Free to B&B

Can liberals rediscover liberalism?


The other night, upon accepting the 2005 Irving Kristol Award from the American Enterprise Institute, a bastion of inside-the-Beltway conservatism, the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa gave a speech extolling liberalism. Not, he hastened to explain, the contemporary American version, but liberalism in its older sense, an outlook predicated on "tolerance and respect for others," the basic elements of which are "political democracy, the market economy, and the defense of individual interests over those of the state."

This liberalism, which requires private property, free markets, and the rule of law, has little in common with the statist mutation that goes by that name in the U.S. One of classical liberalism's central insights, Vargas Llosa noted, is that "freedom is a single, unified concept. Political and economic liberties are as inseparable as the two sides of a medal." By contrast, self-styled liberals in the U.S. tend to view economic liberty with indifference, if not hostility, leaving its defense to conservatives.

Blayne and Julie McAferty's struggle to save their Seattle bed-and-breakfast suggests why this abdication is a mistake. In 2003, citing a dearth of local bed-and-breakfasts, the Seattle City Council unanimously approved an ordinance that for the first time permitted B&Bs in neighborhoods zoned for single-family residences. But after the McAfertys opened the Greenlake Guest House B&B last summer, their neighbors decided it was one too many. "I've got people waving at me and I don't know who they are," one complained.

Under pressure from residents alarmed by these excessively friendly strangers, the city retroactively declared the McAfertys' B&B illegal, ordering it closed by the end of this month and threatening fines of $75 a day if they don't comply. The official justification for the order is the remodeling work the McAfertys did on their home before opening it as a B&B, which involved adding one dormer to the second floor and expanding another to make the upstairs rooms larger.

According to the city's interpretation of the law, it would have been fine if the McAfertys had simply remodeled their home. Likewise if they had remodeled it and sold it to someone else who then used it as a B&B. Where they ran afoul of the law was in remodeling their home and subsequently offering rooms for rent.

This interpretation is contrary to the explanation offered last year by the director of Seattle's Department of Planning and Development. Although "regulations pertaining to bed and breakfast use stipulate that exterior alterations must not be a part of establishing a bed and breakfast use," she said, "there is no restriction on how much time must transpire between making exterior alterations for a house remodel and establishing bed and breakfast use."

Now the city has changed the rules in response to complaints from the McAfertys' B&B-phobic neighbors. The Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm dedicated to protecting economic liberty, recently filed a lawsuit in King County Court that seeks to stop the city from taking away the McAfertys' livelihood.

Although Americans tend to view the right to earn a living without unreasonable interference from the government as a conservative issue, in this case the conservatives are McAfertys' neighbors, who are using the government to resist change. They are angry about the liberalization that permitted the McAfertys to open their B&B.

Nor is this dispute simply about economic freedom. The government's arbitrary and inconsistent treatment of the McAfertys' business is hard to reconcile with the rule of law. The case also involves freedom of speech, since the city has barred the McAfertys from putting a sign in front of their home and otherwise restricted their ability to advertise.

The experience of running a small business can foster an appreciation for economic liberty even among those previously inclined to give it short shrift. In 1992 George McGovern, the former senator and Democratic presidential candidate who for many years personified leftish "liberalism," wrote a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece decrying the government regulations that had helped drive his Connecticut inn out of business.

Five years later, McGovern was on the op-ed page of The New York Times, astonishing his old opponents by condemning paternalistic policies aimed at stopping people from smoking, drinking, overeating, or bungee jumping. "While the choices we make may be foolish or self-destructive," he wrote, "there is still the overriding principle that we cannot allow the micromanaging of each other's lives."

McGovern finally sounded like a liberal.