Gavin Newsom Thinks California Is Freer Than Florida. Is He Crazy?

If Newsom wants to pick a fight with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, he should try a different topic.


It's hard to understand the rationale for Gov. Gavin Newsom's Independence Day political ad in Florida, which urged Floridians to "join us in California where we still believe in freedom." OK, there's a political rationale given that Newsom might actually be planning to run for president, but the video ad is inexplicable.

In fact, its wording suggests that Newsom might be delusional. In recent interviews, the California governor pinned his motivation on Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' threat to impose a $27.5-million fine on the Special Olympics if that group didn't rescind its vaccine mandate.

On that specific point, I agree that threatening a private group with a fine was wrong. DeSantis has indeed embraced a variety of "culture war" policies designed to support his burgeoning campaign for the GOP presidential nomination. I have no use for governors of either party who engage in rhetorical spats as they attempt to appeal to their political base.

I still cringe at the childish battle between former Gov. Jerry Brown and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry after Perry ran ads in California urging businesses to relocate. Brown said Perry's ad campaign wasn't serious: "It was barely a fart." That's silly stuff, but Perry's ads made logical sense given that California's regulatory climate has long been a boon for Austin and Dallas.

But in what universe can a governor argue that California—despite its historical appeal to entrepreneurs and creative types—remains a beacon for freedom seekers? That ship has sailed like a yacht that has departed Long Beach harbor.

California might arguably be freer when it comes to some social behaviors, but in most areas—starting and operating a business, pursuing work, building housing, educating our kids free from government control—it is unquestionably among the nation's least-free states.

Our tax rates are so high that Californians mainly are free to work longer hours to pay for a modicum of mostly shoddy services. Keeping the money one earns is in some ways the ultimate freedom issue. Is Newsom unaware that our population is declining—as people flee our sunny clime and magnificent scenery for Godforsaken places such as Nevada and Oklahoma?

Furthermore, Californians are facing water shortages and draconian water restrictions even as Newsom's own administration has rejected new storage and desalination projects. His administration is scurrying to keep the lights on as the heat rises.

Ah, nothing says freedom like having the water police fine you when you wash the car. Or relying on a generator after the lights go out as the state mismanages the electricity grid. I don't feel particularly free knowing that the state also is busy banning those generators and other small internal-combustion-powered lawn equipment. But that's the California way.

Whenever some think tank or trade group produces a study comparing states—on tax rates, licensing rules, regulatory hurdles, quality of public services or housing fees—I always save myself time by immediately scanning the bottom of the list. The only question is whether California will fare better than Illinois, New York or New Jersey.

Perhaps Newsom and his fellow Democrats don't understand that regulations, which are by definition "rules or directives made and maintained by an authority," signify the opposite of freedom. If a person is free, that person obviously chooses how to live. If a person is regulated, that person must behave as the governmental authorities dictate.

Let's consider licensing laws, where the government imposes a long list of conditions (fees, educational requirements) on one's ability to legally work. How free are we if the authorities make it so difficult to work that we have no choice but to operate in the underground economy? "An 'occupational license' is, put simply, government permission to work in a particular field," explains the libertarian Institute for Justice.

The government mandates training, which often is disconnected from the actual work the licensees will do. Typically, trade groups with an interest in reducing competition from new workers lobby for burdensome conditions. According to IJ's latest report, California enforces some of the most-stringent licensing rules in the nation. Instead of revising them, the state hires more inspectors to fine and even jail unlicensed workers.

That shouldn't surprise anyone. In 2019, Newsom signed a "landmark" law (Assembly Bill 5) that largely banned companies from hiring independent contractors as a way to help unions get a leg up. Why do you think truck drivers now are blocking the Port of Oakland? Apparently, Newsom's idea of freedom doesn't involve freedom to work in the open market.

Even when California tries to make us a little freer, it does so in such a cumbersome way that its efforts backfire. The state's cannabis legalization law includes so many restrictions and taxes that many growers continue to operate in the black market.

So, governor, Florida may be an unappealing swamp, but it's less regulated – and therefore generally freer—than California.

This column was first published in The Orange County Register.