California is the fifth largest economy on the planet. It is blessed with one of the world’s most amiable climates, vast stores of human capital, and abundant natural resources. It is also plagued by a crippling inferiority complex—a condition best exemplified by the state’s governor. Gavin Newsom has developed an unhealthy obsession with Republican-led states like Texas and Florida, and he cannot help but define his state’s identity almost solely in opposition to how other states do business.
Newsom has spent the last year committing California’s taxpayer dollars to an advertising campaign promoting his state as America’s true beacon of freedom, which was conceived as a response to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s efforts to advertise his state as the “freedom state.” Sacramento has sponsored ads berating Floridians for their choice of residence. As Newsom defines it, freedom consists of “freedom of speech, freedom to choose, freedom from hate, and freedom to love.” In his state of the state address this week, the governor called California “freedom’s force multiplier” and denounced the “rising tide of oppression” spearheaded by the “small men in big offices” with whom he is obsessed.
Even a cursory survey of the legal and political landscape in the Golden State renders Newsom’s claim laughably obtuse.
You are not free in California to work in your private industry of choice while refusing to join the labor union that covers that industry. The United States Supreme Court struck down a scheme that allowed public-sector unions to automatically deduct fees from non-union members who happen to work in a unionized field, but private labor unions are not similarly obliged to preserve Americans’ First Amendment rights. California so resented that decision that it passed a law preventing public agencies from discussing with new employees issues relating to union membership or dues or even disclosing the time and place of union meetings. The objective of this legislation is to keep workers in the dark about their options in order to ensure that organized labor’s coffers remain full.
You are not free in California to perform, according to one study, 76 out of 106 lower-income jobs without first securing a license. Setting up shop as a dental assistant, milk sampler, salon shampooer, or just about anything having to do with construction involves hours of mandatory training, exams, and licensing fees. It’s a safe bet that most Californians are not petrified by the prospect of an unlicensed wash and rinse, but the cartels that restrict access to these industries have more leverage over state legislators than their constituents do.
You’re not free in California to import from other states an enormous variety of products that do not comport with the state’s absurd and frivolous product-labeling laws. The state compels firms to warn consumers if a product contains potentially harmful chemicals even if they don’t exceed reasonable risk levels. The law ensures that lumber contains sawdust, gingerbread houses and potato chips have preservatives, and treadmills are made with plastic. Manufacturers who do not comply with these regulations cannot ship products to the state, so Californians are deprived of access to harmless conveniences “from tennis shoes to patio furniture.” But only for their own good.
For years now, California has periodically drafted its citizens into the work of policing their neighbor’s water consumption. Citizens are encouraged to engage in “drought-shaming” in an effort to conserve the state’s dwindling water supplies. The real shortages that necessitate policies like these might be alleviated by constructing desalinization plants, which make seawater potable. But these are power-intensive projects. In a state plagued by planned, rolling blackouts due to its efforts to mothball nuclear and fossil-fuel-powered plants, desalination is not an option.
California has some of the strictest gun laws in the nation, which prevent consumers from purchasing not just a range of firearms and ammunition but non-lethal self-defense products. In California, you can purchase any number of flavored marijuana commodities, but you cannot do the same with non-psychoactive nicotine products. Most maddeningly, the state is determined to phase the internal combustion engine out of existence. The effort to ensure “100 percent zero emissions” on California’s roads begins on California’s lawns. The state will functionally ban the use of gas-powered lawn equipment, which is cheaper and more efficient than electric alternatives, beginning next year.
Those are the “freedom tos” that the Golden State, in all its wisdom, has denied its residents. But what about the “freedom froms?” What of the positive liberties that serve as the basis for Newsom’s indictment of Republican-led states? In this regard, California doesn’t fare much better either.
Californians are not free from exorbitant costs of living. The state’s prohibitively high gasoline prices are a result of taxes and special blend requirements. Its food costs are inflated by “free range” requirements on livestock, and that price pressure will increase if the state successfully bans all gas- and diesel-powered trucking. These conditions have contributed to Dickensian levels of social stratification—though the fabulously wealthy are unlikely to encounter the roughly 6 million state residents who live below the poverty line.
They’re not free from menace. Theft has become a way of life to such a degree that even large chain retailers that can typically absorb reasonable losses are giving up on the Golden State.
They’re not free from ignorance. The state is home to some of the worst public schools in America, even though a staggering 40 percent of the annual budget is devoted to education.
They’re not free from maladministration. Last year, the state discovered that its budget estimates were off by only $122 billion. Instead of an anticipated surplus, much of which the state spent in anticipation of the windfall, Sacramento was saddled with a $308 billion budget deficit.
Every state has its problems as well as its comparative advantages. But not every American state goes around touting itself as the model to which the nation should aspire, even amid an exodus of its own citizens. If Gavin Newsom defines “freedom” entirely and exclusively as unfettered access to abortion until the final stages of pregnancy, he’s got a point about his state. Judging by just about any other metric, however, observers are left to conclude that either he is delusional or he thinks you might be.