmental agencies that have been created, the insatiable appetites of the extreme leftist public leaders who have a disdain for peoples’ rights, along with an apathetic citizenry. It is amazing how willing the majority are to sell their souls. The noted chapter also states that a plan must be more than a course for action to do things that someone desires to pursue. Discipline is essential, and if it prevails the best-laid plans will succeed. It is not planning’s fault, but rather the proliferation of planners who have a disdain for the traditional American way of life. Paramount in any such deliberations is the obvious - private property rights must be insured.

The author ends the introduction stating that the ultimate goal of his book is to inspire public agencies to repeal planning laws and shut down planning departments. No, planning is essential. Without it, one founders in a mass of fuzz. Planning should be beefed up and conducted in a truly free society manner.

Part one of O’Toole’s book deals with forest planning. He notes that between 1952 and 1976 the U.S. Forest Service went from being one of the most popular governmental agencies to one of the most controversial, with debates over clearcutting, road construction, herbicide spraying, among other activities. These, of course, were not the fault of planning, but rather the lack of it. Not mentioned was the original intent of the National Forests to guarantee a future supply of timber. Discussed are the ultra-liberal Senator Humphrey and forest plans costing extravagant amounts. This, of course, is not the fault of the planning process, but rather a bastardization of it. Again, why the effort to give planning itself a bad name? What O’Toole is documenting has nothing to do with planning, but rather the lack of sound planning, without which one is bound to end up someplace else and not know how anyone got there. This is not to say that most governmental plans are not piles of garbage. O’Toole, however, does a good job of documenting many cases of horrendous governmental planning. In his second chapter, appropriately entitled “Garbage In. Gospel Out,” he rightly declares that this was not the computers’ fault.

This is followed by chapters discussing natural selection, roadless areas, analysis paralysis, fire dominance, why planning fails, rational decisionmaking, the modeling problem (the reviewer once wrote a piece entitled “Models Are Great But Their Worth Must be Proven”), human barriers including the fad problem, the pseudoscience problem, the democracy problem - all of which make much sense, but still do not distinguish between sound, noble planning and garbage. Again, planning is undoubtedly essential for any endeavor to succeed. Unfortunately, the next entry is entitled “Planning Is Not Necessary.” The reviewer became very confused as to just what the author was trying to convey and then what his ideas of what planning and plans were all about. He seems to confuse sound planning with the type governmental bureaucrats indulge in. Excuses for not planning are that the technical barriers to comprehensive, rational planning of land or other resources are insurmountable. Admittedly, there are many amongst us that are lousy planners. That does not force one to give up. Why not encourage the bureaucrats to get the right people for the jobs? O’Toole claims that planners rely on junk science and resort to fads. No, he is thinking more of meddlers and social engineers.

Next follow thorough discussions of land use planning, urban renewal, urban sprawl, smart growth and its oppression, home ownership and its affordability, housing bubbles, smart growth and crime, why planners fail, the planning profession, the ideal communist city, typical planning methods (unfortunately throwing more stones at planners), the benefits of the automobile, the panic over peak oil, congestion, building auto-hostile streets, the rail transit hoax, among others.

Best-Laid Plans ends with a discussion entitled “The American Dream.” It notes that the best role government can play in our economy is to give people the freedom to choose their own destinies, but ensure that people pay the costs of their own choices. Is not this what our great country is all about?

Email Nate Dickinson: rdickinson@nycap.rr.com

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