All apologies for the title of this post, redolent as it is of the baroque headings often found on nineteenth-century treatises of one kind or another, but that's simply the title that emerged from my reflections on the Wal-Mart development controversy raging downthread. It is a cardinal error, in my estimation, to consider the question of the siting of a Wal-Mart near an historic battlefield in (artifically) pristine isolation from the broader question of the character of most contemporary development in America, which is to say, in abstraction from the political economy of such development, as well as the objects it serves.
In the first instance, as one may infer from the statistics discussed in this post at Calculated Risk, commercial real-estate in America is substantially overbuilt. There is an excess of capacity visible not only in the statistics detailing increasing vacancies and plummeting values - and in the discussions among many economists of a foreclosure crisis in CRE, not to mention the prospect of bailouts - but in the truly astonishing per-capita retail square-footage figures for the United States, figures that substantially exceed even European countries with broadly comparable standards of living. (I hope I may be pardoned for failing to provide these figures, as the link I intended for this purpose has vanished from my computer, and I've not been able to re-locate it.) This excess of CRE stocks is due in large measure to the superabundance of credit made available over the course of the preceding decade, and subsequently utilized to expand retail operations on the presupposition of the sustainability of both then-current trends in consumption, and an economy a mere 25% of which is actually productive. The recession-disclosed unsustainability of these trends, themselves a reflection of the social contract of the post-industrial, globalizing economy of America - according to which the average American would be compensated for nominally static wage growth which an increase in the availability of credit and a profusion of ever-cheaper foreign-made goods - led to a bursting of the bubble in commercial real-estate, much as the intersection of these trends with the oil price shock of 2008 precipitated the foreclosure crisis in residential real estate, and the recession more broadly. In fine, the bubble in commercial real-estate, and the massive misallocation of resources it reflects, were products of a period of vast irresponsibility, both collective and personal, where any restoration of pre-recession trends will represent a return to that very irresponsibility. We spent too much money that we didn't really have on too many things we didn't really need, purchased from too many stores that didn't need to exist - because we had evolved a variety of mechanisms to compensate for the structural adjustments of a post-industrial, globalizing economy. Wall Street found that investment in finance, from the routine to the hermetic, was more profitable than investing in productive enterprise; and Main Street, availing itself of Wall Street's grasping hand, found, for a time, that debt was easier to bear than downward mobility, or economic stasis. We had a collective economic orgy around an illusory golden calf, and the sheer quantity of CRE is a function of that revelry.
Second, the character of much development in the United States is akin to the world-devouring practices of aliens in stereotypical science fiction films. The aliens, incapable even of conceiving that their practice of consuming the resources of entire planets, leaving them void, might be vicious, simply moved on to the next world, so as to slaughter or enslave its inhabitants and plunder its resources. Analogously, much development in the US is at once transitory and predatory. It is poorly-constructed, engineered to last a generation at most, and as it begins to show signs of deterioration and untrendiness - these two often coincident in time - the investors simply move on, and a new greenfield site will be similarly developed. As the property ages, and becomes increasingly unfashionable, both in its design and its retail composition, target demographics will migrate away from the outlet, causing a decrease in profitability, and the replacement of the older retailers by a succession of increasingly downscale retailers. Some retailers originally in the facility will fail, others will redesign, rebrand, and move elsewhere, so as not to be associated with the old and hopelessly retrograde. This entire process is both mirror and aspect of the general cycle of suburban and exurban development; as an area becomes developed, and its demographic composition begins to change, an outflow will begin, the older area will slowly decay, and eventually, a few select sites in the older area will be gentrified, as trendy young professionals who grew up in the third exurb from the center, and are desirous of something hip, migrate back - and push out the downscale folks. The entire cycle is a calamitous misallocation of resources, a veritable collective rite offered up to the Platonic ideas of ephemerality and impermanence. America began to intuit something of this vast exercise of collective unreason during the oil price shock of 2008, as living in far-flung exurbs was revealed as economically untenable; this disclosure of the presupposition of American development, namely, infinite supplies of inexpensive petroleum, has yet to extend to a broad recognition of the unviability of continued development in that vein.
