Local Government

I Was a Teenage 'Libertarian of Convenience'*

Half-assed, selfish opposition to regulation is actually a good start.


Aaron Renn of the Manhattan Institute has a lengthy, somewhat-frustrated analysis at City Journal about the semi-but-not-really-libertarian tendencies of the privileged urban left. In short, progressives who live in our urban centers have discovered the dark side of regulation in city planning, but only so far as it thwarts their interests or threatens their hobby horses:

People identifying as urban progressives increasingly find their own goals stymied by laws and regulations, and they're demanding that these restrictions be overturned or limited. In other areas of city policy, though—typically, when they don't hold a personal stake—they often push aggressively for ever more regulations and a more intrusive government. Call it a libertarianism of convenience. What these part-time freedom lovers don't understand is that, absent a wider culture of liberty, calls for selective liberty will probably go unheeded.

Renn's primary example is of noted progressive writer Matt Yglesias discovering how "draconian central planning" has driven up housing prices and rents in cities and makes it impossible—or at least impractical—for developers to build more housing. But Yglesias is nevertheless a supporter of a full list of other progressive causes that require the heavy hand of government regulation.

There are many other areas, like food trucks, the sharing economy, marijuana legalization, and the "tiny house" movement, where liberals align with libertarians in wanting less regulation. These also happen to be elements of the urban marketplace in which these folks enjoy and like to participate in. You will not find them at a McDonald's, or working in a plastic bag factory, or apparently getting their nails done cheaply, and they don't particularly like these elements, so they don't see any downside to these other regulations and are unlikely to personally experience the harmful after-effects.

I saw what Renn talks about first hand when I attended The Atlantic CityLab's "Urban Solutions to Global Challenges" conference last year here in Los Angeles (Renn also invokes CityLab writing to bolster his argument). Urban leaders love a certain kind of urban dynamism in which they and people like them get to participate and benefit. That's not the same as believing in a truly free marketplace. In fact, even the success of disruptive, uncontrolled innovations that urban leaders embrace won't really challenge their need to control. The attitude at the conference about ride-sharing and room-sharing services was to embrace but regulate. Whatever they try to implement will likely drive up the cost of these services, making it harder for lower-income people to participate in these services. Renn is frustrated at the apparent contradictions:

In Texas's cities, by contrast, progressives often share, to some degree, the state's pro-freedom, pro-market ethos. That's why Houston, though hardly without restrictions on building, has no zoning per se and a pro-market Democrat, Annise Parker, for mayor. Unsurprisingly, it remains an affordable place to live, as do other low-regulation cities, such as Indianapolis.

At least some on the left appreciate the principle of liberty when it comes to things like free speech: they understand that odious opinions have to be tolerated, or everyone's liberty is at risk; and that selective free expression isn't really free. But they fail to see that selective economic freedom brings its own injustices and inequities. Progressives should embrace a broader principle of economic liberty for American cities—not only for the sake of their own pet causes but also because it's the right thing to do.

But there's no reason for us to simply leave things this way, to be exasperated at the oblivious self-absorption of the "regulation for thee but not for me" crowd, as Renn calls them. It's a start. When Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch write about the Libertarian Moment, they're not talking necessarily about people becoming actual self-identified libertarians and free market evangelists, but rather a general trend toward decentralization and individual choice. Don't despair at the selfishness of progressive flirtations with libertarian philosophy. A shift toward more freedom has to start somewhere, and its personal impact is always going to be more compelling to many individuals than abstract philosophizing.

I, too, was once a "libertarian of convenience." I rarely described my politics and never belonged to a political party, but up until my late 20s and early 30s I would have described myself as liberal when pressed. It wasn't that I loved regulation, per se. I was all about the social safety nets. I grew up very poor, and then we became a lot less poor when my father was able to make a shift from being a car mechanic to working on the earliest home computers (after the fact, many years later, I realized how the lack of centralized control over this new employment field helped him with this transition).

