City of Dreams

Los Angeles is a model city-for better or worse


No political issue is more important to the future of the United States than how Los Angeles will deal with its growth. This sounds both wildly exaggerated and highly parochial, but it is nonetheless true.

The United States is in the midst of an intellectual guerrilla war over what sort of country it is going to be. The engagements are scattered, the attacks furtive. But the stakes are high: Will America continue to allow individuals to shape their own identities and carve out new opportunities, even when that entails the disruption, the "creative destruction," that change brings? Or will it try to fix the present like a bee in amber, to preserve today's look and feel and social arrangements even if that means sacrificing tomorrow's ability to fly? Will we trust the creativity of individuals to create decentralized, spontaneous orders—"miracles by accident"? Or will we turn over our lives to the experts, to be planned and padded and insulated from all risk and all rewards?

This struggle comprises many issues. It incorporates the debates about safety, liability, and new technologies; about industrial policy; about immigration; about education and credentialism. But for most people, the most important clashes are taking place over local issues—particularly over how much regulators will control what people do with their property and, as a result, how cities will be allowed to grow.

In this struggle, those who capture Los Angeles will very likely capture the nation. L.A. is the biggest prize because of what it is and of what it represents. It is the country's fastest-growing city, adding four times as many people each year as number-two Phoenix. It has already supplanted New York as the country's biggest manufacturing center and its largest port. Within decades, it will be the most populous city. It is the center of the nation's two largest export industries—aerospace and entertainment—and the capital of the Pacific Rim. And it is the leading example of the new, post-European city: a decentralized collection of "urban villages," rather than a center city surrounded by suburbs.

But Los Angeles is also something less tangible and more meaningful. It is the city of dreams—of Hollywood, yes, but of older dreams, as well. Los Angeles still holds out the American promise that you can build a new life in a new land, unbound by the constraints of connections or class. One out of eight foreign-born Americans lives here. Most of the rest of us are immigrants from somewhere east. The American frontier, with all its possibilities and all its excesses, ends on the shores of the Pacific.

Southern Californians know that what they have is precious. But those who have been here for decades miss what they once had—big-city living standards without big-city hassles. They want to drive without traffic and park without searching. They don't want tall buildings blocking the sun or the view. They fear crime and crowds. They don't want L.A. to become New York.

Growth hurts. The new dreamers make life less pleasant for the old. But those who want to stop growth by decree would doom Los Angeles to the very fate they fear. New York has exactly the kinds of central planning and controls advocated by those most afraid of turning Los Angeles into the Big Apple, West. And those regulations are what make New York such a twisted place. In a city where the rules are made to be brokered, the Donald Trumps who know how to manipulate the system become fabulously wealthy. The anonymous landlords and shopkeepers and business owners who naively trust in justice and property rights become victims.

"It is certain," noted Tocqueville, "that despotism brings men to ruin more by preventing them from producing than by taking away the fruits of their labors; it dries up the fount of wealth while often respecting acquired riches." In such a system, lawlessness rules.

If Southern Californians, in trying to end traffic jams and abolish smog, turn their future over to the central planners, they will destroy their promised land. Trust in individual choices has made Los Angeles flourish. Riddle it with regulations, give faceless planners dictatorial powers, and in place of democracy, we will have the aristocracy of pull. And as Los Angeles goes, so will go Atlanta, and Phoenix, and Orlando, and Miami, and all the other places where dreams survive.

This issue of REASON is dedicated to the proposition that what happens in Los Angeles matters as much to America as what happens in Washington—and that L.A. can cope with its problems without resorting to despotism.

Associate Editor Virginia I. Postrel is the special editor of this issue.