The character of American development is influenced by another factor, which dovetails with many of the discrete trends that comprise the cycle of suburban expansion and collapse. Americans have come to possess a dessicated and abstract conception of property, according to which property is no longer understood, or at best decreasingly understood, to be associated with place and its ties, or with productivity, or the stability of a family, but as a speculative instrument in which one happens to dwell. The concern of Americans for the rights of property is increasingly, as revealed in the fact of the real-estate bubble itself, with the exchange value of property, the opportunity to realize speculative returns on the anticipated or projected appreciation of the property conceived of as an asset. This is not the right of property invoked by the plaintiffs in Kelo, which was the right of simple possession, with the implication that their property ought not be taken and ceded to others; this is a position more nearly analogous to that of the wealthy interests to whom the Kelo plaintiffs' property was given: greater exchange value can be realized in this manner, and this fact is the paramount consideration both as between competing rights-claims, and between competing conceptions of the good. In the case of the Wal-Mart, and any adjacent property owners who might suffer a loss of exchange value were the preservationists to triumph, the claim is that a claim-right to this greater exchange value would be infringed were the development to be foreclosed. There is no consideration of property owners being stripped of the possession of their tracts, merely the contemplation of actions which will either prevent certain sales, or exclude certain uses, thus, possibly, lowering the value of the properties as speculative vehicles. And these two conceptions of property must not be treated as equivalents, either in thought or in law (and yes, law is often quite independent of thought, hence the formulation), for such speculative gains are at once inherently uncertain, depending upon both zoning and other decisions, and economic trends which cannot be foreseen, and less secure than the goods of actual possession. A property owner may whinge that a zoning restriction constitutes a "taking" because it deprives him of some hoped-for future return, but the eventual reality of such a return, if it is ever to materialize, is dependent upon broader economic trends - the sustainability of the economics of growth and consumerist expansion - that are not in evidence and cannot be regarded as certain. Moreover, it is grotesquely invidious to maintain that this expectation of future gains of exchange value be made the paramount objective of public authority, that it is mandatory, de facto for a government entity, in the course of its efforts to balance competing goods with a view to the common good - goods including the historic and aesthetic character of a region, or the quality of life afforded by not having interminable sprawl - to take care that hypothetical future exchange values are not infringed by efforts to maintain other goods, goods less amenable to quantification. It is, however, the belief in a right to 'cash out' a property held speculatively, taking advantage of the aforementioned cycles of development, that both mandates this privileging and perpetuates the wasteful utilization of a finite resource.
It is also worth mentioning that this cycle of development is inherently redistributionist, and that in a way that hardly seems transparent to justice. The further-flung these exurban communities become, the greater the costs of servicing them, in terms of everything from emergency services to road maintenance. These are resources that could with equal ease be spent improving such services closer to the core communities, thus, among other things, preventing, or at least slowing, the cycle of decline in them. The increased spending on further-flung development accelerates in this way the decline of the older communities, promoting an increased outflow, and.... on the cycle of destructive creation runs.
The question of development is, in the long-run, a vast, intergenerational collective action problem, in which what is rational for any individual actor - say, selling his property to a developer, realizing a speculative gain - is irrational for the community as a whole. It results in a colossal misallocation of resources, in the increasing economic homogenization of entire regions, pushes agriculture ever further from the urban and suburban centers in which its produce is consumed (and this will become ever more significant as energy prices again rise), further increasing pressures for its industrialization (which has its own baleful externalities), and ultimately reinforces the destructive mentality that has taken root in the American consciousness, according to which the value of any thing is merely is value expressed as a quantity of money. It is not the responsibility of the public trust to ensure that every man who may, may get rich.