Balancing libertarian and humanitarian instincts when using the word “NIMBY”

Megan McArdle discusses how the word NIMBY is a prejorative term that tends to be used in instances when the user doesn’t approve of particular uses (opposed to uses that they would approve):

I think this is a little bit too cute.  I read DePillis pretty regularly, and I don’t usually see her calling out, say, people opposing a local Wal-Mart as “NIMBYs”; they’re “opposition groups”.  The term NIMBY seems to be reserved for people who oppose locating things in their back yards that DePillis herself thinks are laudable.  Small wonder that when she uses the word, people take it as a perjorative.

Nonetheless, she has a point: many people oppose having necessary but potentially disruptive things located near them, even if you think those things are a good idea; if you do, you should own it, not make up ridiculously implausible stories about how those inner-city kids wouldn’t really enjoy a halfway house in a nice, suburban neighborhood; they’d be much happier in a crack-infested ghetto like the one where they came from.  Don’t you know you shouldn’t remove creatures from their natural habitat?
 
In the case of people in some DC neighborhoods, they may even be justified.  Anacostia–and my own neighborhood–house an unusually large number of social service organizations, because land has been cheap, and the communities have lacked the socioeconomic power to block new projects the way that, say, Dupont and Friendship Heights have.  I don’t know the statistics on Anacostia, but Eckington/Truxton Circle house thirteen social service groups, from women’s shelters to So Others Might Eat, a wonderful organization that serves thousands of meals to homeless people every day.  Frankly, I haven’t found them disruptive–and indeed, didn’t really know they were there until controversy erupted over a plan to build a fourteenth service facilities.  But the fact remains that a lot of the homeless people hang out in what passes for the area’s park space between meals, and more than a few spend the day drinking single-serving beers from the area’s many liquor stores…
 
In this case, my libertarian instinct squares with my humanitarian instinct: at least in the case of private charities, I cannot, in good conscience, oppose letting them do whatever they want with the property they buy (within reasonable limits on things like toxic fumes and all-night jackhammer parties.)  But I don’t think it’s helpful to brand my neighbors who do as NIMBYs.  Oversaturation of neighborhoods with social services is a genuine problem for those neighborhoods.  We should treat it with at least as much respect as we give to those who don’t want to live near a big-box store.

McArdle seems to be suggesting that the use of the term NIMBY escalates a discussion about land use to an unhelpful level. As soon as the word is brought out, the terms of the discussion changes as the user implies that people are being selfish and those being called NIMBY then have to go on the defensive. Additionally, NIMBY is in the eyes of the beholder: what one person would see as desirable is an abomination to another.

The term McMansion, something I have spent a lot of time studying, is used in a similar manner. Just like NIMBY, the term evokes larger issues such as excessive consumption, sprawl, the disruption of a neighborhood, etc. McMansion and NIMBY are not simple descriptive terms that just refer to a big house or opposition to a particular land use. Both are politicized terms. NIMBY often refers to wealthier, white, more educated homeowners who want to protect their private utopias that many see as exclusionary and government subsidized.

Are there helpful alternatives to the term NIMBY?

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