How Progressives Ruined San Francisco: Michael Shellenberger

The author of the new book "San Fransicko", says the homelessness crisis is an addiction and mental health crisis enabled by policies that permit open-air drug scenes on public property and prevent police from enforcing laws


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"It's time that the reign of criminals who are destroying our city…come[s] to an end,"" said San Francisco Mayor London Breed, a Democrat, at a December 14, 2021 press conference. "It comes to an end when we take the steps to be more aggressive with law enforcement."

We need to be "less tolerant of all the bullshit that has destroyed our city," continued Breed, who declared a state of emergency in the city's Tenderloin district a few days later, leading to an increased police presence in the epicenter of the city's growing homelessness and addiction crisis. 

It was a moment that outraged the city's progressive political establishment and was a major turnaround for Breed, who after the police killing of George Floyd in 2020 called for "ending the use of police in responding to non-criminal activity." She was roundly criticized by groups like the Coalition on Homelessness, who called the move an "expansion of strategies that have been tried and failed" that would contribute to the "instability and poor public health outcomes" of people living on the streets. 

Michael Shellenberger, author of the new book San Fransicko: Why Progressives Ruin Cities, called Breed's new "tough love" approach a "big step in the right direction." The homelessness crisis, he says, is actually an addiction and mental health crisis enabled by progressive policies that permit open-air drug scenes on public property, prevent police from enforcing laws against crimes, and undermine the creation of a functional mental health care system. 

Reason spoke with Shellenberger, who's a Bay Area activist and writer best known for his work on environmental issues and support for nuclear power. We talked about his foray into social policy, his critiques of both progressive and libertarian politics, Breed's new approach, and how Shellenberger thinks America's big cities can clean up their streets without grossly violating civil liberties. 

"Why is it that cities that ostensibly care the most about poor people, minorities, people suffering mental illness and addiction…Why do they treat them so terribly?" asks Shellenberger. "Is it a lack of housing? Is it a lack of rehab? What's going on? So [answering those questions is] the reason for the book."

Watch the full interview above.

Music credits: "Stay Strong," by Iamdaylight, via Artlist

Photo Credits: Pax Ahimsa Gethen, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons; Michael Shellenberger, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons; Drew G Stephens, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons; Foundations World Economic Forum, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons; Aerospace Technology Institute/Cover Images/Newscom; Gavin Hellier/robertharding/Newscom; Pat Mazzera / SOPA Images/Sipa U/Newscom; John Rudoff/Sipa USA/Newscom; Ron Adar / M10s / SplashNews/Newscom; Wu Xiaoling / Xinhua News Agency/Newscom; Tim Wagner/ZUMAPRESS/Newscom;

Interview by Zach Weissmueller, edited by Adam Czarnecki, opening graphic by Regan Taylor.