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A Moral Tale of Two Cities

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.
AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki, File

The "progressive," so to speak, vision of politics and public life envisions tighter and tighter government control over economic life, along with looser and looser controls over human behavior. I think you'd refer to the overall design as a paradox: a clash of methods and objectives.


Elizabeth Warren wants corporations subjected to unprecedented government oversight. Austin's and San Francisco's ruling classes favor, for the homeless, just about all the freedom you could imagine to use the public streets as a bedroom or restroom, in the name of, I don't know ... liberty? Liberty for those who avail themselves of these governmentally granted entitlements? Everyone else enjoys the right to step over the trash, the used drug needles, the discarded food and the excrement left lying around by the governmentally entitled.

The other day, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott decided it was time the political leadership of the state's capital city clean up -- literally clean up -- Austin's San Francisco-like act. Citing statute after statute, Abbott gave Mayor Steve Adler until Nov. 1 "to demonstrate consequential improvement in the Austin homelessness crisis and the danger it poses to the health and safety of the public." Otherwise, said the governor, "I will direct every applicable state agency to act to fulfill my responsibility to protect the health and safety of Texans in your jurisdiction."

This was news because few other governmental officials in modern America go to the trouble of instructing progressive America to clean up its act.

As bad as things may be in Austin, once lovely San Francisco -- where you may formerly have left your heart and your pocketbook -- is becoming a refuse dump. Writes Heather Mac Donald in City Journal, the Manhattan Institute's peerless organ of urban analysis, "(Drug) users dig for veins in plain view on the sidewalk" in a city that distributes "more than 4.5 million syringes a year, along with Vitamin C to dissolve heroin and crack," and "uneaten comestibles litter the sidewalks and gutters," and homeless encampments are home to "Third World diseases," e.g., typhoid, and "assault seems to have been normalized...at least when committed by the homeless," and, well, perhaps you get the idea.


Down this grungy, dangerous road, progressive politics have led a community formerly envied for little cable cars climbing halfway to the stars -- now widely pitied for growing resemblance to a zoo. I cannot say whether Abbott took a look at Frisco's evident pride in letting people do what they want and, accordingly, said, "No, sir, not here, not in Austin." He performs a large public service by cracking down while the cracking is good: before political mythology crowds out good sense and good government.

The mythology of homelessness as a product of capitalist society dates back to the Ronald Reagan years. It makes no more sense now than it made in the '80s. Mac Donald, who went among the San Francisco homeless, asking questions, tells us 42% of the homeless, according to a street poll this year, "reported chronic drug or alcohol use," while 39% "said that they suffered from psychiatric conditions." (She suspects both figures are too low.) Jeff, a 50-year-old wine and drug addict, tells her, "San Francisco is the place to go if you live on the streets." Lack of affordable housing isn't the problem. "No other American city," MacDonald writes, "has built as much affordable housing per capita, according to the Bay Area Council Economic Institute." What's missing from the picture is "a commitment to a single standard of behavior for all and an insistence that rights carry with them reciprocal responsibilities."

Responsibilities? How bourgeois! How old-fashioned! We don't have a money problem around here; we have a moral problem, in that the old norms in our souls have been switched off. You could probably say that's how we got President Donald Trump. It's how we got a lot of things, such as the progressive misidentification of "bad" as just another human trait groping for understanding.


It's lonely and dangerous there on the battlefield for those who, like Abbott, would push back against civic degradation. If you want one more reason to cheer him on as he confronts Austin city government, well, there it is.

William Murchison is writing a book on moral reconstruction in the 21st century. His latest book is "The Cost of Liberty: The Life of John Dickinson."

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