Hello, Nurse!

The petty tyranny of Michael Bloomberg


In nine or 10 years Michael Bloomberg will be penning a chapter of his second autobiography (Bloomberg by Bloomberg II: Get Bloomberg'd) or giving an interview to the CBS Evening News with Michelle Malkin and he'll have to dig deep for some answers: What was that 2008 election all about? Why did he think he could win? Who told him he'd make a good president? Who, exactly, was he supposed to appeal to?

Those unlucky enough to live outside the New York mayor's cocoon already know the answers. In order: ignorance, really super-flagrant ignorance, his love-struck political brain trust, and people who read this magazine.

Yes, he's supposed to hook reason readers. The Atlantic's Matthew Yglesias, a smashmouth critic of Bloombergmania and third parties in general, thinks Bloomberg is a natural reason candidate: "From a reason magazine perspective, it seems to me that a Bloomberg Administration is likely to be substantially more libertarian than either a Democratic or a Republican one would be." When ex-Perot pollster Frank Luntz noodles about 25 percent of the country yearning for an independent candidate, he's including libertarians whose enthusiasm for the leading Democratic and Republican candidates is too small to be measured in nanos.

When Bloomberg looks back, he'll realize that he lost that potential support by…entering the presidential race. (Yes, technically, he hasn't entered it yet. He's just launched a campaign website, left the Republican Party, and embarked on a political speechifying tour, all of which means he will definitely not run for president.) Until last week Bloomberg luxuriated in the warm, soothing glow that national media, on a whim, sometimes shine on a likable pol. When the glow is on, that politician is without fault or blemish or even controversy. What's he stand for? Whatever voters want him to stand for.

Bloomberg's grace period was brief but brilliant: He was un-bought and un-buyable; he snapped the spine of New York City liberalism like an arthritic crab leg. Seven months ago George Will could say, "Bloomberg has demonstrated, in both the public and private sectors, what the electorate cried out for on Election Day: 'Competence, please.'" Now that he's a candidate (probably), Will's changed the tune in mid-hum: Bloomberg is guilty of "old and recurring utopianism" and "exquisite vacuousness."

And the message to libertarians: Suck it up. We've been Bloomberg's most consistent critics since he tromped into City Hall, after all. Our nickname for the mayor was/is "Nurse Bloomberg," inspired by his insistent meddling in the sundry self-polluting habits of New York life. And we're supposed to stop being such whiny, unrealistic churls. In his advice to the free minds/free markets set, Yglesias writes that Bloomberg is "specifically identified with a brand of trivial nanny-stating—indoor smoking ban, trans fat ban—that seems to be to aggravate libertarians in a manner that's out of proportion to the actual significance of the policy issues."

Now that Bloomberg's reputation is coming down to earth, maybe we can argue this point. There's no such thing as trivial nanny-stating. There is legislation that affects personal behavior a lot and legislation that affects it only a little. But it's part of one continuum; the pol who believes he can enhance public health by limiting public choice believes he can fix many other problems by limiting that choice. One success follows another. The critics of one minor quality-of-life law wither away, and it's easy to imagine the next round of critics meeting the same date with obscurity.

So Bloomberg's belief in the "nanny state" isn't a feature or a sideshow to his style of governance. It's a direct byproduct, and it's ingrained in his philosophy. He's never been very shy about this: In his first campaign for mayor Bloomberg broke with even the Democratic candidates and opposed the very idea of using tobacco settlement money for, well, anything. "There is something that makes me uncomfortable about taking tobacco money," he said at a public forum before 9/11. It wasn't that the tobacco companies were wronged. It was that Bloomberg viewed the cash the way apostles came to view little bags of silver coins.

Absolutely no one was surprised when Bloomberg won power and used it to muscle through his smoking ban. In hindsight, as city after city turns the lights out on indoor smoking, it almost does seem trivial—who can blame a guy for wanting to get a one-year jump on Delaware? But it's key to understanding how Bloomberg thinks. Government doesn't exist to keep people safe or to guard their property. Government makes them better people. At the same time he was muscling through the smoking ban Bloomberg launched Operation Silent Night, a plan to cut down on noise pollution by pouncing on noisy people and their noisier cars. As Bloomberg advisor Vincent LaPadula explained at the time, "Examples will be made. We are going to seize cars. That is how people get the message."

That's how Bloomberg faced down every problem that has come up during his mayoralty. If the problem might be solved with more money-revenue shortfalls, wooing the Olympics with a new stadium—Bloomberg goes to the taxpayers. If the problem is with New Yorkers' behavior—their cigarettes, their noise, their snacking on those infernal trans fats—Bloomberg puts down the calculator and grasps for the handcuffs. The running theme is a distrust of voters and a general uneasiness about the way they want to govern themselves.

Plenty of people have seen the ad by the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws that appropriated Bloomberg's 2001 answer to a question about whether he'd ever smoked up: "You bet I did, and I enjoyed it." Less well remembered is how Bloomberg responded to the ad. He grimaced. "I am not thrilled they are using my name. I suppose there's that First Amendment that gets in the way of my stopping it." That pesky First Amendment! The only thing that irritates America's Other Mayor more is the Amendment that comes after, and Bloomberg has built a nationwide coalition to fix that, too.

Taken independently of one another Bloomberg's follies and obsessions do sound petty. But why take them one by one? They're of a piece; they're the priorities and solutions of a leader who believes that governmental micromanaging can change peoples' behavior and understands that the same micromanaging looks like incredible competence, even as bigger issues like affordability and congestion slip out of his control. The most telling riff on Bloomberg's mayoralty—a surprisingly funny one for a guy whose funny bone could escape MRI detection—was a video from the city's satirical Gridiron Dinner portraying him as a monarch merrily solving problems for his "peasants."

Funny stuff, but the joke relies on the viewer agreeing with Bloomberg that a "good king" is one who'll vigorously protect the peasants from themselves. That's been taken for granted in New York. Bloomberg is going to find out that the message won't travel much further.

David Weigel
is an associate editor of reason.

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