I was one of those people who just assumed that regulation and redistribution was done for the benefit of the poor and needy and to keep the powerful from taking advantage of the powerless. Like many young adults, I was completely oblivious about the huge gap between the amount of money taken from Americans for this purpose and the amount that actually got into the hands of the needy and why that happened. Much later, as a small-town newspaper editor, I watched as a federal grant program that was supposed to provide money for programs for the poor embedded with so many fees and spending rules that in the end only about $15,000 actually made it to the actual programs for the needy. It was actually a grant program for government bureaucrats. A chunk of it ended up being used to repave parking lots for city parks. They said they had to, because of the rules.

And then there was the gay thing. There was a time that I felt that I had to be selfish with my politics entirely because I was gay and there were actual policy proposals about how much freedom I should have. This wasn't identity politics; at least not to me. It was entirely about how much freedom I as a gay man should be "permitted," based on whatever social attitude won the day.

In a very unusual, roundabout fashion, the public debate over homosexuality is what led me further down the road to fully embracing a libertarian identity. In 2004 I voted for John Kerry for president. I didn't actually like Kerry; I was just that appalled at George W. Bush. Bush obviously won. At the same time, a bunch of state-level ballot initiatives banned recognition of same-sex marriage. They all passed. I was very angry at the whole thing. I had a very small blog I occasionally wrote on with a friend at the time. I posted a furious rant apologizing because my penis, and what I did with it, was why we were getting another four years of Bush (and war). That probably wasn't true at all, but it was definitely a piece of conventional thinking—that social conservatives helped keep Bush in power and the anti-gay marriage votes brought them to the polls.

But then a realization slowly began to develop. It wasn't a switch flipping or anything so direct. It was a mental process that slowly spooled out over time. It went like this: "I wanted people like me to win the election so that people like me could use the government to help create a society I want to live in. Since people like me lost the election, doesn't it logically follow then that the people who oppose me have earned the right to use the government to help create the society they want to live in?"

I knew that the answer had to be no, because a lot of those people who opposed me wanted to live in a society that didn't include me at all. But that wasn't a logical or ethically consistent worldview. The need to have a consistent worldview was what ultimately brought me into libertarianism, along with those experiences of seeing how government regulation harmed others.

As a result, I maintain a position that gay couples have the right to demand the same government recognition as other couples, assuming we're going to have any. But I also believe that we have no right to demand that anybody outside the government have anything to do with it. That's using the government to control others, and it's wrong. We have a right to government recognition. We do not have a right to order people against their will to provide cake, or flowers, or photographers. Or pizza.

I did not come to libertarianism from reading the works of libertarian philosophers. I didn't even know who they were at the time. Like many other people, my embrace of libertarianism started with what Renn calls "convenience," an interest in maximizing my own, personal freedom. That's not wrong. It's just important that it doesn't stop there. It's important that we call out the harms caused by the anti-GMO crowd, who want to control what others can do to push their idea of a perfect world. It's important that those who hold that the family is the building block of society realize how much harm the drug war and mandatory minimums have done to those very families.

What Renn describes is actually a positive development, but yes, it can absolutely lead to a world of unequal regulations. So we keep providing examples and explaining the true costs of regulation. Urban elites love ride-sharing? Good for them. Here's what they should know: It's not just for elites, and if they actually care they'll keep it that way. I took a Lyft ride to downtown Los Angeles a year ago with a relatively new driver. She told me about a recent passenger who had been in a bad fight (possibly an abusive relationship) and needed to just get away from where she was. Lyft's decentralized system let her get out of there in minutes rather than having to wait for a cab to be dispatched or bringing in friends or the police. She was not a rich person. She was not an elite. Nevertheless the existence of the service helped her, cheaply and efficiently, in a way the status quo could not.

That Lyft would be helpful in dealing with such a situation did not occur to me, and I suspect probably not to anybody who hasn't had this sort of crisis. If the cost of a Lyft ride rises due to regulation, will future abuse victims from poorer backgrounds be denied another useful tool?

These are the stories that free-marketers need to keep pushing. Rather than despairing over the selfishness of urban progressives, keep pushing. Keep them thinking. Keep giving them more chances to realize the importance of economic liberty. It's probably very unlikely that Yglesias will ever be calling himself a libertarian, but there's a whole new generation just learning how civic government actually works, and therefore an opportunity to open their eyes to a whole host of misguided decisions.

(*Actually, late-twenties)