By: Charles Fain Lehman
San Francisco has a poop problem. Between 2011 and 2019, reports of human feces on public sidewalks quintupled, rising from roughly 5,500 to more than 30,000. Incidents have been on the decline since the COVID pandemic began, but residents still reported an average of 76 turds per day in the first half of 2021.
The Golden Gate city’s intestinal troubles are not news—conservative commentators have made a joke, and a talking point, out of them for ages. But they are metonymic for a dysfunction increasingly apparent in America’s big cities, from the West Coast to the East. Many major municipalities are marred by violent crime, homelessness, uncontrolled mental illness, and general disorder. This all in spite of an ever-advancing cadre of progressive leaders, who promise their latest tax hike will finally target the “root causes” of the breakdown.
Why are these big, blue cities breaking down? Climate scientist and Berkeley, Calif., resident Michael Shellenberger tackles the question in his latest book, “San Fransicko: Why Progressives Ruin Cities.”
At core, Shellenberger’s answer is political. Though he takes pains to assure the reader of his liberal bona fides, Shellenberger insists that big cities, particularly San Francisco, have been captured by a too-progressive ideology. City leaders have begrudgingly embraced the priorities of the activist class that staffs the various NGOs providing key services, including support for the homeless, the mentally ill, and the drug addicted.
The result is urban disaster. Shellenberger covers the vogue for “housing first” policy, which emphasizes placing homeless people in housing without sobriety or medication requirements, and which he argues does not consistently reduce the pathologies that lead to homelessness. He discusses the “harm reduction” approach to drug policy, which can mean providing users with the materials to use without “coercing” them into treatment. And he outlines the rising skepticism of policing and public safety, alongside decarceral reforms, which have created an atmosphere supportive of criminal offending.
Of course, disentangling cause and effect in policymaking is hard. But California is one of just a handful of states to see dramatic increases in its homeless population over the past decade, and the state’s deliberate reduction in the punishment for minor property offending is associated with a spike in shoplifting. And the Golden State is proudly progressive—a progressivism doubtless even more common among the people who staff the NGOs that actually manage its big cities’ streets.
As far as a liberal’s case to liberals against the excesses of liberalism goes, San Fransicko is a useful contribution to the genre. It suffers from some of the usual flaws of popular nonfiction: Some chapters seem unnecessary, and one suspects the whole thing could have been slashed down to a 10,000-word essay. But the book does well the thing it is meant to do: set out the key contradictions in contemporary liberalism, as underscored by the governance failures of the places it is most common.
One of the peculiar features of American liberalism is the selectiveness of its paternalism. Liberals are happy to embrace coercive policies that affect the average citizen—vaccine mandates, say, or soda taxes. But when it comes to the least of us—the drug addicted, the mentally ill, the chronically homeless, the repeated victims of crime—it adopts an inexplicably laissez faire stance. This approach, sociologist Neil Gong has argued, is dramatically at odds with how those with means ask to be treated. While the mentally ill rich seek maximum paternalism, the mentally ill poor are afforded the freedom to be mad.
This tendency runs in apparent contradiction to the left’s usual statist bent. The anti-psychiatry movement, the push to deinstitutionalize and ban compulsory drug treatment, and of course the movement to defund the police, are all basically libertarian, inasmuch as they work to reduce the capacity of the state to regulate certain kinds of antisocial conduct. These regulations are considered per se illegitimate, because they fail to target the “root causes” of this behavior—racism, sexism, capitalism, etc.
Such “root causes” thinking is, of course, fallacious: Nothing about a cause’s proximity to an effect makes it more or less suited to policy intervention. But more important, it confuses the question of whom it is fair to manage—average citizens are fair game, whereas the oppressed are oppressed enough as is—with whom it benefits society to manage. The public dispute becomes over how to be compassionate to the schizophrenic (where compassion is always synonymous with license), wholly obviating discussion of the harms done to society by his camping out on the sidewalk, harms for which we increasingly lack moral language.
The sort of policies Shellenberger endorses at the end of the book—a statewide psych authority, expanded conservatorship, a more carrot-and-stick approach to mental health and drug abuse treatment—would probably benefit their objects. But they would also benefit the other members of society, who are entitled to be free of antisocial behavior. That entitlement, of the average American, has fallen out of fashion. But it is the entitlement at the core of the social contract, and governments of all sizes forget it at their peril.
Charles Fain Lehman is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor to City Journal. He was previously a staff writer at the Washington Free Beacon.