As we enter the final stretch of the 2016 election cycle, it seems as though we have lost our way as a community and a country. The Central Coast is in many ways a microcosm, not just of California, but also of the great variety of groups in the U.S. competing for the power to make public policy and control the allocation of public goods. Many of the strange turns we see reflected on the national political stage are to be found in our own backyard, magnified by their close proximity.
Social choices always entail potential conflicts. It is true that we have a great deal to gain through mutual cooperation. We really are stronger together. For example, by regulating our water intake, we can maintain an essential renewable resource, making everyone and our environment better off now, and for generations. Indeed, if we fail to cooperate through conservation and investment in and adoption of water saving technologies, renewable energy, and land-use and zoning policies that minimize our impact on the environment, we threaten not just our agricultural industries and way of life on the Central Coast, but possibly our entire species. And if we do work together, there is almost nothing we can’t accomplish, so what’s stopping us?
We don’t always cooperate because cooperation is costly. That is, as an individual, cooperation is a constraint. I must exercise self-control instead of maximizing my self-interest. And there’s the rub: Not only do I have to exercise self-control, but so does everyone else! If I cooperate while others free-ride off of my self-control, off my restraint, then I’ve been hustled. Every time we engage in a cooperative enterprise, we risk being exploited by others.
The benefits of cooperation and the risks of exploitation provide the basic landscape upon which our political ideologies are built. Liberals, with their faith in reason, seek to built cooperative enterprises and innovate toward the collective goods, while respecting individual liberties. Indeed liberals seek a broad allocation of collective goods to ensure a broadly experienced freedom. Conservatives, by contrast, are more skeptical of public endeavors. They are more cautious about trading off individual freedom now for potential benefits in the future. And in recognizing the fragility of cooperation, conservatives are careful to preserve the existing order, even at a cost to those whose freedom is severely constrained under the status quo.
And so we struggle to arrive at public policies that reflect both of these concerns. What sort of water regulation in North County is going to ensure the future provision of water to both industry and residents? What should we ask of large landholders with the greatest responsibility, and how should we allocate decision-making power between residential and commercial interests? What about future residential interests? How do housing policies in San Luis Obispo and South County impact the use of our resources? Can we build affordable workforce housing without also generating the sort of sprawling development that would threaten our cherished open spaces and rural way of life? Even if we all share the same facts and agree on the nature of the problem, both liberal and conservative values have an important role to play in these sorts of collective choices.
However, both local and national political discourse has taken a turn from this fragile balancing act. In all our cooperative relations, from family and work to associational and political life, we are sensitive to exploitation.
Today, it is the threat of exploitation that is being exploited. Across a variety of local problems, we have moved from legitimate disagreements over what values should be reflected in policy to disagreements over the character and motivations of our opponents. As drought crippled the North County, misinformation and deception spread like cancer approaching the vote for a water district, including unsubstantiated claims that the new district would pave the way for “water banking” that would allow private-sector removal of water from the basin. Such claims were perpetrated by a small group of large landholders who, under the guise of defending “property rights” sought legal protection to the water under their property, despite the consequences for less wealthy residents.
By emphasizing the threat of outside exploitation, opponents successfully divided residents over the nature of the threat, the relevant facts, and the policy consequences. Similarly, opponents of affordable housing are constantly reminded of the threat of outsiders coming in and changing the composition and character of our community. Moreover, opponents on both the left and right are being characterized not simply as wrong, but as immoral, evil, and un-American.
It is one thing for people to disagree fiercely over policy differences, quite another for property rights advocates to be labeled as ignoramuses, for conservatives to be excluded from our college campuses, for opponents of affordable housing or supporters of the police to be castigated as racists, or for opponents of police brutality to be accused of encouraging violence against police. This sort of tribalism, to which we are all susceptible, increases the costs of collective action, making it more difficult to think together about our shared problems. Actors who peddle fear and paralyzing uncertainty about the future have hijacked our politics. It is not liberal or conservative dominance that threatens our system, it is the chipping away at the very idea of democracy, the delegitimizing of deliberation, the erosion of shared understanding. The going has gone weird, and the weird have turned pro.
Michael Latner is a political science professor and Master of Public Policy Program director at Cal Poly. He will be contributing to Rhetoric & Reason, an opinion column about local politics and the issues affecting the Central Coast, in rotation with Al Fonzi, chairman of the Republican Party of SLO County. Send comments through the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.