The Conservative Alternative To Progressive Neoliberalism

Ta-Nehisi Coates, responding to me on the case of a Washington, DC landowner “forced” to sell her property because her investment has massively increased in value and she now needs to pay high taxes on it does, I think, hint at a real alternative to progressive neoliberalism:

I actually think it’s fairly easy to understand Johnson’s beef. She likes her neighborhood as it is. She may well be able to “sell high,” but the fact is she doesn’t want to sell at all. She probably would love to see her property values rise, but the neighborhood isn’t simply, for her, a financial instrument–it’s an emotional one. In that sense, Johnson isn’t very different than millions of other humans who invest in neighborhoods.

Her contention that the city is “driving us out of here.” is very much debatable. But it’s worth noting that a class of owners with a commitment to something more than a naked financial return is a good thing. When Matt asserts that the city is trying to make H Street a “desirable place to live,” I am compelled to ask “desirable for whom?” I’m not being obtuse here–I understand, in the aggregate, his larger point. But very often people find a kind of value in their living condition that eludes socioeconomic data.

That makes perfect sense. But I do think it’s worth saying that the alternative being put on the table here is a conservative one, and the mere fact that the successful investor who doesn’t like high property tax rates is black doesn’t change that fact. After all, what concrete policy steps could the DC government take to avoid more people being stuck with the problem of rising property values that lead to higher property taxes. Well, I see two:

1. The city could stop investing in improved public services and public safety.
2. The city could reduce property taxes, especially on well-heeled property owners.

That’s not a wild-eyed or insane policy agenda by any means. Indeed, it’s the fiscal agenda of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. And I think it’s good for progressives to pay attention to things like Johnson’s story, since she can perhaps help people to better understand why an agenda of spending cuts and property tax cuts can appeal to a broad group of people and not just a tiny cabal of Koch-funded conspirators. That said, here in the DC context, we should recognize this kind of communitarian critique of liberalism for what it is — a conservative critique.