Politics & Policy

Sun and Socialism

Plant a welfare state in a warm climate, and it will grow like Jack's beanstalk.

Sun and socialism are seemingly a bad mix. Socialism — or at least communitarian practices that in their ultimate manifestations would result in socialism — doesn’t go well with 300 days of sun, long summers and short winters, sandy beaches and seaside cafés, and shorts and swimsuits. Each tends to bring out the worst in the other.

Take weather, climate, and geography. Few places in the world are as beautiful as California. Its autumns are like summers elsewhere; its winters, others’ normal springs — but without the humidity and clouds. You are no more than about five hours from the sea anywhere in California; in fact, most of the state’s 36 million residents are within three hours of the beach.

One does not have to be a geographical determinist to see that good weather, a predictably warm climate, and natural beauty promote the pursuit of leisure. On a February Friday afternoon, it is harder to stay in an office in Santa Monica, in the low 70s, than it is in a blizzard in St. Paul. Those who can swim or skateboard all year long in their Speedos at Venice Beach — well, they seem to think they can approach life with that same carefree attitude, as if things in general sort of sprout up spontaneously, just as the sun, blue water, and warm breezes naturally appear each morning, with little worry over a Kansas-style twister or an Albany-style deep freeze.

I would not wish to enter into a chicken-or-egg controversy over whether California’s natural enticements drew in a certain laid-back sort of person, or whether once tight-fisted, no-nonsense citizens crossed the border, they were altered into bohemian types by places like Carmel and Tahoe. And I grant that there are plenty of communitarians in harsh climates like Manhattan’s, and conservative, small-government types in Mobile. I also realize that warm Texas is the antithesis to warm California — though I would suggest there is nothing quite like California beaches or Yosemite in the rather scenic Lone Star State.

My point again is one of force multiplication rather than cause and effect. A high-tax, big-government, expansive-entitlement, plentiful-public-worker landscape naturally becomes higher, bigger, more expansive, and ever more plentiful when located in paradise — perhaps explaining why California is in even worse shape than, say, New Jersey. It is as if nature offers no reality check to human naïveté, no reminder to the would-be utopian that, yes, there are rigorous impediments like snow and constant storms that transcend man’s ability to ensure the good life with tenured, high-paying government jobs, lavish payouts for housing, food, education, and legal help, and all sort of rules and regulations to make us into perfect egalitarians.

In other words, a communitarian statist morphs out of control in a place like Mill Valley in a way he would not in equally liberal Minneapolis. The sun multiplies the therapeutic efforts of the state; in addition, the natural bounty that good weather and geography bring can, for a while at least, cover the results of human foolishness.

Consider Europe as well. A great many scholarly studies (less so in the politically correct age of the last three decades) have suggested that the more Protestant northwestern European countries, with Atlantic ports open to the New World, had leapfrogged the old classical centers of wealth in warmer Greece and Rome even before the coal-driven Industrial Revolution. A certain religious sanction for hard work in the here and now, trade with North and South America, and greater distance from the Ottomans fostered economic vibrancy, despite the traditionally poorer northern climate — which from classical times had been cited as a natural obstacle to open-air democratic assemblies and outdoor civic intercourse.

But with the rise of the modern European socialist state, and the decline of religion of any sort, it seems that a Mediterranean climate and weather pattern now ipso facto have institutionalized traditional patterns of behavior — siestas, long lunches and dinners, more holidays, open-air labor strikes and demonstrations — marrying the naturally pleasant skies and seductive good life to the notion that someone else should pay one to enjoy it all. Socialism may have trouble up in Sweden and Germany, but in warm, seaside areas like Greece, Italy, Portugal, southern France, and Spain it can become a veritable lotus land of 14 monthly pay periods, two-hour lunches, three-day weekends, and dinners at nine. That’s why wealthier northerners love to vacation there — while they invest, hire, fire, and make money back home in the cold.

So far, the sunny socialist state has gotten by on two general truths: Most people won’t leave the beautiful coastlines, sunny weather, and scenic landscapes no matter how high the taxes go to subsidize less productive or more needy others; and, second, lots of tourists will visit to bask in the beauty and warmth — and pay quite a lot for even that brief taste of natural paradise.

Yet those smug assurances of the Lala Land redistributive state may be ending. An estimated 3,500 upper-income Californians are leaving their beautiful state each week. They seem to think that crumbling highways, schools rated at near to last in the nation, 5 to 7 million illegal aliens, and overfilling prisons aren’t worth the 10 percent sales tax, 10 percent income tax, and 63-cent-a-gallon combined state and federal gasoline taxes. And they don’t think that Barbara Boxer, Nancy Pelosi, or the California legislature can or wants to fix things.

And if things don’t change for the better, tourists might soon come to find that flying into LAX, driving up a crumbling 101 to Carmel, risking getting off the wrong freeway ramp into Oakland or East LA, and walking through a grimy San Francisco are all beginning to cancel out the wine country, Yosemite, Fisherman’s Wharf, and Disneyland.

Socialist Greece is becoming likewise problematic for the tourists whose euros are so necessary to subsidize the failing Greek welfare state. I try to go there every other summer, and I once lived there off and on for over two years. But I now brace for each visit, expecting to find Syntagma Square entertaining a loud protest by a particular unionized public-worker clique that is angry that another one has gotten a bigger piece of the shrinking pie. Surely the itinerary will need to be reshuffled because of a two-day strike by airline baggage handlers or ferryboat captains, or the highway will be blocked by the tractors of farmers whose subsidies are supposedly too small, or the banks will suddenly close in the afternoon because of an obscure regional holiday, or the car mechanic will be willing to fix the brakes only for off-the-books cash in hand. Then there is the near-death experience if one were to break an ankle on the Acropolis or eat a bad strawberry and end up in the state-run Greek health-care system — whose Inferno I once barely survived through 30 days of 19th-century hospitalization.

What an odd paradox!

Clear skies and warmth have made socialism even worse through encouraging leisure and an escape from reality, and yet with their siren calls have drawn onto their shoals enough new paying sun-worshipers to offer temperate statism a reprieve from its own chronic mismanagement. California and its legions of dependents wager that most of the state’s citizens, no matter how high the taxes and severe the government misery, just won’t leave — and that if they do, there will always be enough newcomer naïfs and tourists to keep subsidizing the state’s failure.

NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, the editor of Makers of Ancient Strategy: From the Persian Wars to the Fall of Rome, and the author of The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern.

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