Bloomberg's Super PAC Promotes Sensible Centrism—i.e., Whatever Bloomberg Happens to Believe


According to The New York Times, Michael Bloomberg finds "the national political debate" to be "frustratingly superficial." Furthermore, New York City's billionaire mayor wants to "play a bigger role in combating more extreme forces in American politics." He therefore has formed a super PAC through which he will spend $10 million to $15 million on ads supporting "candidates from both parties who he believes will focus on problem solving," candidates "he regards as centrist and who are willing to compromise." His main priorities in deciding how to spend his money are "legalizing same-sex marriage, enacting tougher gun laws and overhauling schools." In other words, thoughtful, moderate, problem-solving politicians are the ones who share Michael Bloomberg's views about gay marriage, gun control, and education reform. I more or less agree with Bloomberg on two out of those three issues, and I certainly do not begrudge him his right to use his money to advance his political causes. But Bloomberg's equation of his own opinions with sensible centrism reflects the amazing egotism of a wealthy man accustomed to power and genuflection who is not quite as deep or smart as he thinks he is.

Consider two policies that embody Bloomberg's vision of nonideological, pragmatic problem solving: the federal "assault weapon" ban, which he wants to revive, and his 16-ounce limit on servings of sugar-sweetened drinks, which is scheduled to take effect in March. Both offend libertarian sensibilities, but they have something else in common: They are purely symbolic measures that accomplish nothing of practical importance. There is no evidence that the "assault weapon" ban, which arbitrarily targeted guns based on their scary, military-style appearance, had any impact on violence, and there is no reason to believe that Bloomberg's pint-sized pop prescription, which is riddled with exceptions, will have any measurable impact on New Yorkers' waistlines. In both cases the basic problem, from a prohibitionist perspective, is the same: The bans leave plenty of alternatives that are just as bad. These measures might make people who are repelled by guns and obesity feel better, but letting those attitudes drive policy is not simply, as Bloomberg seems to think, a matter of common sense. To the extent that they go beyond visceral reactions, those attitudes reflect beliefs (about the government's alleged duty to protect us from our own risky decisions, for example) that are not self-evidently true.

The Times claims "Mr. Bloomberg has built a brand of politics that eschews partisanship for blunt-spoken pragmatism, often taking unpopular positions, like restricting guns and soda sizes and supporting the construction of a mosque near ground zero." Where the Times sees "blunt-spoken pragmatism," I see incoherence. What on earth do these positions have to do with each other, except that they are all espoused by Bloomberg? They are not even all unpopular. Polls consistently find majority support for bringing back the federal "assault weapon" ban, probably because people mistakenly think it dealt with machine guns. And why is taking an unpopular stand a sign that you are pragmatic, let alone right? While Bloomberg deserves credit for bucking public opinion by defending freedom of religion in the controversy over the "Ground Zero mosque," that does not mean he should be praised for pushing his preposterous (and even more unpopular) ban on big beverages. There is a difference, after all, between defending someone's right to use his own property for religious purposes and insisting on your right to stop him from ordering a big soda.

Bloomberg's greatest consistency is his embrace of "public health" paternalism, including efforts to discourage smoking, overeating, and salt consumption. It makes sense that Bloomberg would be attracted to the rhetoric of public health, which allows him to pursue a moral agenda in the guise of neutral science. But one can also discern a broader hostility to freedom and civil liberties (with occasional exceptions), as reflected in his crackdown on pot smokers and his adamant defense of the NYPD's "stop and frisk" program, which dismisses constitutional objections as the quibbling of ideologues who do not understand the reality of crime on the streets. If this is what pragmatic centrism looks like, I'll take extremism any day.

Matt Welch, who analyzed "the banal authoritarianism of do-something punditry" in the December 2011 issue of Reason, considered Bloomberg's reputation as post-ideological problem solver in a 2010 essay.