Antisocial Unrealism

I won’t pile on the author of this piece about what’s gone wrong with Seattle — the Gawker commenters have already finished gnawing on his discarded bones — except to say that

San Francisco, with its square dimensions, functional transit, and high density, was well equipped to handle a population boom.

strikes me as such a bizarre thing to say that I wonder if I’m possibly hallucinating the whole thing, like my whole life is a Jacob’s Ladder–style delusion and I’m actually in a dentist’s chair somewhere waiting for the nitrous to wear off. San Francisco is rather famously a city that’s bounded by seawater on three sides and mountains on the fourth, a situation which presents certain practical obstacles to expanding the housing stock. “Functional transit” is just barely true, if you take “functional” in the sense of damning with the faintest possible praise. And while San Francisco is dense by American standards, many of its housing problems are directly traceable to its near-total refusal to get any denser.

Anyway my point in bringing this up is to mention that I seem to have developed a sort of paradoxical reaction to anti-growth screeds like this one. And this in spite of the fact that I should be squarely in their target demographic two times over: first as someone who’s committed to egalitarianism and believes trickle-down economics is a fairy tale; and second as someone who’s conservative by temperament and believes that there should be a stronger bias in favor of preserving what actually exists even when it might arguably be replaced by something that is in some ways better. In other words, I believe a rising economic tide might lift all boats, but most people don’t have boats, or even lifejackets; and I believe that while it’s a great thing that e.g. my Seattle neighborhood is getting denser, I would be genuinely sad to see the very last Craftsman house get replaced by a lot-split modern townhouse project.

But every time I read an article that singles out one group (tech CEOs, tech employees, city planners, bankers, government, drivers, cyclists, hipsters, yuppies, Whole Foods shoppers, organic farmers, etc.) for the fact that Seattle (or San Francisco, or Brooklyn, or Austin, etc., etc.) isn’t like it was, I inch a little bit closer to the Ayn Rand, libertarian, pox-on-everyone’s-houses, “Cash Rules Everything Around Me” position. (Not so close that I am incapable of mis-typing ‘Ayn Rand’ as ‘Any Nard,’ but still.)

Which brings me to my point, if you can call it that. When I was in college, suffering from the delusions of capitalist grandeur that are common to economics students, I went through an accelerated but very intense Any Nard phase. I’ve always been a quick reader, so the time it took me to get from the heroic modernism phase of The Fountainhead to the droning manifesto phase of Atlas Shrugged was about three weeks.

What’s stuck with me from the whole conversion-apostasy experience is that Rand’s social and political philosophy, to the extent you can even call it that, is totally repugnant — that is to say the whole “virtue of selfishness,” eat-or-be-eaten thing is no way at all to run a decent society, and its philosophical underpinnings, at least as she herself describes them, are flimsy to nonexistent. But there’s something extremely seductive about the way this worldview is presented in The Fountainhead, all bound up with issues of self-actualization and living one’s life in accordance with humanity’s primal essence etc. etc. — something you can arguably find in Marx as well, as it happens, though now I’m truly digressing from a digression…

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