Will Post-Pandemic California Be More Progressive or More Libertarian?
By Kerry Jackson, Pacific Research Institute
From government officials to pundits, we’ve been told the world will be a different place after the COVID-19 lockdowns have been lifted. What, one wonders, will California be like? Will it move even further left?
If we’re willing to listen, the pandemic has provided some instructive lessons on how to move forward.
For instance, the public has learned that single-use plastic bags are a healthier option than the reusable bags policymakers have forcefully steered us toward. It’s also become clear that policies intended to pack public transportation systems are self-defeating. Crowded buses and trains create a health hazard.
The story is the same regarding urban planning designs for creating ever more densely populated cities.
“It’s clear that the great preponderance of cases, and deaths, are concentrated — at least as of now — in dense urban centers, most particularly Wuhan, Milan, Seattle, Madrid, and New York City. This crisis is the right moment for the world to reconsider the conventional wisdom that denser cities are better cities,” Chapman University’s Joel Kotkin recently wrote in Fortune.
While governments have expanded their authority over the private sector in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, there are examples of officials loosening the strings of the state. California Gov. Gavin Newsom has issued an executive order which waived occupational licensing requirements for some health care workers so medical facilities could increase staffing to handle an anticipated surge in the number of people who will need hospital care. He has also provided administrative relief for small businesses, and is being encouraged to suspend Assembly Bill 5, which virtually outlawed freelance and independent contract work on Jan. 1, 2020.
Of course, the waivers raise an important question: if regulations can be halted in an emergency for the greater good, is there good reason for them to exist at all?
Early in our lockdown era, Mercatus Center researcher Veronique de Rugy looked at the large number of rules lifted by federal, state and local governments and noted that many regulations serve little to no good public purpose.
“Hopefully, people will realize how counterproductive these rules were and will not allow them to be reinstated after the crisis is over,” she said. “In the end, we’ll all be freer and safer.”
While Newsom has been busy both increasing and decreasing Sacramento’s power over Californians, the lawmaking process has been shut down. The Legislature hasn’t met since the middle of March. Has anyone, aside from the lawmakers, their staffs, and the army of K Street lobbyists even noticed?
This strongly recommends a part-time rather than full-time legislature, the latter existing in a protective bubble that is also largely an echo chamber that churns out heavy-handed Blue State policies.
Not to be overlooked is the experience of being forcibly cooped up by administrative fiat. Progressives openly agitate for a more coercive government, but a backlash might be brewing, given that Californians have been stung by a de facto mass house arrest. Many might rethink their previous position on how far elected and appointed officials should be able to go in “fighting” climate change and mitigating drought.
“We all should become more libertarian after watching the government’s actions during the coronavirus crisis,” said Steven Greenhut, western region director for the free-market R Street Institute.
But he tells PRI, “it’s unlikely that our real-world experiences will change the progressive trajectory of California’s progressive politics. Too many people are concluding that more government is the answer rather than a source of the problem, even though private industry is what has really helped us get through this crisis.”
While the state’s handling of the pandemic should make people skeptical about our ruling class,” as Gov. Jerry “Brown and Newsom showed no more foresight than Trump in preparing for this,” Chapman University’s Kotkin sees a post-pandemic California continuing along the same path it was on before the lockdown.
“Big tax raises,” Kotkin told PRI, “seem inevitable” thanks to a sclerotic economy cutting hard into tax revenues. “This will push the state to become more defiantly socialistic, even Stalinist and the only restraint will be if the middle and working classes rebel.”
Joel Fox, editor of Fox and Hounds Daily, has a similar outlook. Those devoted to more government, he says, “see this period as an opportunity to expand.” Include in that group the governor, who believes the pandemic has provided a foothold for accelerating the progressive agenda.
Nonetheless, it’s easy to imagine that every additional day we’re in lockdown, Californians’ trust in government declines, and their frustration grows. No good will come of it, though, if voters don’t make the connection.
Kerry Jackson is a fellow with the Center for California Reform at the Pacific Research Institute.