Building unlikely alliances

Posted: May 08, 2003 12:00 AM

How can conservatives win support in liberal cities like Austin, Texas? How should we respond when the city council protects species of salamanders and cave spiders but not human life generally (Austin has city-funded abortions) or the economic liberty of residents?

I've lived in Austin for almost 20 years, but stay with me, please, because this will not be the typically self-indulgent piece that emerges when columnists write about their hometowns. While I respect the love of place that welled up before the running of the Kentucky Derby last Saturday, as the crowd warbled "My Old Kentucky Home," it's hard to wax sentimental about a city that has as its official slogan, "Keep Austin Weird."

Last Saturday, while the mint juleps were pouring in Louisville, some 800 left-wing activists representing six different causes (scorn for private property, scorn for George W. Bush, scorn for FOX news, scorn for the U.S. military) marched through downtown Austin. That day we also had a mayoral election won by a liberal environmentalist who garnered far more support than the most colorful also-ran, a bearded male candidate usually seen around town wearing a dress.

We might laugh or cry when the Austin City Council, echoing other university towns, votes against the liberation of Iraq. But instead of giving up, conservatives in Austin should push for new alliances, starting with people who may seem weird but are sick of local bureaucrats who get in the way of entrepreneurship -- in this case, musical.

Austin has long touted itself as "the live music capital of the world." That unofficial title has been in jeopardy, as high taxes have led to the closing of some classic venues. And yet, in the past several years alone, several Red River Street blocks near downtown that were the habitat of drug dealers and prostitutes have grown 10 sites for live music, with four of the five biggest owned by musicians.

The revival was a private initiative. No one wrote a master plan or floated a bond issue to inspire those listening posts. City government helped to revive the area not by appointing a culture czar but by performing basic police and public safety tasks. The Austin police assigned a team of officers to the area. Five-time-a-year fire inspections guarded against club infernos.

The result is a series of pleasant places for listening to the mix of renegade country songs and high-voltage sound that typifies Austin's musical creativity. No city-funded, internationally renowned architect planned out the Stubbs stage and outdoor gathering area, or the mix of indoor and outdoor space that typifies spots like Red Eyed Fly. Conservatives should give two cheers for the Red River capitalists, those who had a little capital and invested it to create both new music opportunities and a positive cash flow.

The Red River music revival, though, is increasing property values in that area, and the taxman is sure to follow. Many large cities have killed their economies by raising taxes that discourage small businesses, and Austin is doing the same. Short-haired conservatives need to ally with long-haired, sometimes radical music entrepreneurs to fight tax increases, anti-smoking regulations, building requirements designed to protect union power but not public safety, unnecessary restrictions on the performance of music outdoors and construction of taxpayer-funded concert halls for approved music.

Music entrepreneurs know that officials should not be deciding which sounds are artistically correct, and then forcing individuals and businesses to pay subsidies. Can that understanding carry over into other issues? Why, for example, should Austin residents pay taxes to support the public school establishment, when lower-cost private schools that do a better job are eager to expand? Why should utilities be city-owned, when competition would lead to better service and financial savings?

If a coalition for less government can make it in Austin, it can make it anywhere. Conservatives need to be willing to try.