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To unleash progress, excessive vetoes need to be restrained
Too many actors have veto rights over what gets built, slowing development and progress. We need to get serious about solving it.
There is one story from just before the pandemic that I can’t get out of my mind. At the tail end of 2019, Patrick Quinlan got approval to build 10 new units of housing on a 1/3 acre lot in San Francisco.
The kicker, the reason why it was news, those ten units took over 40 years to get approved.
Mission Local, an SF-based publication, covered the story and has one of the most bonkers quotes I have ever seen in print/pixel. “The current proposal is the best option we’ve seen in over 22 years,” noted Kathleen Campbell, who lives in the area and had opposed the development since 1997.
Quinlan’s story is an egregious example of an all too common tendency in institutions that Francis Fukuyama calls vetocracy. Too many actors have veto rights over what gets built. My latest at CGO dives into vetocracy and I have a Tweet thread on it as well. I hope the piece convinces you it is an extensive problem that needs serious attention.
Indeed, vetocracy isn’t limited to just ten unit developments. A recent report from the New York Times detailed how one activist in the Bay Area has been able to stop UC Berekeley from expanding its campus. As I wrote elsewhere, “Phil Bokovoy, the president of Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods, has been using the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) process as a weapon against the University of California, Berkeley, which is under pressure to admit more and more students.”
California’s housing crisis is sadly the best example but this tendency can be seen throughout the United States political system. Unconstrained veto power has delayed broadband networks, clean energy ventures, infrastructure projects, and people just trying to start a business. My recent CGO post aims to collect as many examples as possible of this problem to chart its extent. In a follow-up, I intend to lay out some solutions that have worked in the past and then work through some new ideas for breaking the logjams.
To be clear, vetocracy is related, but separate from the broader problem of red tape. Red tape, permitting, and other limitations regulate conduct. Laws that regulate conduct need to be judged by their own merits.
Vetocracy is different. Vetocracy is about the needless delays created through excessive veto points throughout our institutions. There are a lot of players involved in permitting and all it takes is one to slow everything down. Vetocracy is about the excessive accretion of voice that slows down normal processes. Of course, voice is important to a healthy democracy, but excessive vetoes mean that work slows.
Help me in this effort by commenting below with examples of vetocracies, what has worked, and what hasn’t worked. I know there is a ton I missed. As always, thanks for reading!