Andrew Sullivan writes:
You want a cause to reinvigorate the GOP? Make it easier to start a small business in as many parts of the country as possible!
That does seem like a natural fit, at least until you consider that small businesses might include marijuana dispenseries, sex-toy shops, and 24-hour diners. (Radical bookstores are pretty much over as a threat to public order.)
Here in sleepy Boston, I understand Matt Yglesias's frustration with the rules that prevent the organic growth of businesses in urban areas.
It is much too difficult to get business and occupational licenses; there are excessive restrictions on the wholesaling and retailing of alcoholic beverages; exclusionary zoning codes cripple the economy; and I'm sure there are more problems than I'm even aware of.
Yglesias, who leans to the left on national politics, recently wrote about his adventures in red tape when trying to rent out a condo in Washington, DC. He also noted that his complaints about excessive regulation have prompted "a lot of weird reactions from conservative readers" (here, for example) who seem to think that Barack Obama invented zoning laws.
Like Yglesias, I've voted for self-identified Republicans in municipal races. But I'm wary about voting for any GOP candidates above that level. Why would I vote for the party dedicated to defunding public transportation on the off chance that it might one day come around to giving a damn about the vibrancy of city life?
The problem is that conservatives just don't like cities. Making a city run better is akin to making government run more efficiently, which might lead people to like it. My impression is that the following sentiment, from a post on a conservative blog in Rhode Island (!) is a good fit for the current Republican Party:
Perhaps something in suburban life lends itself to a community that doesn’t require as much government, even scaled per capita. And perhaps something in the lifestyle that suburbia enables is critical to the type of society that can innovate and foster exponential productivity.
Perhaps, moreover, there’s something inadvisable and potentially sinister in creating a system that gives government functionaries massive incentive to draw needy populations into cities for the purpose of expanding the need for their services.
This attitude has been marinating in the Republican Party for decades. Last fall, Kevin Baker noted in The New York Times that "the very word 'city' went all but unheard at the Republican convention, held in the rudimentary city of Tampa, Fla.," and that the party platform mentioned urban policy only to condemn it:
The Obama administration, the Republicans conclude damningly, is “replacing civil engineering with social engineering as it pursues an exclusively urban vision of dense housing and government transit.”
This attitude can't last forever. Urban areas are becoming increasingly powerful in American politics (even if central cities like Philadelphia never match their population peaks, nearby suburbs are becoming more city-like), there is a need in places like New York and Boston for a political force against sclerotic bureaucracy. But I doubt there's much of a constituency for gutting environmental-protection laws or putting more guns in circulation, and I don't think that potential bodega owners are primarily concerned with avoiding an estate tax. The GOP has got to show some sign that it wants the urban vote before it can win much of it.
Top photo: A Republican nightmare — Ste. Catherine Street in the Gay Village of Montreal. As Yglesias notes, the World Bank ranks socialist-medicine Canada third in the ease of starting a business, while the US is 13th. The US is higher (4th) in the overall "ease of doing business," but its strongest category is "getting credit."