I have heard it argued that the San Francisco Bay Area is not only the nation’s but the world’s most desirable metropolis. I don’t buy that for a minute, but it’s not entirely implausible. There’s great natural beauty, and many of the world’s most creative people and institutions choose to make the area their home. It’s pricey by American standards but still a bargain by global standards. Like New York City in its golden age, it is a glorious collision between culture and money.
Let’s assume that the Bay Area partisans are correct in their high estimation of the metropolis. What might we do with that information? Why not pass a law requiring everybody in the United States to live there? As with the Affordable Care Act’s approach to health insurance, we wouldn’t be forcing an inferior product on people; we’d be forcing them to drop their second-rate cities for something better. Sorry, Cleveland — you can’t keep your crappy city, so deal with it. There would be some great economies of scale at work, and there are well-known economic benefits associated with population density, which we’d have in spades with a population of 300 million. (Though if we define the Bay Area broadly, we’d still have a lower population density than Manhattan, on average.) We could drop altogether thousands and thousands of redundancies — of school districts, police departments, fire departments, planning and zoning codes, tax laws, city councils. The rest of the country could be turned into farmland or left to revert to wilderness. Think of the efficiency we could achieve.
Once we’ve decided where everybody should live, we can move on to the question of what they should eat. Father Henri Nouwen, calling it “an example of American pragmatism that makes you cry,” tells the story of a Scripture-minded biologist who, taking inspiration from the Biblical description of Israel as the “land flowing with milk and honey,” goes on an all-milk-and-honey diet to test whether that is in fact the ideal human nutritional model. After the scurvy set in, he suggested that maybe the Bible should be amended to describe Israel as the “land flowing with milk and honey plus ten ounces of orange juice.”
Perhaps that’s not the way to go. We might consider the USDA’s thinking here, or the economic case for the “cheapest, most nutritious, most bountiful food in human history,” that being the McDonald’s double cheeseburger. It may take some experimentation and consultation with the experts, but, after we’ve figured out what everybody should eat, think, again, of all the redundancies we can eliminate, the resources we can redirect into more productive uses, the breathtaking manageability of a nation where everybody lives in the same city and eats the same dinner. You could combine all the best aspects of a Singapore or a Hong Kong with the pitiless efficiency of a fast-food franchise. You want to bend the cost curve down, you don’t consult Congress — you consult McDonald’s.
The Bay Area has a pretty good mass-transit infrastructure, but we’re probably still going to want some cars, the obvious leading candidate here being the Toyota Prius — it’s already popular in the area, gets great mileage, is consistently rated one of the most reliable cars, doesn’t take up too much parking space, etc. Given the generally pleasant climate, no need to worry about four-wheel-drive or the like. Do we really even need a vote on that? It’s the Prius — and we can buy in bulk at a huge discount, presumably; call it single-payer personal locomotion.
So everybody lives in and around San Francisco, everybody eats McDonald’s double cheeseburgers, and everybody drives a Prius, everybody drinks one beer chosen by the experts — maybe that’s not the utopia you had in mind, but you could make a pretty good empirical case that this arrangement represents the right metropolis, the right food, and the right car, etc.
It is easy to see that these results are absurd. For example, sending 300 million people to live in the Bay Area might change some of the things that people like about the region. (But sending millions of people into the health-insurance market will have a negligible effect on prices, market structure, or incentives? Right?) Fine, pick your own answer — but it is important to recognize that the real absurdity here is not in the answer to each question, but in the question itself. The idea that there exists a single “right” urban cluster or a single “right” automobile or meal fails to take into account any number of variables, not least of which is the fact that people do not all want or need uniformly the same things, and that it is not really our business to tell them what they should want, even when we believe we know better — even when we have a pretty good body of evidence suggesting that we know better.
But then how is it that we have come to believe that there is a single “right” model of education, a single “right” minimum health-insurance package, a single “right” minimum price for a gallon of milk or an hour’s labor, or a single “right” choice among the millions upon millions of options in areas in which politicians insist that what is needed is uniformity and consistency based on whatever happens to pass for empirical evidence at any given moment? How is it that, in a world in which the software we use for so many important tasks in our professional and personal lives is updated every few weeks (or even more often), we have 20-year programs for organizing health care, retirements, and more? There are billions of economic relationships between American people and firms and their counterparts in China alone — but there’s one right set of relationships among them? Think about it for two seconds and it is self-evidently false.
“How should we do x?” The main problem is not the answer, but the question itself, and the assumptions behind that question, the belief that an answer exists.
Some policies must, by their nature, be implemented at the national level. If you’re going to have a sovereign nation-state, you need a national defense apparatus (which is not to say you need our national-defense apparatus; there are alternatives), and you probably need a national immigration policy, etc. The basic architecture of the current American constitutional order, which is a remarkably wise and intelligent piece of work, contemplates national policies in those areas in which the several states interact with foreign powers and in those cases in which the states cannot coordinate efforts or resolve disputes among themselves on their own. That, along with some 18th-century anachronisms (post roads, etc.) and some awful economic superstitions (political management of trade, a political monopoly on the issuance of currency), constitutes most of what the federal government is in theory there to do. That and fighting pirates and others committing “felonies on the high seas,” of course, which is awesome, and we can all feel patriotic about fighting pirates.
But . . . if we look at federal programs by budget share, almost nothing that Washington does requires a national policy. There’s national defense, of course, at around 20 percent of spending; you may believe, as I do, that that number is probably too high, but national defense is a legitimate national endeavor. But most federal spending is on various entitlement programs — Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and various other welfare benefits. There is not much reason for any of these programs to exist at all — government is a criminally inept pension planner and a thoroughly incompetent insurance company — and there is very little reason for any of them to exist as uniform, one-size-fits-all national programs. Start digging into that non-defense discretionary spending and you end up with very little more than a catalog of crony payoffs and political favoritism.
There is no more reason to believe that a single government-run pension scheme is in each individual’s best interest than to believe that a single city or single model of car is right for everybody. And the people who design and plan these programs know that. The point of Social Security — like the point of insisting that health insurance is “a right” rather than a consumer good — is to redefine the relationship between citizen and state. That is the real rationale for a national pension scheme or a national insurance policy. For several generations now, we’ve been changing the very idea of what it means to be an American citizen. It used to mean being entitled to enjoy liberty and republican self-governance under the Constitution. Eventually, it came to mean being eligible for Social Security, functionally if not formally. Now it means being eligible for Obamacare. The name of the project may change every generation, and its totems may evolve from Bismarck to Marx to “the experts” — that legion of pointy-headed Caesars who are to be the final authority in all matters in dispute — but the dream remains the same: society as one big factory under the management of enlightened men with extraordinary powers of compulsion.
There is a great deal that is distasteful — positively repugnant — about 21st-century American life. I do not understand why many of my fellow citizens like the things they like or want the things they want. A few times a year, I force myself to watch a reality-television show, and I’m generally ready to emigrate by the time the credits roll. I do not get the values, interests, and preferences of people who are keeping up with the Kardashians. And I am frequently bewildered by their economic decisions and political preferences. But isn’t that a case against having me make decisions for them rather than an argument for that proposition? It takes a very special kind of arrogance to believe the opposite. “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive,” C. S. Lewis argued. “It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.” Or, as the somewhat less authoritative commentator (and son of the Bay Area) Jello Biafra put it: “Shut up, be happy.”
And have a cheeseburger.
— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent at National Review.