Hey, Ho! Go With the Flow!


Jerry Brown officially entered California's gubernatorial race today. Last year, after it became clear that Brown wanted to take back the job he had held from 1975 to 1983, I wrote an article about his career and the mixture of idealism and opportunism that has always fueled it. I won't try to summarize the whole thing, but here's an excerpt about Brown's first tenure in the governor's mansion:

We've got a bigger problem now.

He was by no means unfriendly to the Left. In his first presidential campaign, in 1976, he picked Black Panther chief Elaine Brown as one of his convention delegates. But Governor Brown was much more of a fiscal conservative than Governor Reagan, even if he made arguments for austerity that the Republican would never use. (At one point, to get across the idea that a lean organization could outperform a bloated bureaucracy, he offered the example of the Viet Cong.) Reagan had raised taxes several times and boosted spending by an average of 12.2 percent a year. In his first year as governor, by contrast, Brown increased spending by just 4.6 percent, less than the rate of inflation. He wasn't always so restrained in the rest of his reign, but he was thriftier than his predecessor, accumulating one of the biggest budget surpluses in California history. In Brown's first gubernatorial campaign, he had denounced "recycled Reaganism." In Brown's first year in office, Reagan's director of programs and policies joked that his old boss "thinks Jerry Brown has gone too far to the right."

Brown also favored a balanced budget amendment and, though he opposed the tax-cutting Proposition 13 while it was on the ballot, he slashed spending merrily to meet its requirements once the initiative became law. Sometimes his rhetoric seemed to question the very premises of the welfare state. "The income supplement is never going to be enough if people are estranged from society," he told Time in 1975. "But if you have children to take care of you, friends, a nice community, it's a winner."

At the same time, he liberalized the state's marijuana law, decriminalized homosexuality, and strongly opposed the death penalty. This combination of fiscal austerity and social tolerance might seem libertarian. Indeed, Eric Garris wrote a generally favorable piece about Brown for Reason in 1975, and Murray Rothbard praised him that same year in The Libertarian Forum, though his later remarks about the governor were more caustic. Brown even hired the old left-libertarian firebrand Wilson Clark as his energy adviser. But Brown also called for mandatory national service, endorsed the Humphrey-Hawkins full-employment bill, and deployed a series of subsidies and regulations to enact his environmental agenda. In that same Time interview, he turned from denouncing government planning to declaring that public intervention would be necessary to reach full employment.

How much will a second Brown governorship resemble the first one? Who knows? His campaign statements so far have been a mix of good and bad, though I'm not sure how seriously we should take them in any case. As I wrote in the profile, "The man has reversed course so many times before that there's no reason to assume he'll stand by anything he says. When Jerry Brown wants power, he has a good sense of what he has to do to win and maintain it."