Am I the only one skeptical of projections for 36 years from now?

SuburbanStreetYou may have seen recent news coverage about a report projecting that Utah’s population will double by the year 2050.

On the heels of this reporting, some voices have been calling for “smart growth” policies to preserve quality of life in Utah. Utah’s quality of life is not in any actual danger today from population growth, but presumably that inconvenient fact is not important to the “smart growth” paradigm. Instead, what seems important are things like “embrac[ing] a more urban lifestyle” and funneling population growth into areas near public transit, in order to encourage this preferred lifestyle.

But does the basis for this approach to public policy make any sense?

Try this thought exercise: Can you predict with confidence where you will be in 36 years? Unless you expect to be dead by that time, the rational answer is “no.” Now let’s go a bit larger: Can you predict with confidence where your family members will be in 36 years? In this case, the rational answer is an even more emphatic “no.” One more: Can you predict with confidence where everyone in your neighborhood will be in 36 years? Perhaps the relevant response is: “If I can’t predict where my close loved ones will be by then, how in the world am I supposed to predict where relative strangers will be?” Good question.

Now think about this: The “smart growth” policies being advocated in Utah are founded on the idea that a relatively small group of experts (researchers, government planners, and elected officials) can predict with confidence not just where you, your family, and your neighbors will be in 36 years, but where every person in the state of Utah will be in 36 years. And based on these guesses, they want to plan out how most people should be living their lives and doing business in Utah. And, yes, they do this with a straight face.

Look at it this way. Would you have wanted researchers and government leaders in 1978 – 36 years ago, before smartphones and the Internet even existed – to plan out the lifestyle and standard of living you would enjoy today? I shudder to think where quality of life would be in Utah today if it were dictated by the understanding and knowledge of the late 1970s.

The “government-planned community” approach of “smart growth” is short on prudence and long on elitism. It is short on prudence because that requires a healthy dose of humility about our current understanding of the world around us, and a well-grounded knowledge of the limits of our abilities as human beings. We don’t know what life will be like in Utah, let alone how many people will live here, more than three decades from now.

It is long on elitism because it presumes to place the power to plan out the lifestyles and standard of living of millions of people into the hands of a few “experts” in research and government planning. These enlightened few are presumed to be noble and knowledgeable enough to decide how the masses ought to live … and who evidently aren’t intelligent enough to make “the right choice.” The phrase “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help you” keeps coming to mind.

Before we wander into the policy minefield of “smart growth,” armed only with a guess of what Utah might look like in 36 years, we ought to humbly remind ourselves that we don’t even really know much about what life will be like five or 10 years from now. In that knowledge, perhaps we ought to adopt a more prudent approach that keeps its focus on those semi-knowable periods of time, rather than venturing off into completely unknowable future decades.

The social and community problems we face right now are enough to worry about, without fabricating problems 36 years into the future in order to demand a “solution” today.