SAN FRANCISCO -- Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Austria's gift to American politics and other entertainments, cannot be president because he is not a "natural born citizen," but that does not mean his political power is confined to California. This state is so big -- the economy of Los Angeles County is almost as large as Russia's -- that the continent can reverberate from what happens here, and Schwarzenegger expects much to happen in the next 10 months.
Speaking in his office here, he combines a keen sense of California's role in the nation, and of his role in California, with an actor's sense of an audience. "In most states," he says happily, "nothing is going on this year." So attention will be given to what is going on here. And "if we win, they will get energy." By "they" he means people and political forces across the country who are eager to emulate his distinctive brand of libertarian conservatism.
His libertarianism extends beyond the theory of political economy he encountered as a young man in the writings of Milton Friedman and beyond the exuberant entrepreneurialism of his life, to social issues. He favors abortion rights, does not care if any state's voters endorse gay marriage and has "no use" for a constitutional amendment barring that. Hence some Republicans consider him useful but not a proper communicant in the church of true conservatism. However, his conservatism, more than theirs, is the point of the spear in conservatism's primary political challenge -- defeating liberalism's attempt to Europeanize America.
He proposes -- the legislature probably will balk; then the voters will decide in referendums -- to cut spending across the board when the budget is not balanced and to adopt nonpartisan redistricting by a panel of retired judges. This latter might pick the lock that the Democratic Party and its base in the public employees unions -- government organized as an interest group -- have on the legislature. Schwarzenegger's program aims to curtail the distributional politics that drive government's expansion.
Today's Democratic Party is defined by its deepening devotion to government distribution of income to its clients -- to the education-social services complex. This explains what the county map of the 2004 presidential vote reveals: There are very few mostly blue states. Democrats increasingly depend on city and university-town concentrations of voters who work in that complex.
California, where per capita spending in constant dollars has more than tripled in five decades, is burdened by the sort of growth-inhibiting government that has plagued some American cities. Writing in the Weekly Standard, Joel Kotkin, author of the forthcoming book "The City: A Global History," distinguishes between America's "aspirational" cities and "Euro-American" cities. The former -- e.g., Atlanta; Boise, Idaho; Charlotte; Fort Myers and Orlando, Fla.; Las Vegas and Reno, Nev.; Phoenix; and Salt Lake City -- are thriving. The latter -- e.g., Boston, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia and San Francisco -- are experiencing social fragmentation as government's clients fight over dwindling scarce resources, and many of these cities are losing population, often to the aspirational cities.
Euro-American cities, where teachers unions prevent improvements in public education and "municipal welfare states" keep living costs high, increasingly attract affluent and often childless liberals: Seattle, Kotkin says, "has roughly the same population it did in 1960, but barely half as many children." Euro-American cities have, in varying degrees, the malady known in the 1970s as "the British disease," when Britain was called, as Turkey once was, "the sick man of Europe."
The malady is the result of a perverse cycle: Public-sector unions produce, through their power to elect allies, high levels of spending for social services. This results in a constantly expanding demand for government spending and ever more public employees and hence still more union power.
The British disease was in America by 1975, in New York City, which effectively went bankrupt. Writing in the winter 2005 issue of the Public Interest ["Gotham's Fiscal Crisis: Lessons Unlearned"], E.J. McMahon of the Manhattan Institute and Fred Siegel, a history professor at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Art and Science, recount New York's debilitation by "distributional public-sector politics that took the private sector for granted." By 1975, 340,000 people were on the city's payroll, and more than 1 million were on welfare.
Adopting the language of therapy, Schwarzenegger says legislators are "like addicts" and his program is "an intervention": "You slowly narrow down how much you give them."
It is quite a spectacle: An immigrant from Europe, familiar with the social sclerosis induced by that continent's statism, is toiling to inoculate this state against those ailments. Only in America.