Why are there so Many Lizard People–and how do we GET RID OF THEM?

Cabrini Green, circa 1960

I’ve finally come up with a good definition for the Lizard People:

People who prioritize order above human utility–including their own.

It’s easy to understand why people harm others if they benefit personally in the process. We might not like it, but at least we understand it, and self-interested people can be reasoned with.

Lizard people look like people, but they seem to lack the ability to reason like people. They make other people’s lives worse, but for no discernible personal benefit. They use words like “progress” or “improvement,” “rational” or “modern,” “rules” or “policies,” to justify their policies, while ignoring complaints from the people involved that the new policies actually break more than they fix.

Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis, Missouri

Or to put it another way: lizard people are the folks who thought Cabrini Green looked nice and built it that way on purpose.

After all, housing projects don’t simply appear out of thin air. Hundreds if not thousands of people were substantially involved in the process of creating some of the ugliest monuments to poverty the nation has ever bulldozed.

And as Slate Star Codex recently discussed in his review of James Scott’s Seeing Like a State, this didn’t happen by accident or because ugly buildings were somehow cheaper than regular ones. It happened because there was a whole school of thought, the Modernists, who thought it would be grand to redesign whole cities to be “modern” and “rational”. As Scott Alexander notes:

The worst of the worst was Le Corbusier, the French artist/intellectual/architect. The Soviets asked him to come up with a plan to redesign Moscow. He came up with one: kick out everyone, bulldoze the entire city, and redesign it from scratch upon rational principles….

The Soviets decided to pass: the plan was too extreme and destructive of existing institutions even for Stalin. Undeterred, Le Corbusier changed the word “Moscow” on the diagram to “Paris”, then presented it to the French government (who also passed). Some aspects of his design eventually ended up as Chandigarh, India. …

the Modernists rarely got their hands on entire cities at once. They did build a number of suburbs, neighborhoods, and apartment buildings. There was, however, a disconnect. Most people did not want to buy a High Modernist house or live in a High Modernist neighborhood. Most governments did want to fund High Modernist houses and neighborhoods, because the academics influencing them said it was the modern scientific rational thing to do. So in the end, one of High Modernists’ main contributions to the United States was the projects – ie government-funded public housing for poor people who didn’t get to choose where to live.

I recommend Alexander’s entire post, because by the end you will have a much better idea of what I mean by “Lizard People” than I can possibly explain myself.

Or to give a much more mundane, local example:

After a couple of the local teenagers got drivers’ licenses and a large family moved in down the block, our neighborhood developed a parking problem: more cars than spaces. Residents complained, so the HOA handed down a ruling: no one can park in the spare spaces. Problem solved!

My personal experience with HOAs is that they are run by lizard people, overly concerned with having a “rule” and a “policy” for everything, and rarely with actually maximizing the property values of the HOAs members.

It’s kind of odd that people don’t discuss HOAs more often, because they’re a level of government that millions of people are exposed to, voting is restricted to property owners, and they’re small enough that individuals could have an effect on them.

To be clear, it’s not that order is itself inherently bad. For example, Alexander posted a map of Chicago (laid out in a grid) next to a map of a traditional, twisty-windy-street city. But Chicago’s sewers are a true engineering marvel:

During the 1850s and 1860s engineers carried out a piecemeal raising of the level of central Chicago. Streets, sidewalks and buildings were physically raised on hydraulic jacks or jackscrews. The work was funded by private property owners and public funds. …

During the 19th century, the elevation of the Chicago area was not much higher than the shorelines of Lake Michigan, so for many years there was little or no naturally occurring drainage from the city surface. The lack of drainage caused unpleasant living conditions, and standing water harbored pathogens that caused numerous epidemics. Epidemics including typhoid fever and dysentery blighted Chicago six years in a row culminating in the 1854 outbreak of cholera that killed six percent of the city’s population.[2][3][4][5]

In January 1858, the first masonry building in Chicago to be thus raised—a four story, 70-foot (21 m) long, 750-ton brick structure situated at the north-east corner of Randolph Street and Dearborn Street—was lifted on two hundred jackscrews to its new grade, which was 6 feet 2 inches (1.88 m) higher than the old one, “without the slightest injury to the building.”[8] It was the first of more than fifty comparably large masonry buildings to be raised that year.[9]

