San Fransicko: Why Progressives Ruin Cities
by Michael Shellenberger
HarperCollins, 2021, pp. 416
The title of the book was off-putting enough to almost make me quit the book. After all, not only is the main title a cheap pun, but the subtitle is a boring, partisan jab. But I was reading this book on an overnight flight from New York to Europe, so my opinion was more clouded by personal experience. My last encounter with a crazed, potentially violent, suspected drug-addict with obvious mental health problems, the sort that is all too common in all the big American cities today, was only a few hours prior, in the NYC subway. Like the dozens of other people on that subway car, I was alert but did nothing. Of course, one can look away, but looking away does not solve the problems or even bring inner peace. From Los Angeles to San Francisco and New York City, there are clear issues to be solved, and not all of them are caused by structural racism or police corruption. It is obvious that there is an endemic crisis of homelessness, drug use, crime, and mental health, and it is equally obvious that decades of progressive politics under Democratic leadership have failed to solve the problems or have even contributed to the crisis in different ways. Given the obviousness of the problem, and the blatant failure of proposed solutions, books like Shellenberger’s “San Fransicko” deserve a hearing.
Unfortunately, Shellenberg is much better at pointing a finger at the problem than offering workable alternative solutions. The book really shines (if that is the right word when describing such sordid affairs) when it describes the everyday life, attitudes, motivations, incentives, challenges, and dreams of the struggling individuals in SF who are led down the slippery path towards heinous drug addiction, homelessness, mental illness, petty crime, and other anti-social attitudes. These early sections contain convincing depictions of hopelessness. Recognizing you have a problem is the first step towards turning your life around, and this holds true on the collective level as much as it does on the individual level. So, for a journalist to shine the light on the grimmest and grimiest underbelly of American society is a healthy and necessary first step towards healing. But some journalists are better detectives than jurors, judges, or policy makers.
Shellenberg’s proposed remedies, far from hitting the root causes of the social disease, are mostly an unimaginative and embarrassing cavalcade of old conservative cliches and tropes. However, given that such cliches and tropes often contain nuggets of truth, this is not altogether a bad thing, as long as it is not allowed to dictate policymaking anymore than naive, bleeding-heart progressivism is. To the extent that progressive radicalism, whatever its successes, often boldly deviates from common sense (and, what is worse, without sufficient backing from solid scientific evidence to replace it), it is useful to periodically revisit conservative and moderate intuitions about best practices and ethical guidelines. Thus, when the author claims that the crisis is caused by too much lenience towards drug users, too much emphasis on the autonomy and civil rights of mental health patients, and too little imprisonment, this fails as a carefully thought out public policy position. Indeed, to blame (very modest) drug decriminalization for the problems seems to me to be not only mistaken but catastrophically mistaken. Ample evidence shows that drug abuse and mental health issues can be adequately dealt with in regimes that do not punish drug users and that protect the civil rights of mentally ill people. The author very selectively uses data to back his positions, and I think his empirical evidence is extremely weak to support his conclusions. However, when the author speaks about the lost value of instilling self-responsibility, punishing repeat offenders harshly, or exercising more paternalism over anti-social individuals, he makes some good points. He opens up areas of policy debate that progressives and moderates should take seriously indeed. It is clear that many well-meaning policies have unintended consequences and perverse incentives that need to be reckoned with. There is room for new and experimental solutions.
Sadly, Shellenberger’s book is another example of an illuminating expose of a problem that gets nowhere near the real solutions. It ignores some obvious problems, like skyrocketing urban rents, rising inequalities, and poor mental health services, and proposes “solutions,” like ramping up the war on drugs and paternalistic welfare state measures, that would be even worse than the most rosy-eyed, naively progressive utopia. The author blames the progressives, not only for things that they deserve blame, but also for things that have made society somewhat more bearable, like treating mental health patients like human beings with dignity, rights, and representation. If you are looking for alternative solutions, I would urge throwing this book into the bin and looking elsewhere. But since so much of the American left is so self-satisfied, ideologically blinkered, and immune to internal criticism, even a mediocre book like “San Fransicko” can be a revelation.