Something curious is happening in cities across the country. Urban progressives are finding their goals stymied by laws and regulations, and they’re demanding less government interference — but very selectively. Call them Libertarians of Convenience.
Nowhere is this trend more noticeable than in housing policy. Rules limiting density have become a regular target. Liberal urban affairs journalist Henry Grabar has lamented Los Angeles’ “regulation-induced housing shortage.” Vox’s Matt Yglesias, a left-wing writer, wants to see a major rollback of regulation to create a freer market in land use.
But the urban left’s sudden passion for deregulation goes beyond housing. When hip food establishments run into red tape, progressives jump into gear. The regulatory travails of Chicago’s Logan Square Kitchen attracted a series of articles in the alternative weekly Chicago Reader, which observed: “The minutiae of this licensing confusion are mind numbing.”
Libertarians and city-dwelling foodies have joined forces to promote “food freedom” and fight bans on unpasteurized milk and meat curing. “Farmers should be able to smoke a ham and sell it to their neighbors without making a huge investment in federally approved facilities,” wrote food activist and author Michael Pollan.
Rules that make food trucks illegal or hard to run are yet another irritant. “Many restaurateurs would prefer a downtown free from competitors,” Greater Greater Washington editorialized, “but it makes as much sense to give restaurants input on where food trucks can operate as it does to give food trucks control over prices restaurants can charge.”
Much of the new “sharing economy” — made up of firms such as Airbnb and Lyft, which facilitate the peer-to-peer rentals of things like apartments or cars that the owners aren’t using — has made regulators uneasy, but progressives have proved more friendly than not to this burgeoning market.
Urban progressives’ enthusiasm for deregulation is highly inconsistent, however; indeed, in many policy areas, they’re pushing for greatly expanded regulation. They’ve joined the fight for local minimum-wage hikes in cities from Chicago to Los Angeles, for instance, and they regularly try to block chain retailers such as Wal-Mart from expanding in their neighborhoods.
The regulatory spirit is particularly relentless when it comes to the environment. San Francisco has restricted plastic water bottles and banned single-use plastic bags from stores, prompting the alternative weekly San Francisco Bay Guardian to cheer the city for continuing to “lead the way in the nation’s environmental policy.” New York’s liberal icon mayor, Bill de Blasio, has announced a ban on polystyrene packaging starting in July.
Smoking policy brings out the most absurd contortions, as the left champions the legalization of marijuana even as it vilifies tobacco. San Francisco — it’s easy to pick on San Francisco — has banned cigarette smoking at outdoor events, but exempted pot smoking for “medical” purposes.
These inconsistencies seem to reflect elite biases. The things that liberal-minded city residents like and want to do — eat from hip food trucks, smoke dope and other “bourgeois bohemian” pursuits — should be left as free as possible, consequences be damned. Those that they consider declasse — Big Gulps, cigarettes, Wal-Mart — should be restricted or even shut down. It’s regulation for thee but not for me.
Libertarians of Convenience may argue that there’s no real contradiction here, that they have no problem with regulation in theory, just with stupid regulation; that they only favor laws regulating genuinely harmful activities, and liberalization in all other cases. But that claim doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
Consider raw milk, which some progressives think should be sold freely along with pasteurized milk: From 2007 to 2012, 26 states reported 81 bacterial-infection outbreaks to the Centers for Disease Control. These outbreaks caused almost 1,000 illnesses and close to 100 hospitalizations.
Or, on the other side of the spectrum, consider e-cigarettes, which many liberals want to see regulated as tightly as traditional cigarettes. E-cigarettes contain no tobacco and produce no smoke. There’s no evidence that they’re linked to cancer.
Nor are Libertarians of Convenience particularly sympathetic to those who cling to the regulations that they happen to despise. Yglesias, for instance, has said that people who don’t want to live next to a tall building should simply move if one pops up in their neighborhood.
What part-time freedom lovers don’t understand is that, absent a wider culture of liberty, their calls for change will probably go unheeded. They can’t just flip the regulatory mind-set on and off, like a light switch, depending on what they like or don’t like. Many of the bans and rules that well-meaning liberal bureaucrats impose on cities not only make life difficult for muffler shops, hardware stores, plumbing firms, bodegas and other unglamorous operations, but they also harm the enterprises that progressives love.
Most activities generate at least some negative result somewhere to someone. Government’s role is not to eliminate all possible risk or harm. It is to intervene when truly necessary. And while the definition of “necessary” is fundamentally political, in a free society such as ours, the bias should be toward less meddling, not more.
At least some on the left appreciate the principle of liberty when it comes to things such as 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.
Aaron M. Renn is a contributing editor of City Journal, from which this essay was adapted.