California: A Problem for Capitalists, Too

Monday, April 12, 2021

In a recent episode of his show, Yaron Brook commented on an Ezra Klein piece, titled, "Why California Is Making Progressive Democrats Squirm." Brook's consideration of the problem highlighted by the subtitle is worthwhile.

The subtitle? "If liberal policies cannot work here, why should the country believe it can work anywhere else?"

I finally got around the reading the piece myself a day or so ago, and I see another, related problem, this one highlighted by the fact that Klein nowhere questions his own political views.

This is the same problem we see nationwide, particularly in the states that border California, and which have borne the brunt of its middle-class exodus: Californians may flee their own state so they can afford to ... live ... but if their voting patterns are any indication, they fail to see how the policies they keep voting for caused the problems they fled from in the first place.

(Bumper stickers that say "Don't California my Texas," and "Don't New York my Florida" exist for a reason.)

Klein inadvertently drops a big clue as to why this is when he complains about what is in fact "progressive" hypocrisy -- but labels as a kind of "conservatism:"

Image by Rezaul Karim, via Unsplash, license.
This is a crisis that reveals California's conservatism -- not the political conservatism that privatizes Medicare, but the temperamental conservatism that stands athwart change and yells "Stop!" In much of San Francisco, you can't walk 20 feet without seeing a multicolored sign declaring that Black lives matter, kindness is everything and no human being is illegal. Those signs sit in yards zoned for single families, in communities that organize against efforts to add the new homes that would bring those values closer to reality. Those inequalities have turned deadly during the pandemic. [bold added]
I am no fan of zoning, but it does in fact often serve (poorly) as a substitute for property rights for homeowners who wish, for example, to live in an area of single-family homes.

Based on the rest of his piece, I presume Klein would use zoning to trample those wishes before having the same owners subsidize dense housing in their own back yards. There seems no awareness of or curiosity about how ordinary Californians could afford housing way back in the days of freewheeling semi-capitalism, before regulations on everything, including land use in areas that could be developed into neighborhoods, made housing so expensive.

Indeed, other parts of Klein's piece provide ample material for a thought experiment: What if we tried to build apartments in one of these progressive enclaves? It might indeed never happen, and not simply because of those pesky homeowners who want to continue to live in the kind of neighborhood they paid for. Environmental regulations might get in the way of construction altogether. Costs would be high. Assuming it ever got started, construction would probably happen far too late to solve any acute problem. Related, Klein himself discusses the use of environmental regulations by interests hardly friendly to the left to thwart projects of every kind.

That should tell even Klein that perhaps the blame lies not entirely with the residents of his state, but with the policies themselves: If they contradict and thwart each other, might at least some of them be wrong? And might they pose big enough problems to people simply wanting to live ordinary lives, that flauting them is necessary to do so? Since such enclaves are often hotbeds of conformity, only a rare few will openly question the policies. Most of the rest will do what they can get away with, or simply become hypocrites.

Ayn Rand, whose Atlas Shrugged one could think of as a comprehensive and prolonged thought experiment along the above lines, would likely go so far as to say that the policy aims of the left contradict the needs for human survival -- by preventing men from acting according to their own best judgement or taking the fruits of their labor when they do.

From each according to his ability, to each according to his need. What if America really tried to organize its society around such a program?

But with leftist policies getting in each other's way, California will be spared the consequences of the full program Klein fantasizes about, but ought to think through. This will make it easy for ex-Californians to imagine that they didn't have a hand in the suffocation of their former home, and lend credibility to the likes of Klein, who will continue to say that Californians were too "conservative" in their temperaments, that they didn't try hard enough. Its own maze of laws has mostly, by accident, saved Californians from "giving until it hurts" as it were.

Klein probably knows on some level that he doesn't have to worry about "progressives" losing faith in their program, and he is right to observe that California looks ridiculous to the rest of us. But he needn't fret: Until and unless the pro-liberty movement quits laughing and finds a way to explain why California hasn't already gone the way of Venezuela (and will, if it keeps trying), its political proclivities will continue to look like a semi-plausible alternative to the very people most in need of that lesson.

The silver lining: Every problem is an opportunity. Explain why progressivism is a Bad Idea, and present liberty as the needed alternative. Do this in a way ordinary people can understand and retain, and we can stop watching the rest of our country slowly turn into that weird place that can't -- and won't -- get away with its ludicrous politics forever.

-- CAV

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