Politics & Policy

Ezra Klein Misapprehends California’s Problems

Ezra Klein (Carlos Barria/Reuters)
The Golden State is in such deep trouble that even Klein can dimly recognize the crisis. But he can't or won't recognize its causes.

A newspaper editor once described journalists as people who have the bad taste to learn in public. Ezra Klein, a rhetorician who poses as a policy analyst, is doing some learning in public, and learning the hard way.

But what would we do without him? Who but Ezra Klein could survey the wreck left-wing Democrats have made of California and conclude that the state’s problem is its excessive conservatism?

“Conservative” is, of course, an ambiguous word. I remember when both Ronald Reagan and the Communist Party bosses in the Soviet Union simultaneously were described as “conservative” or even “ultraconservative,” sometimes in the same broadcast. Klein the rhetorician anticipates objections on this front and writes that he is not speaking of “the political conservatism that privatizes Medicare, but the temperamental conservatism that” — see if this formulation sounds at all familiar — “stands athwart change and yells ‘Stop!’”

Well, yes, we have heard about that!

California progressives have progressive policies and progressive power, and they like it that way. That is the substance of their conservatism.

California’s problem is not that it is governed by people with copies of An American Renaissance autographed by Jack Kemp on their bedside tables. California’s problem is — not that Klein is inclined to see the fact — that it exemplifies precisely the longstanding conservative critique of managerial progressivism that National Review et al. had in mind when first committing themselves to “Stand athwart.”

Klein makes a superficial distinction between political conservatism and temperamental conservatism, but combines them in rhetorical opposition to the promise of enlightened progressivism, which apparently is a set of policies and principles reflecting whatever his preferences happen to be at any given moment. If the ill effects of some deregulatory effort are an indictment of conservatism, then so, too, are the ill effects of excessive regulation on the California model, which in Klein’s formulation simply represents a different subspecies of conservatism.

Yet Klein gropes his way toward an epiphany, describing California as a victim of

old processes and laws that interest groups or existing communities have perverted for their own ends. The California Environmental Quality Act wasn’t passed to stop mass transit — a fact California finally acknowledged when it recently passed legislation carving out exemptions. The profusion of councils and public hearings that let NIMBYs block new homes are a legacy of a progressivism that wanted to stop big developers from slicing communities up with highways, not help wealthy homeowners fight affordable apartments.

Unintended consequences of economic regulation? Regulatory capture? Tell me more!

California talks a big game on climate change, but even with billions of dollars in federal funding, it couldn’t build high-speed rail between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The project was choked by pricey consultants, private land negotiations, endless environmental reviews, county governments suing the state government. It has been shrunk to a line connecting the midsize cities of Bakersfield and Merced, and even that is horribly over budget and behind schedule.

Political incentives create inefficiencies and rent-seeking? Political managers have their own interests, distinct from and sometimes at odds with those of the people they purport to serve? Who ever heard of such a thing?

In San Francisco, for example, it took 10 years to get two rapid bus transit lines through environmental review. It’s become common in the state to see legislation like the California Environmental Quality Act wielded against projects that would curb sprawl. Groups with no record of green advocacy use it to force onerous environmental analyses that have been used to block everything from bike lanes to affordable housing developments to homeless shelters.

It is almost as though stated preferences are in some cases at odds with revealed preferences!


Klein and others of his ilk like to present themselves as dispassionate pragmatists, enlightened empiricists who only want to do “what works.” Conservatives have long understood that our choice is not between a bundle of prejudices and enlightened scientific management but between a bundle of prejudices and a different bundle of prejudices. Klein mocks San Francisco for renaming schools (Begone, Abraham Lincoln!) while it has no plan to reopen them, but he cannot quite see that these are two aspects of a single phenomenon.

Klein is a practitioner of what Michael Oakeshott called “rationalism in politics.” What is meant by “rationalism” there is not “reason,” but rather the cultic conviction that all social arrangements and sources of human unhappiness are subject to scientific improvement through (generally) inductive methods. It is a superstition. It is also a cover for ideology and camouflage for bias.

Unless Klein intends to argue for some kind of benign dictatorship, he must eventually understand that the troubles he identifies in California are baked into the progressive cake. Create a political power that limits property rights, and that power will be used in the interests of politically powerful people at the expense of less-powerful people as long as there are democratic processes that give them the opportunity. It doesn’t matter how well-intentioned the program is. It doesn’t matter what a regulation was meant to do — it matters what it does.

Intentions do not matter very much, and mere stated intentions matter even less. Klein is blind to that, which is why he is able to write, as though there were something unusual on display: “For all the city’s vaunted progressivism, [San Francisco] has some of the highest private school enrollment numbers in the country.” Rich progressives have always been in favor of school choice and private schools — for themselves. They only oppose choice for poor people, whose interests must for political reasons be subordinated to those of the public-sector unions from which Democrats in cities such as San Francisco derive their power.

Conservatives do not resist many regulations of the sort seen in California because we want cities to be horrible or because we secretly are in the pockets of developers who for some reason want their cities to be horrible; rather, we are skeptical of such schemes because they tend to create artificial shortages, distort markets and investment decisions, and prevent solutions from emerging organically. “Markets work!” is cartoon libertarianism, but you know what? Markets work. And if you don’t let them work, you end up with artificial scarcity, high prices, and rationing.

That has real-world consequences, currently on display in California to such a spectacular degree that even Ezra Klein is able dimly to perceive them. Maybe he’ll learn something.


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