In the Land of Blind Men

 | 

I, like you, have become accustomed to the hypocrisies of collectivists established in politics and the popular culture. Examples are legion, but here are two that have stuck with me:

  • Sen. John Kerry, who once called Americans who avoid high taxes “traitors,” showed all the integrity you’d expect from a gigolo by docking his rich wife’s multi-million-dollar yacht in Rhode Island instead of his native Massachusetts to avoid paying some $500,000 in sales tax and other fees in the Bay State.
  • More recently, the past-his-expiration-date pop singer Bruce Springsteen grasped desperately at street credibility by claiming spiritual kinship with the Occupy Wall Street movement in between jaunts across the pond to watch his daughter jump horses in front of the Queen of England.

There’s a hardened cynicism to these charlatans that I can almost respect. They’re like the Soviet Union’s porcine apparatchiks, mumbling allegiance to the proletariat during the week before speeding off to their dachas for weekends of vodka, caviar, and ritzy mistresses. Decadent men, stewing in the karmic juices of false words and incoherent lives.

But I’m troubled by the paste-eating stupidity of younger collectivists. They’re too dumb to be cynical, too oblivious to be decadent. And they aren’t worthy adversaries.

Consider one Will Doig, a featured essayist for the online magazine Salon.com. The callow Mr. Doig’s beat is “Dream City,” which the mandarins of “progressive” politics at Salon.com describe as follows:

How should we build the cities of our dreams? How do we create the urban spaces which reflect our values and the ways we want to live? In cities around the world, the future is being created now — and Will Doig will chronicle the most exciting and innovative ideas.

Presumptuous use of pronouns. In the immortal words of Tonto: “What do you mean ‘we,’ paleface?” Or “our”? And these points keep coming up.

A recent Doig essay was titled and blurbed “When the 1 percent say no / Cities need public transit and affordable housing. But outdated laws make it easy for the wealthy to block progress.” I’m not going to fisk the entire thing — if you’re so inclined, you can read it yourself. But I do want to point out a few, instructive examples of its stupidity.

Both title and subtitle smack of search-engine optimization (SEO) — the Internet marketing discipline of writing in a way that increases a web page’s likely ranking on Google, Yahoo, etc. In a relatively short space come several phrases cherished by collectivists: “1%,” “public transit,” “affordable housing,” “outdated laws,” and, of course, “the wealthy.” These phrases have taken on totemic qualities — and have lost any real meaning to a broad audience. As George Orwell points out in “Politics and the English Language,” such clich├ęs elicit emotional response in a few hearts but cease to mean any actual thing.

(A note: Doig probably did not write the title/subtitle himself. At most magazines, staff editors do that. That’s especially true when the titles are chock-full of SEO buzzwords.)

Mr. Dream City begins his essay by excoriating the burghers of Beverly Hills for using California’s environmental-impact laws to prevent a segment of subway from being burrowed under their homes.

Right off, Doig makes several lazy mistakes:

  • His characterization of Beverly Hills as an enclave of the wealthiest few is wrong. Most of the city’s residents are professionals, mid- to upper-level corporate managers, and small-business owners desperate enough for status to rent or buy homes in an overpriced — even by southern California standards — ZIP code. The 1% live closer to the Pacific Ocean.
  • Opposition to the subway in Los Angeles is not limited to the strivers in Beverly Hills. Property owners (both residential and commercial) in just about every affected neighborhood have objected to the nuisance of lengthy construction since the decades-old project’s earliest days. The focus on the latest stage of the fight shows considerable selection bias.
  • Doig shows a remarkable obliviousness to irony. The strivers of Beverly Hills are using the same tactics that environmentalist opponents of private-sector real estate development have been using in California for decades. As a man of the Left, Doig should recognize Alinsky tactics: the attorneys and VPs are making the state follow the same Kafkaesque rules that they have to follow.

This blindness to irony abounds in Doig’s essay. Some of his complaints sound more like Donald Trump or the owner of your local strip-mall than Le Corbusier:

The threat of lawsuits and endless public hearings have delayed the project. . . . public micromanagement has become such a problem that several cities are now trying to rein in the Not-In-My-Backyard crowd. “The current process does not work for anyone,” one urban design expert told the San Francisco Chronicle. “We want the Planning Commission to focus on big planning issues, not micro-design issues.”

Public micromanagement? Dude, who’s supposed to oversee public projects? Some urban design expert’s “we”? I, for one, don’t want Planning Commissions focusing on anything. In most situations, I’d like to see them abolished. Put all land in private hands and let the largest property-owners in an area decide among themselves whether they want to spend the millions — or billions — required to build a mass transit system.

Of course, Doig’s “we” is the same as Pauline Kael’s “anyone.” More a reflection of the limits of his worldview than a first-person, plural.

Dream City also fails to grok, or even acknowledge, the role of personal property rights in the social contract. You won’t find the word “property” anywhere in the essay. And, as Doig doesn’t understand personal property, he doesn’t understand takings — something that the founders of this country understood so well that they limited the government’s property-taking power in several ways.

Here’s as close as he comes to stumbling across the concept of takings:

. . . in 1970, the California Environmental Quality Act gave anyone in that state the power to stymie development by questioning its eco-friendliness, a right that’s routinely abused. These rules, designed to check the power of city officials, now perversely consolidate immense power in the hands of a few outspoken “concerned citizens.” . . . Worst of all, these rules have created a new norm in which individual residents just assume that their personal opinions should carry great weight in routine planning decisions.

A “new norm” where citizens assume their opinions carry weight? The stupidity of these sentences is so thick the passage reads like Swift satire. Sadly, it’s not. But it is an almost complete inversion of the reality of the last 40 years, when bogus public interest groups have stymied the plans of individuals and private entities to develop their own property.

To be clear, precious Will: the “personal opinions” of “individual residents” should carry great weight, especially when those residents own the land under which “we” would like to dig a massive subway tunnel. They are an important check against “our” taking or doing things that diminish the value of personal property.

The column ends up butchering the writings of several left-wing economists who study risk theory. The goal seems to be to set “anti-development activism” in the context of bad economic policy. But it fails because Doig doesn’t realize that most “development” is carried out not by some collectivist “we” but by individual private-sector entities. Even in Dream Cities.

I do like one of his conclusions, though: “if a proposed development’s impact is unclear, it’s crucial to take into account not just its unforeseen negative effects, but its unforeseen positive ones, too.” I’ll break out that quote the next time enviro-hipster carpetbaggers come to my county to protest the development of an empty lot into a golf course.

Salon.com isn’t a serious political magazine. Its business model seems to be to launch the TV careers of left-wing talking heads whose rising media profiles will result in clicks and advertising revenue. Bon chance. If its talking heads are as oblivious as Will Doig, we won’t have Salon.com to kick around for very much longer.




Share This

© Copyright 2013 Liberty Foundation. All rights reserved.



Opinions expressed in Liberty are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Liberty Foundation.

All letters to the editor are assumed to be for publication unless otherwise indicated.