California is a behemoth among states. If it seceded from the United States, as Libertarian blogger Ron Getty advocates, its gross national product of $1.62 trillion dollars would make it the seventh largest economy in the world. California has approximately 16 million more people than Australia. How can the Rocky Mountain States not be affected by everything California does?
Hollywood has molded the image and the myths of the Rocky Mountain West for the entire world. Much of the technology that went into the computer on which you’re reading this article was developed in Silicon Valley. Much of the food in your refrigerator probably comes from the Central Valley. Much of the new population of the interior West’s cities emigrated from California.
California is a trendsetter state. Much like the weather, every Californian fad eventually makes its way over the Sierras and diffuses into the intermountain West. That’s wonderful, and it’s frightening, because there are some pretty disturbing things going on in the Golden State right now.
O.K., I’ll admit: disturbing to people who take their civil liberties seriously. But I’m one of them. So here’s the list:
First off, we’ve got Berkeley, home of the Free Speech Movement. The residents there recently passed “Measure G,” to lower the whole city’s greenhouse emissions by 80% before 2050. Quoting from an article by the San Francisco Chronicle’s Carolyn Jones,
“Some measures will be popular and easy, like a car-share vehicle on every block and free bus passes, but others will be bitter pills, such as strict and costly requirements that homes have new high-efficiency appliances, solar-powered water heaters, insulation in the walls and other energy savers.”
And further on:
“…builders will use only recycled and green materials. Residents will be told exactly how many carbon units they’re generating based on the cars they own, the distances they drive, the waste they generate and the energy they consume.”
“Enlightened,” you might think, but Jones further notes that Berkeley residents “already pay some of the highest taxes in the state” and that landlords will be “allowed” a small increase to cover the bus passes they’ll be mandated to buy for their tenants. There are three words which should trouble every Westerner: “taxes,” “mandated” and “allowed”—the last implying that rents are controlled, which, in fact, they are. Also, forcing landlords to buy bus passes puts the lie to the notion that they are “free.” Even if they were issued “free,” the taxpayers would still have to pick up the tab. There is no “free.”
Then there’s San Francisco, where animal cruelty laws dictate—another despicable word—that dog “guardians” serve their pets water in a “nonspill bowl in the shade. Their food must be wholesome, palatable and sufficiently nutritious,” which leads me to ask, ‘what makes dog food wholesome?’ and, ‘sufficiently nutritious by whose standards?’ And I also wonder, ‘how would you know whether the food was palatable to your pet or if it—excuse me, s/he–was just really hungry? Would you consult a pet psychic?’
Speaking of which, if you do want to know what your neighbor’s animal companion is thinking, using your psychic abilities, you will first have to obtain a $357 license and show the appropriate city government bureaucrat a valid ID, detail to him the last five years of your employment, provide him with a residential address and other personal information, get fingerprinted and pass a background check.
San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors banned smoking in all open spaces owned by the city–except for golf courses, initially, because golfers contribute greens fees to the city, while the rest of the smoking rabble do not. Realizing how that made them look, they have now kicked smokers off the greens as well.
The citizens of San Francisco attempted to pass one of the most restrictive gun laws in the nation, pretty much banning handguns within city limits, except for those carried by cops. This would make sense to me if the criminals in the City by the Bay were uniformly honest, friendly and non-violent and if they all paid scrupulous attention to such prohibitions, but my research has led me to believe that there are a few ‘bad’ criminals who aren’t, and don’t.
Back in 2005, San Francisco Supervisor Sophie Maxwell tried to pass a bill which would have required bloggers engaged in “electioneering communications,” i.e. political advocacy, to register their blogs with the city’s Ethics Commission and report all financial activities related to their sites.
There was also the famous bill that would have banned spanking of children in California, introduced by Mountain View (Silicon Valley) Assemblywoman Sally Lieber, and shot down in flames.
Many business and products in California have Proposition 65 warning labels affixed to them, warning the ever-unsuspecting public of the dangers of grocery produce, nail polish, solvents, oil, gasoline, you name it. Businesses which fail to post the proper signage can face fines of $2500 per day. Freelance journalist Donald Melanson noted the following label on his computer’s mouse:
“The cord on this product contains lead, a chemical known to the State of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm. Wash hands after handling.”
And finally, there’s a few nanny-state laws lately considered by the State Legislature, as related by San Diegan Adam Summers an economist and policy analyst for the Reason Foundation:
• AB 722 — Would “phase out” the sale of incandescent light bulbs in favor of more energy-efficient fluorescent bulbs (despite the fact that harmful levels of mercury from fluorescent bulbs can add up in landfills, contaminating the soil and making their way into the food supply). This bill has been amended so that now, instead of banning bulbs outright, it would have the State Energy Resources Conservation and Development Commission set a minimum energy efficiency for bulbs. A nice P.R. move that would, in practice, essentially ban incandescent bulbs.
• SB 7 — Would ban smoking in a vehicle–moving or stationary–in which there is a minor.
• AB 86/AB 90/AB 97/SB 490 — Would restrict the use of trans fats in restaurants and school cafeterias.
• SB 120/SB 180 — Would require caloric, trans fat, saturated fat, and sodium content information to be printed on restaurant menus.
• AB 1634 — Would require dog and cat owners to spay or neuter their animals by four months of age.
Is this the same state that legalized medical marijuana? What happened to California?
“Nothing,” says Ron Getty, “Other than year-round politicians who feel that to look good they have to show how tough they are on (fill in the blank) or show how caring they are on behalf of (fill in the blank). The majority of (the nanny laws were) introduced in basic essence by legislators who are at heart control freaks.”
