Who Wants to Follow California?

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As goes California, so goes the nation. This used to be said as a compliment. Now it’s a cautionary tale, and the country would be wise to heed it. Political commentator Michael Anton explains.

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Conventional wisdom has long held that as goes California so goes the nation. 

Once, this was a glowing compliment. 

Now it’s a cautionary tale. 

If America “goes” California, it’s in big trouble. 

This is a strange thing to say because California is as close to paradise as you can get to on this earth. 

Its moderate, temperate climate is almost unrivaled. It is home to two of the world’s best natural harbors.

If outdoor recreation is your thing, you can ski or surf, scuba dive or sail, hike in the redwoods or climb Half Dome, all within a couple hours’ drive.

Just about the only thing wrong with California, from a natural point of view, are the earthquakes. But those are infrequent, and their bad effects can be mitigated by sound building practices.

The other disasters you hear about in the news—droughts and fires, mostly—are natural to be sure, but also manageable by human ingenuity: irrigation, water storage, forest management, and the like—all of which activists have been not merely neglecting but actively opposing.

And there you have, in a nutshell, the triumph and tragedy of California: The greatest spot on Earth for human habitation, a veritable Garden of Eden, is in danger of becoming a garbage dump—thanks to Californians.

The decline did not happen overnight.

For a century and more, those who settled there—not just from other parts of America but from all over the world—built the state into an economic, cultural, and technological powerhouse and middle-class paradise.

But for the last generation, they’ve been busily screwing it up.

Given the state’s enormous natural advantages, combined with the layers of sophisticated infrastructure and institutions built up over six generations, this was no easy task. But Californians, being a resourceful people, have managed.

The richest state in the union now has the most poverty. 

The former middle-class paradise now suffers from stratospheric housing costs and overall cost of living.

The place where car culture was invented has the country’s highest gas prices—by a lot.

Crime is out of control. Huge sections of San Francisco and Los Angeles are virtual no-go zones. Open-air drug markets abound. Authorities do nothing. Or if the police do make arrests, the prosecutors simply let everyone go. Stores are closing all over, citing rampant theft.

The culture is suffocating. Carry the wrong type of shopping bag, drink through the wrong kind of straw, or call someone the wrong pronoun and expect to be ostracized or worse. 

The public schools, lavishly funded, are abysmal. 

And, of course, the taxes—especially sales and income—are among the highest in the nation. 

California has come a long way—and not a good way—from the paradise the Beach Boys sang about in the 1960s or even the Baywatch image of the 1990s.

How did it happen?

Bad policy—some of it active, some passive, all of it deliberate.

The active includes draconian zoning, one-sided labor laws, and environmental regulations that make it extremely difficult to build new homes or new businesses.

The passive includes, above all, ignoring immigration laws. California is a sanctuary state.

The passive and active often combine. California politicians and businesses have actually encouraged illegal immigration for a generation—politicians for the votes, businesses to keep wages down.

If it weren’t for the weather (the one thing the politicians can’t screw up), the state today would have little to recommend it.

What is to be done?

It’s tempting to do nothing. Just let it go. If this is what those left coast loonies want, let ’em have it.

And yet. California is still a part of America, part of our country and our civilization. It was a huge asset to the nation and could be again—if (and it’s a big if) sane leadership were once again to take charge.

What would that require? 

Simple: California voters would need to vote out the frauds and poseurs who are currently running their lives and ruining their state. To do that, they’d need to rethink some of their most cherished opinions. 

Simple—but not easy.

There are signs of change, though.

In early 2022, voters in ultraleft San Francisco recalled—by overwhelming margins—three ultra-left members of their school board. Let-’em-go DA’s in the north and south have faced serious recall attempts, some with establishment and Hollywood money behind them.

These are positive signs.

It will take a lot more. But change could happen and if it does then California could be the golden state once again—a model for the nation.

I was born, raised, and educated there. If I lived there now, I might be cautiously optimistic.

But I’d also be browsing real estate ads in Texas, Florida, and Tennessee.

I’m Michael Anton, lecturer in politics at Hillsdale College’s Washington D.C. campus and author of The Stakes: America at the Point of No Return, for Prager University.