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The Bureaucratic Erasure of Culture, Identity, and Freedom

Exploring the roadways of California yields scenery evoking two distinct worlds. On the big freeways, surrounding every major interchange, the 21st century asserts itself in an agglomeration of concrete and glass boxes surrounded by lakes of asphalt, each festooned with a recognizable corporate logo. Food. Fuel. Lodging. The corporate power they represent is reflected in their generic interchangeability. “We have taken over the world. We are everywhere.” And they are. From California to the Carolinas, it’s the same fast food, the same gasoline, the same motel chains. You can’t tell them apart.

If you get off the main highways, a different world still exists, but it’s fading fast. Along Highway 50, which connects Sacramento to the South Shore of Lake Tahoe, there are several examples that take us back to the middle of the 20th century, before the only sources of roadside food, fuel and lodging were franchised cutouts backed by multinational corporations. On the eastbound ascent, just above the snow line, one of these relics sits, surrounded by chain link fence. Struggling for years against an economic deck stacked against it, COVID restrictions administered the coup de grâce. But there it stands, a spacious log cabin style lodge, with steep Swiss roofs and windowed gables. Moldering in the rain, freezing in the snow, it is worth more dead than alive.

Across the highway, a few miles downhill but still in the High Sierra, a roadhouse stands abandoned. Thick wood framing, a peaked roof, stone chimney and a decrepit neon sign define this relic from the last century. Imagine this place in its heyday, with a fire roaring in the hearth, drinks being poured, glasses clinking, the hubbub of exhilarated travelers filling the bar. Imagine the lodge across the street, the same scene, with someone playing the piano in the lobby, while families lounge or play board games with their children beneath the vaulted timber ceiling. It’s all gone now. The only thing these beautiful ruins offer are the real estate they’re sitting on, and the liquor licenses that will pass to the new owners.

To build a new restaurant in California today, much less build a motel, it isn’t enough to buy some land and know how to design a building, work with construction contractors, and run a business. That hard work and skill used to be all that mattered, and it mattered a lot. People with a good work ethic and sufficient determination could do what was, and still is, honest hard work and within a few months or a few years, depending on the scale of their project, they would be the proprietors of a restaurant or a resort hotel. No more. The skills required today favor the snakes and the cynics, the filthy rich and the implacably bureaucratic. Honesty is for suckers.

How else does one tolerate the nearly infinite ecosystem of federal, state, regional, and local agencies, all with the power to stop your project in its tracks? How else to navigate the endless litigation, the overlapping regulations that often conflict with each other depending on which agency they’re coming from, and change all the time? How else to cope when yet another lawsuit, or rule change, requires an entire new set of designs, and the need to resubmit them to every agency and start all over again?

Instead of a restaurant that’s been in one family for a century, with a fire in the hearth and drinks poured by hand, we have corporate franchises with the menu and the interior atmosphere curated by behavioral scientists, and drinks measured out by a machine. Instead of a lodge that was built when the road first went through, with all the flaws and funk and authenticity that independent, multigenerational ownership accretes, we have a concrete tilt-up monstrosity so big you can get lost in the corridors trying to find the exit, with a phony exterior façade of alpine gingerbread, and an ostentatious grand piano in the lobby that’s safely locked so nobody can play it.

One of the ironies of our time is that the traditional role of government funding practical infrastructure projects is now conflated with government at its most wasteful, funding utterly impractical “renewables” infrastructure, or exercising eminent domain to expropriate private homes in order to subsidize stadiums and “transit villages.” Worse yet, the concept of practical infrastructure enabling more affordable market housing and more financially viable small businesses is utterly lost. But how else, unless you have at least partially socialized the initial construction costs for energy, transportation and water infrastructure, can you expect the smaller, independent, private economic players to compete?

Against that prohibitive backdrop, and even more to the point, how can anyone expect small businesses to succeed, particularly if they’re doing anything that requires construction or serving food, when there are dozens of agencies that must be coddled and thousands of regulations that must be complied with, because every one of them, often just on a whim, can fatally derail your business?

These twin impediments to small business – the lack of practical infrastructure which lowers the cost of doing business, and a punitive regulatory environment – have precisely the opposite effect on big businesses. Multinational corporations thrive in the presence of high input costs and excessive regulations, because they have the market share and the balance sheet to withstand anything the government throws at them. Who needs enabling infrastructure to make energy and water affordable? Big businesses just pass costs on to their customers. Who cares about overregulation? That will kill the small players, and let big players mop up the rest of the market.

California’s ruling class tolerates a parasitic government because parasitic government empowers oligopolies. If the government goes too far, big corporations have the power to sue the government. How many smaller players, mavericks with a paltry million or two to burn, have lost everything when they tried to take on the Army Corps of Engineers, or the California Fish and Wildlife Service, or the Coastal Commission, or any others among a host of agencies fueled by an inexhaustible cascade of taxpayer dollars? Enough to provide cautionary tales aplenty.

A practical government in California that was committed to serving ordinary citizens would not only deregulate and consolidate oversight agencies. They would also fast track permitting for nuclear and natural gas development, fund water supply infrastructure, and upgrade the roads. Doing this lowers the cost of housing and empowers small businesses to compete. This understanding is usually lost even among those who properly criticize government investment in wasteful, impractical, politically contrived and unnecessary infrastructure.

We can’t bring back the last century, nor should that be anyone’s goal. But we can make it easier for small entrepreneurs to resurrect and restore the resorts and road houses that would otherwise face demolition. We can make it easier for small entrepreneurs to construct new refuges for the traveler and the tourist. We can create a policy environment that isn’t punitive to the millions of honest dealers who want to create something that consumers want, and achieve financial independence by providing it. This decentralized wealth, the product of unshackled creativity, is the engine of culture and identity – and diversity – and an expression of freedom. We should not turn that over to multinational corporations.

This article originally appeared in the Epoch Times.

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