Private automobiles are no longer allowed on Market Street in San Francisco, California. The result has been an increase in bike ridership. This is, of course, being hailed as progress. So why does it look like the city is resetting the clock to a previous century?
When novelist Ayn Rand wrote a series of essays called the “Return of the Primitive,” published in 1971, she was calling attention to “the anti-industrial revolution,” a phrase which stood as the subtitle. The title was intended to be a warning, not an inspiration.
But it seems many policymakers believe it’s a guidebook. Market Street is only part of an effort to pry Californians out of their private automobiles and cram them into public transportation. Valencia Street might be the next San Francisco street to go car-less. The Embarcadero is also on activists’ kill list. It’s also worth noting that the decision to close Market Street cost San Francisco $604 million.
While Brian Wiedenmier, executive director of the Bicycle Coalition, sees, as do many in the city, that closing Market Street is the “start of a new era,” not everyone is convinced it’s a breakthrough moment.
“San Francisco thinks it’s the model of the future,” says Joel Kotkin, a Chapman University professor and executive director of the Center for Opportunity Urbanism, “but people and companies are leaving because it’s impossible for relatively normal people with normal jobs to survive.”
Automobiles are arguably the most liberating and modernizing machines ever made. It’s almost impossible to think of another innovation that has promoted freedom, and economic progress, as much as cars have. Yet policymakers and central planners have targeted them for removal. San Francisco and California are also imitating pilot programs from other cities, according to the New York Times. New York closed most of 14 Avenue to automobiles last fall; Toronto, Paris, Barcelona, and London also have a version of automobile bans or congestion fees in place, too.
The war on cars, though, is only a part of California’s return to the primitive. Policymakers want to outlaw fossil fuels, the cheap, efficient, and plentiful raw materials that are the foundation of an advancing economy. They want to replace them with renewables that are more costly and less reliable — that is to say more primitive, or, in the words of energy consultant Ronald Stein, “giant steps back in time.”
“The world’s already experienced life without fossil fuels as recently as a few short centuries ago,” says Stein, “so imagine how life will be like with no infrastructures to move things that are the basis of commerce.”
Fossil fuels not only produce refined goods that keep economies physically in motion, they also yield thousands — maybe as many as 6,000 — of products that are vital to modern life. Where would we be without artificial heart valves, tires, telephones, rubbing alcohol, artificial turf (big in California where many homeowners like to declare their green bona fides), movie film, hearing aids, safety glass, and insect repellants, to name just a few items made from crude oil?
Yet powerful political interests want to shut down drilling in California, and at least one advocacy organization has the attention of the governor, who signed into law last fall a bill that “bars any California leasing authority from allowing pipelines or other oil and gas infrastructure to be built on state property.”
California is also at the sharp point of a larger Western crusade to outlaw plastic bags, plastic beverage bottles, plastic straws, and plastic utensils. This is a retreat, especially when there is no need for them to be banned.
Single-payer health care is yet another example of the regression. Is there anything more backward than a collectivist health care system? Merrill Matthews, a scholar at the Institute for Policy Innovation, says single-payer “isn’t the future, it’s the past.”
“A dollar spent on you is a dollar that can’t be spent on me, which leads to a type of tribal fight where everyone seeks to ensure what they need at the expense of what others’ needs.”
Yet it has a strong political appeal in California.
Meanwhile, Assembly Bill 5, both a gross violation of workers’ freedom and an existential threat to the gig economy created by innovative, forward-looking companies, thwarts progress, as does the state’s stubborn resistance to charter schools, and its commitment to the outdated monopoly held by public schools.
California has long banked on an image of always pushing ahead, leading the country and the world to the next great advance. But the image is changing. Many see it, correctly, as a place moving in the wrong direction.
Kerry Jackson is a fellow with the Center for California Reform at the Pacific Research Institute.