NEWPORT BEACH, CALIF. -- The third or fourth time Dorothy Parker attempted suicide, a friend said: ''You know, Dottie, you keep this up you are going to make yourself sick.'' Many people here south of Los Angeles feel that way about Orange County's economic growth. They think growth is making a sow's ear out of a silk purse.
They are becoming interested in ''slow growth'' laws that would link growth to the preservation of the quality of the social infrastructure, particularly fire and police protection and, most important in this land of the freeway, traffic movement. One proposal -- Sunbelt Bolshevism -- would ban large construction projects where rush-hour traffic does not flow 30 to 35 mph.
Orange County's population has grown tenfold, to 2.2 million, since 1950. Inland it has a large blue-collar component. But the county has long been a conservative stronghold. In 1966 gubernatorial candidate Reagan got 72 percent of its vote. In 1978 Proposition 13, the property-tax revolt, received 70 percent of the county vote.
Contemporary conservatism emphasizes property rights not only as the buttress of liberty but also as instrumental in producing another fundamental value, economic growth. It is therefore fascinating and perhaps portentous that many conservatives as well as liberals here want to restrict property rights in order to restrict growth. However, one reason for restricting growth is to enhance property values.
Life along Orange County's coast (as elsewhere in the Sunbelt) involves what economists call ''positional goods.'' They are goods inherently available only to relatively few. Such goods can include an ''elite'' education, a vacation at an ''exclusive'' resort, a home in a ''choice'' neighborhood. Life in the choice portions of Orange County is a positional good that can be radically degraded by unlimited access to it. Noise, pollution and congestion increase, and the individual's most precious resource -- time, which he came here to enjoy -- is consumed in coping.
This is a paradox of prosperity. After elemental material desires are satisfied, positional goods are more coveted. But affluence enlarges the class able to compete for them, and the competition makes the goods less good. So frustration as well as satisfaction rises as prosperity rises. There also arises a demand for ''conserving government,'' which does not mean conservative government as currently understood.
Twenty years ago, James Q. Wilson, then of Harvard, now of UCLA, wrote for Commentary ''A Guide to Reagan Country: The Political Culture of Southern California.'' Wilson, a Los Angeles native, argued that, for young people, eastern urban life, with a lot of hanging around street corners in congested neighborhoods, produced a strong sense of territory. Western urban life, in low-density cities organized around the automobile, produced a strong sense of property.
Before marriage, attention was lavished on the automobile, afterward on the house. (By 1940, with the Depression still in force, more than half the Los Angeles population lived in single-family homes.) Year-round warm weather made possible year-round house and lawn work. And the tradition of the Sunday afternoon drive made the inspection of property a central part of social life.
Wartime jobs, for mother as well as father, in aircraft plants and shipyards compressed for Steinbeck's Dust Bowl refugees a generation of economic gain into a few years. Explosive growth gave rise to the belief that the purpose of government is developmental, to facilitate growth -- open new land, bring in water, build freeways, make credit easy. Government did not exist to provide security by legislating benefits and regulations. Its job was to usher in the future.
The future has arrived with a vengeance. Orange County is one of the nation's many suburbs that have become urban. One county mall has an annual sales total larger than that of downtown San Francisco. If the county were a nation, its $50 billion economy would rank 46th in the world. Nationwide since 1975, suburban office construction has exceeded urban. Twice as many Americans commute from one suburb to another as commute into central cities.
The ''slow growth'' movement here and elsewhere represents the growing desire of the possessing classes for ''conserving government,'' for laws to protect the value of the positional good of life in a choice location. Conserving government is the liberalism of the privileged. It is activist government protecting the well positioned from inundation by change and competition.