30 September 2010

They Don't Like Tea in the Big City?

Kathleen Parker is on the verge of at least fifteen minutes of fame. The Pulitzer-prize winning op-ed columnist and relatively moderate Republican will be Elliot Spitzer's sparring partner on a new CNN talking-head program, and for that purpose the South Carolinian country girl has moved to New York City. Her experiences so far have provoked speculations in her latest column about the sociological background to the nation's ideological divide.

In simplest terms, Parker proposes that people in areas of high population density are more tolerant of a degree of government that people from less densely populated regions would find intrusive and needless. While she's already chafing under restrictions that may be unique to New York, she appears to concede in general terms that more government is required where there are more people. "Simply put, the more people cram themselves into small spaces, the more government will be involved in their lives," she writes, "If you live in a large urban area, chances are you are accustomed to lots of rules and regs. But to the newcomer, fresh from living largely independently by her own wits, the oppression of bureaucratic order is a fresh sort of hell."

While Parker accepts the necessity of a higher degree for regulation of urban life, she won't be the first person to complain that New York under Michael Bloomberg seems to over-regulate beyond reason. She cites the mayor's notorious order banning trans-fats from the city, which leads Parker's cable guy to complain that he can only get good donuts in New Jersey these days. On her own, Parker bristles at the thought that you can't light a candle on a birthday cupcake in an office building. On the other hand, she adds, "You can't have 8 million people acting out their individual impulses. What if half the city's residents decided to fire up the Weber for some burgers on a given Saturday?"

Parker's complaints are more libertarian than conservative; call them reactionary and split the difference. "It is one thing to create laws that protect us from another's stupidity, but shouldn't the cable guy have the right to be stupid?" she asks, "Every now and then? I haven't eaten a doughnut in 20 years, but suddenly I have a nearly uncontrollable urge to hit Krispy Kreme." In other words, she at least pretends to feel an impulse to do something she admits is unhealthy in order to feel more free. Were she in a more reflective mood, she might consider whether her perceived lack of freedom is consistent with her actual level of freedom within the American social order. Parker is no great fan of the Tea Parties, but at times she seems to share their strange sense that they are less free than they actually are. She attributes this vague fellow feeling to her "low-density" upbringing,

Many so-called Everyday Americans who live in the oft-maligned red states essentially are people who live in more-open spaces and, therefore, see little need or benefit for government management of their lives. The frontier may be nearly gone, but the person who prefers wider horizons will have little use for bureaucrats bearing the latest government how-to (or how-not-to) document. Those who have opted to live in densely populated blue areas need third-party authorities to maintain order and figure they'll trade a little freedom for the convenience and cultural riches of city life.

Parker worries that these "completely different orientations toward life in general and the role of government specifically [can't] be reconciled." Each group will have its own answer to the serious question Parker means to raise: "At what point is the common good bad for people?" It'd be easy and glib to say that the common good by definition can't be bad for anyone, but nearly every word in Parker's question begs another question. What do we mean by "common good?" Who gets to define it? What does she mean by "people?" Individuals or society as a whole? You can even ask what she means by "bad?" Will anyone suffer in a material way? Will the country suffer? Or will some supposedly grown-up people simply feel bad because government somehow makes them feel like children?

Of course, the crucial debates of our time aren't about candles on cupcakes or trans-fat in donuts. I don't know if population density can determine people's attitudes toward regulating banks or oil drilling, but I will allow that a person's perception of how regulation impacts his own life could influence his attitude toward regulation in general as a political topic. Whether population density alone predicts that is still open to question. Some college towns across the country have pretty low population density when you don't count the actual campus, yet they are probably pretty consistently pro-government and pro-regulation. Still, Parker makes an important distinction between a demographic and a geographic explanation for current disagreements; this is not a problem to be solved simply by separating one whole region of the country from the rest. She also unwittingly raises the point that the current disagreements are as much matters of attitude, to say the least, as matters of fact. Low-density living may well cultivate a psychological aversion to "intrusive" government. If so, maybe a lot of people simply need to get their heads examined.

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