Santa Rosa resident Skaidra Smith-Heisters, also of the Reason Foundation, points out that such laws are not unique to California. New York City has already banned trans fats. It was the first city in the nation to ban talking on cell phones without a headset while driving. “Cultural norms differ from state to state,” she says, “but the underlying attitude is more pervasive than one might first imagine.” However, “What is perhaps different about California is that politicians and voters are not shy about approving radical laws. They enjoy the sense that California is the first state to try new things. The irony that the justification for things like this recent rash of smoking bans came from Washington—from President Bush’s Surgeon General, Richard Carmona—is totally lost on them.”
Adam Summers believes California’s nanny laws are “an evolution of a political mind-set that probably dates back to around the 1960s or so.” The state, he says, has “not always had such an activist government, but the trend has been going this way for some time.”
Getty doesn’t see much prospect of California’s current experiments in freedom-curtailment coming to a legislative body near you but Summers does. I’m with Summers.
Both Summers and Smith-Heisters, however, believe that lawmakers will use global warming to justify the next wave of overly-restrictive laws, nanny and otherwise. According to an article by the San Francisco Chronicle’s Mark Martin, California Attorney General and former Governor Jerry Brown is using AB 32, the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, to stick a wrench into San Bernardino County’s 25-year growth plan. Brown is suing the county because several developments on the drawing board don’t even consider smart growth as a way to minimize global warming. And he warns, “This is just the preliminary step in the turbulent waters of AB 32.”
It’s hard to argue against cleaner air and water and voluntary measures to reduce greenhouse emissions, but no politician ever wants to stop there. Just as much as they fear the erosion of rights under the twin wars on terror and drugs, those of a libertarian bent also fear the totalitarian implications of a looming environmental crusade, as evidenced by the extreme measures taken in Berkeley. Or course, in the case of global warming, the whole world is at risk. But the world has been at risk many times before, from hellfire and dysgenics, fascism, communism, capitalism, global cooling, terrorism, and Wal-Mart. The leaders of the crusades against each threat believed they had the facts on their side, and in each case, except Wal-Mart’s, part of the ‘solution’ lay in trampling citizen’s rights.
The mandatory seatbelt and helmet laws that most of us have to obey, might just seem like minor nuisances, especially compared with previous governmental intrusions, like sedition laws. But that’s part of the danger. Says Summers:
“In the grand scheme of things, it might seem like a minor inconvenience to buy a different kind of light bulb (and to have to start recycling instead of throwing them away) or to stop smoking in your own car if kids are present or include certain nutritional information on restaurant menus, but such minor violations of liberty add up over time. Before long, you look back and realize that you have given up a lot of your freedoms merely by acquiescing to others’ beliefs on how you should live your life.”
Back in 1909, California progressives enacted a eugenics program which resulted in the forced sterilization of 19,000 people. Oliver Wendell Holmes, reviewing the case of the “socially inadequate” Carrie Bell, in the landmark Buck v Bell, concluded that “her welfare and that of society will be promoted by her sterilization.” That makes the California eugenics statute a “nanny law.” In light of that misstep alone, you would think that Californians would be eager to enact legislation which severely curtailed the powers of their own government, and meted out harsh penalties to overbearing moralists. But the opposite is true.
“In my experience,” says Smith-Heisters, “the problem is that so many people lack an institutional analysis of policy questions about lifestyle/personal choices. The average person evaluates these policies from a purely individual perspective; on the question of smoking, for instance, the average person forms their opinion of restrictions based on whether or not he smokes, and whether or not he thinks smoking is ‘bad.’”
I might agree with the last part of Smith-Heister’s analysis, but not the first. On many issues, I don’t think there should be an “institutional analysis,” because some factors can’t be reduced to statistics. Lowered highway speed limits save lives, so why not drop the limit to twenty-five miles per hour? And instead of mandating that motorcyclists wear helmets, why not ban motorcycles altogether?
Why not outlaw personal motor vehicles entirely and make everybody pay for and then utilize mass transportation, which is safer, more cost-effective and less polluting? The answer which politicians, bureaucrats, social engineers and even a segment of the voting populace hate to admit is that there is some other intangible human quality against which the number of saved lives must be balanced, which is individual freedom. What most people really want, more than their government looking out for them, is to be left alone.
Currently, there are more people leaving California than moving in. Even if the numbers were roughly equal, however, the influx of Californians into the other western states would be huge. Most of the reverse-Oakies are looking for a more affordable place to live. The median house price in California is over half-a-million dollars. Others don’t care for the smog and traffic congestion. A few don’t care for the crime. And the tax rates aren’t great either. And a small but growing number, I would wager, don’t enjoy being treated like children. If you emigrate from California for this last reason, the concentration of those who prefer a collective, authoritarian approach to personal issues increases, inspiring more people who won’t put up with such behavior to exit, which leaves an even higher concentration of control freaks, and so on, until no one will want to live in the enforced paradise that California has become.
As for Berkeley, my gut feeling is that it can meet its goals if it sticks to its program, but that it’s demographics in 2050, outside the University of California, will be almost entirely made up of people old enough to remember when Nixon was president and rich enough not to mind 60 percent of their income going to the government, instead of their children, who will have to live far away. I will also predict that by then, residents will be wearing Darth Vader-style masks to capture their carbon dioxide output for future sequestration, that they will have to fill out an environmental impact statement to start up their cars for a drive in the country and that, if they leave their super-duper, high-efficiency light bulbs on all night, the “appliance police” will kick down their front doors and beat in their false teeth.
That may be fine for Berkeley but I hope they don’t export it to the rest of the West.