The Abundance Agenda Promises Everything to Everyone All at Once
In summer 2023, American progressivism was spending big and riding high. Despite razor-thin majorities in Congress, Democrats had spent the last two years enacting hundreds of billions of dollars in new subsidies—for green energy, public transportation, domestic manufacturing, scientific research, and more. This progressive pork was now in the hands of Democratic President Joe Biden to distribute as his administration saw fit.
Yet when California Gov. Gavin Newsom looked upon the piles of fresh federal cash, all he could do was despair.
“We’re going to lose billions and billions of dollars in the status quo,” he complained to New York Times columnist Ezra Klein in June. “The beneficiaries of a lot of these dollars are red states that don’t give a damn about these issues, and they’re getting the projects.”
Newsom was right about the distribution of the funds: More than 80 percent of the new federal funding for clean energy and semiconductors was headed for GOP districts, according to the Financial Times. His outburst spoke to the anxiety of much of liberal America.
Despite a string of progressive policy victories at the federal level, a Democratic Party under the grip of progressives, and ironclad Democratic control over some of the country’s largest and wealthiest cities and states, blue America just wasn’t delivering what its boosters said the country needed.
“We need to build more homes, trains, clean energy, research centers, disease surveillance. And we need to do it faster and cheaper,” Klein himself had written a few weeks before his Newsom interview was published. Yet “in New York or California or Oregon…it is too slow and too costly to build even where Republicans are weak—perhaps especially where they are weak.”
The blue strongholds’ failure to build had added countervailing losses to all their wins.
These states aren’t just losing federal grants. They’re losing residents to states where housing construction is easier. They’re losing companies to places where the regulatory burden is lighter. They’re losing voters, tax dollars, congressional seats, and more to places that build the things people want. If the trend keeps up, the progressive vision for America may be lost as well.
This threat has provoked some surprising self-reflection from liberal wonks, writers, and officials.
America, and particularly blue America, has consciously wrapped itself in red tape, regulations, and special-interest carve-outs, to the point that it has become nearly impossible to convert either government subsidies or private capital into needed physical things.
As Newsom said to Klein, “We’re not getting the money because our rules are getting in the way.”
A hodgepodge coalition of legacy publication columnists, traditional think-tankers, upstart Substack writers, and obsessive Twitter posters have rallied around the straightforward idea that what the country needs is more stuff, and it isn’t going to get it with that thicket of rules standing in the way. Their call to action is what Atlantic writer Derek Thompson calls the “abundance agenda.”
According to Thompson, America has produced a lot of technology that allows people to complain about problems, but not much in the physical world to actually solve those problems.
Our “age of bits-enabled protest has coincided with a slowdown in atoms-related progress,” he wrote last year. “Altogether, America has too much venting and not enough inventing.” Thompson’s complaint echoes entrepreneur and venture capitalist Peter Thiel’s famous 2013 quip that “we wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.” What we need instead, argues Thompson, are policies that will kick-start material growth and technological development here in reality.
For libertarians and free marketers, this new abundance agenda has a lot to offer. Many of its intellectual forefathers and policy foot soldiers are themselves libertarian-leaning. Even when they’re not, the abundance agenda remains a directionally deregulatory affair. Once seemingly fringe libertarian hobbyhorses such as abolishing zoning, occupational licensing, and immigration restrictions are now being aired prominently in mainstream center-left and progressive spaces.
At the same time, most of those who favor the abundance agenda are either agnostic about big government or actively supportive of it. In its most statist iterations, the deregulatory elements of the abundance agenda are mostly about clearing away the bureaucratic and constitutional obstacles to government-provided services and government-sponsored megaprojects.
For some abundance-agenda adherents, it’s a partisan project as well: The goal is to make blue America more efficient, more effective, and more appealing in the service of making America more Democratic.
And yet: The fundamental policy goal of abundance agenda liberalism is to clear away bureaucratic and political obstacles to useful projects, especially in the housing market. Is this a devil’s bargain that libertarians should be willing to make?
Getting the Public Out of Public Policy
Discussions about the abundance agenda quickly get bogged down in wonky specifics. But its pursuit of limitless individual potential powered by limitless growth and energy is nothing short of utopian.
In a 2022 essay for Works in Progress, Benjamin Reinhardt described this futuristic end point through the eyes of someone living in a world of abundant energy “too cheap to meter.”
You would wake up on your artificial island off the coast of South America, commute to work via a flying car and Singaporean space elevator, put in a few hours working on new longevity drugs in zero-gravity, and then jet off to Tokyo for a quick dinner with friends before commuting home.
As you return home, Reinhardt writes, you hope that one day you have “the resources to pull yourself out of the bottom 25 percent, so that your kids can lead an even brighter life than you do. Things are good, you think, but they could be better.”
In order to achieve this sci-fi world of abundance, we have to unshackle ourselves from growth-phobic institutions riddled with “veto points” stopping new housing, energy, and more.
The American government of today is a highly participatory one. Individual people have substantial opportunity to have their say in public hearings and courtrooms on everything from new housing projects to new power plants.
It wasn’t always this way.
As recounted in Yale historian Paul Sabin’s book Public Citizens, this level of citizen input was the product of laws passed in the 1970s inspired by slow-growth activists such as Rachel Carson, Jane Jacobs, and Ralph Nader.
This group of writers, lawyers, and activists argued that the midcentury liberal era’s love of growth and bigness had left corporations free to pollute the environment and flood the market with dangerous products. Meanwhile, unchecked, opaque government bureaucracies built or approved harmful megaprojects that bulldozed private property, often without the owners’ consent, and devastated nature in the name of “progress.”
To hold fundamentally untrustworthy bureaucracies accountable, citizens were empowered to sue bureaucrats when they didn’t follow new environmental regulations or disclose enough information about the projects they approved.
The thinking at the time, writes Sabin, was that “aggressive litigation might make the government work better.”
These anti-growth, anti-bigness policies also drifted down to the state and local level. Throughout the 1970s, state legislatures passed their own, often much more expansive environmental reporting laws that allowed citizens to sue to stop private projects such as new housing and businesses, as well as major infrastructure projects.
Local governments, meanwhile, tightened existing zoning codes to drastically reduce the amount of housing that could be built. They also gave local residents (via public hearings, referendums, and discretionary approval processes) more say over the approval of housing that was still technically allowed.
Empowered to sue over projects they didn’t like, local “not in my backyard” (NIMBY) activists grew increasingly successful in stopping everything that smacked of progress in their
Article from Reason.com
The Reason Magazine website is a go-to destination for libertarians seeking cogent analysis, investigative reporting, and thought-provoking commentary. Championing the principles of individual freedom, limited government, and free markets, the site offers a diverse range of articles, videos, and podcasts that challenge conventional wisdom and advocate for libertarian solutions. Whether you’re interested in politics, culture, or technology, Reason provides a unique lens that prioritizes liberty and rational discourse. It’s an essential resource for those who value critical thinking and nuanced debate in the pursuit of a freer society.