A standard, excellent piece of advice: “If you want to understand who someone is, don’t pay attention to what they say. Pay attention to what they do.”1

The same can be said of laws and political institutions (in this essay collectively referred to as “the government”), although you have to change the formulation a little bit: “If you want to know why the government operates the way it does, don’t pay attention to what it is called, what it says things are supposed to do, or what it names things. Pay attention to what it and those things do.”2

Zoning is a good example. Zoning is supposed to segregate incompatible land uses and control density, and generally allow the sensible and orderly growth of a city by cutting it into zones with certain rules.

In practice, zoning is arbitrary, ad-hoc, and doesn’t wind up keeping factories away from housing (I, in fact, live next to a concrete factory in Brooklyn). Instead of controlling density and growth, it is an active throttle to both, even if cultivation of either would be desirable. Why?

Because, when you strip away all the rhetorical paint, this is what zoning does: it freezes certain developmental patterns in place, and only allows certain kinds of deviations if a specific set of actors can jump through a certain set of hoops controlled by a certain set of gatekeepers. That’s what zoning is. In that light, it makes sense why it operates as I described above. If there is a gate to be kept, interests that desire the status quo will attempt to capture it. In the case of zoning, that means those who do not want much to be built in New York City (and elsewhere).

This is also why the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which is supposed to help develop and license new nuclear plants, doesn’t do that. In practice, it is “an agency that makes regulatory tests for new nuclear reactors.” That is what it does, and that is materially different than “bring new nuclear plants online in an expeditious manner while also ensuring legal compliance.”

This is also why, in every piece of dystopian fiction (and reality), if you hear about a government agency called something like “The Truth Commission,” it will absolutely be dedicated to suppressing the truth. A commission like that is “a board that decides what speech is suppressed or not, based on criteria established by certain parties.” Incentives say that whoever wants to have the power to dictate speech will come to control that board in short order.

Students in The Foundations of New York often ask questions that can be boiled down like this: “Why doesn’t the government work the way it says it works?” This essay touches on the answer. Stripping away the names of political entities and law and just saying what they do in basic terms will give you a lot of valuable information, and it’s well worth it to become good at that exercise. Of course, this requires that you become familiar with the operation of government and take it seriously, which is itself a tall order.

The simplest way to explain the behavior of any bureaucratic organization is to assume that it is controlled by a cabal of its enemies. —Robert Conquest’s Third Law of Politics

Short extra notes:

  • If you just describe what things are, you’ll get a better grip on what your proposed policy and government solutions will do too.
  • Describing what things do, and not getting distracted by what they are called, will also more readily reveal their affordances to you.


  1. The Western canon has known this for a while: Matthew 7:16-20 (NKJV)—16 You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? 17 Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Therefore by their fruits you will know them.

    This is also one of the lessons of the classic tale of “the wolf in sheep’s clothing.” Just see if the sheep-looking thing does wolf stuff. 

  2. Put more succinctly: learn more than the name of the bird