By 1860, confidence was sufficiently high that a consortium … took on one of the most impressive locations in the city and hoisted it up complete and in one go. They lifted half a city block on Lake Street, between Clark Street and LaSalle Street; a solid masonry row of shops, offices, printeries, etc., 320 feet (98 m) long, comprising brick and stone buildings, some four stories high, some five, having a footprint taking up almost one acre (4,000 m2) of space, and an estimated all in weight including hanging sidewalks of thirty five thousand tons. Businesses operating out of these premises were not closed down for the lifting; as the buildings were being raised, people came, went, shopped and worked in them as if nothing out of the ordinary were happening. In five days the entire assembly was elevated 4 feet 8 inches (1.42 m) in the air by a team consisting of six hundred men using six thousand jackscrews, ready for new foundation walls to be built underneath. The spectacle drew crowds of thousands, who were on the final day permitted to walk at the old ground level, among the jacks.[12][13][14][15] …

Many of central Chicago’s hurriedly erected wooden frame buildings were now considered wholly inappropriate to the burgeoning and increasingly wealthy city. Rather than raise them several feet, proprietors often preferred to relocate these old frame buildings, replacing them with new masonry blocks built to the latest grade. Consequently, the practice of putting the old multi-story, intact and furnished wooden buildings—sometimes entire rows of them en bloc—on rollers and moving them to the outskirts of town or to the suburbs was so common as to be considered nothing more than routine traffic. Traveller David Macrae wrote incredulously, “Never a day passed during my stay in the city that I did not meet one or more houses shifting their quarters. One day I met nine. Going out Great Madison Street in the horse cars we had to stop twice to let houses get across.” As discussed above, business did not suffer; shop owners would keep their shops open, even as people had to climb in through a moving front door.[34][35][36][37][38]

In other words, Chicago was too low and flat to drain properly, (which probably has a lot to do with it being laid out so neatly in the first place,) much less build underground sewers, and as a result, people kept getting sick. So they just used a bunch of jacks to lift the city and built the sewers at ground level, then filled in the open space with dirt and rubble.

So, yes, I am in favor of sewers, and even major, city-altering projects in order to install sewers. Sewers are good. Not dying of cholera is awesome. Nothing here should be interpreted as “let’s go die of terrible, preventable diseases in a muddy peasant hovel.”

But too often the imposition of order doesn’t prevent cholera; too often it just makes everything worse. “I have a solution!” doesn’t mean you have a good solution.

The biggest projects ever undertaken to improve human welfare, organized entirely along scientific, “rational” principles, resulted in the deaths of over 35 million people. No one is sure exactly how many people starved to death in the process of collectivization–Wikipedia lists estimates between 5.5 and 8 million for the Soviet famine of 1932-33, 23-55 million for China’s Great Leap Forward, and goodness knows how many we should count for North Korea, Cambodia, Ethiopia, etc.

It’s one thing to raise a city, one block at a time, on hydraulic jacks. It’s quite another matter to redesign an society from the ground up. Even if people’s current systems aren’t functioning perfectly, like the parking situation in my my neighborhood, systems tend to exist as they are because they are serving some purpose and you can’t just step in and sweep them aside without understanding what that purpose was. Moreover, whatever imperfect system you have, people are used to it and most of them have already adapted their lives around it. Before the French Revolution, there were thousands of people who made their livings producing lace, candles, and other luxury goods for the French Nobility. Chop off the king’s head, and some poor hatter will be out of a job.

Or as they say, if you come across a fence in the woods that doesn’t have any obvious purpose, it’s a good idea to figure out why it’s there before you go tearing it down.

But back to the Lizard People: the Lizard People are folks who, as everyone around them is transformed into skeletal corpses, keep insisting that everything is fine and we just need to stick with the plan–maybe even stick to the plan even harder.

And the strangest thing is that these people exist at all, and moreover, that instead of being shunned by society at large, they are often promoted–to manager, overseer, or government office.

Whatever can we do?