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Sick of Steve Lonegan

Steve Lonegan, the Republican candidate for Senate in New Jersey’s special election this year, likes to brag that he “has no filter” when he speaks. In other words, he just gives voice to whatever rubbish happens to pop into his head at any given moment. Since he’s against the war in Syria–and against it in a clearer, less equivocal way than his Democratic rival, Cory Booker–a person with libertarian leanings might be tempted to vote for him. As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I’m not tempted.

Though I’m a registered Republican, I think the time has come for those of us interested in free market politics to look beyond the surface characteristics, media postures, and even the case-by-case policy positions of initially attractive libertarian-like candidates and start looking at the underlying style or method of their approach to politics. Some questions worth asking: what is their fundamental discursive relation to the electorate? Do they aim to persuade, or do they aim to manipulate? Does their manner of speech treat people as ends, or as mere means to the task of getting elected? Do they appeal in a genuine way to a sense of justice, or do they simply pander to prejudices and fear?

I think it’s amazing how bad the Republicans are on these issues. And Lonegan is among the worst. The man cannot open his mouth without giving voice to some form of bigotry, cruelty or small-mindedness, all of it aimed at suborning the votes of like-minded people on the assumption that if you work a sufficient number of New Jerseyans into a state of bigotry and spite, you’ll win the election. (Actually, it’s testimony to the character of the people of this fair state that he won’t.) He is the epitome of the sickening, characteristically suburban New Jersey foulness I remember from some of the worst moments of my suburban New Jersey youth. When I hear him, the past comes flooding back into memory, and I resolve not to forget what I saw and heard.

I was cleaning out some things today, when I found this letter I wrote to Lonegan last summer on the occasion of a mass mailing he’d sent out as State Director of the New Jersey chapter of Americans for Prosperity (a Koch-funded outfit). It pains me to have to beat up on a free market organization, but it pains me more that this is what free market organizations have come to. The letter is dated July 17, 2012, and is addressed to Lonegan as “State Director, AFP–New Jersey.” The letter is intended to illustrate that there are times when some of us get “sick of this shit,” too.

Dear Mr. Lonegan:

I recently received your letter to me of June 15, 2012, discussing many topics, among them the New Jersey Foreclosure Transformation Act (Senate Act 1022) sponsored by State Senator Ray Lesniak. Since your letter gave no actual description of the provisions of the act, but just contained the usual hysterical rhetoric to which I’ve become accustomed in letters from right-wing organizations, I went to my computer, downloaded the text of the Act, and read it.  Predictably, what it said made a lot more sense than anything in your letter. Since I had some time at my disposal, I decided to sit down and tell you why.

I’m a registered Republican. I suspect you got my address because I subscribe to Reason magazine, which rents out its subscriber list to organizations like yours. Like many Republicans, and many subscribers to that magazine, I’m a libertarian of sorts. I’d like to see a genuinely free market in housing, and in many other things as well. I’m a registered Republican because I live with the hope that some day, the Republican Party will become a libertarian party. I’m not a Democrat because I know the Democratic Party never will. At a superficial glance, an outside observer might predict that I’d side with you against Senator Lesniak. But there’s more here than meets the eye.

In your letter, you describe 1022 “as “dangerous and destructive.” It “picks up where the New Jersey Supreme Court’s ultra-liberal Mount Laurel decisions left off.” It turns the government into a landlord. It spends our hard-earned tax money. It drives our “property values right into the ground.” “It’s positively twisted.” It’s “the most destructive social engineering scheme” you’ve “ever seen come out of Trenton.”

For all of your fulminations against the law, you don’t even bother to offer a single accurate summary of what it says. Doesn’t that suggest that you’d like people to form an opinion about it while relying on their ignorance? Why should I support an organization devoted to the propagation of ignorance?

You say it’s “dangerous and destructive.” What’s so dangerous or destructive about it? It’s a temporary act designed to buy vacant, foreclosed homes and convert them into affordable housing. What, exactly, is dangerous or destructive about affordable housing? Wouldn’t it make more sense to inquire into what is dangerous about the lack of affordable housing in this state? Your letter doesn’t say a word about that much more obvious danger. Have you ever been homeless, Steve? Try it sometime.[*] When you do, you’ll be in a very good position to compare the “dangers” of having affordable housing versus the dangers of being homeless. I’d be curious to hear what you think of the difference.

You criticize Mt. LaurelMt. Laurel was a remedy for exclusionary zoning. Your criticism of Mt. Laurel either implies that you’re in favor of exclusionary zoning, or that you have a better remedy for it than Mt. Laurel. In the first case, I’d like to hear your defense of it. In the second case, I’d like to hear your proposal. I merely note for now that your letter contains neither.

You complain that 1022 turns the government into a landlord. Well, the government already is a landlord. It owns any number of properties across the state. Clearly, you have a special objection to its extending ownership into the particular domain singled out by 1022. It’d be nice to hear why. It’d be one thing if there were buyers waiting to buy up the properties that Senator Lesniak’s New Jersey Foreclosure Relief Corporation is proposing to buy. In that case, his Corporation would be muscling in a market that might be filled by non-governmental buyers. But you don’t say that. In fact, I’m inclined to suggest that if you’re really so worried about the Corporation buying up foreclosed properties, why don’t you buy them–instead of wasting money on a “comprehensive, full-scale grassroots program” that will generate a lot of hot air but no affordable housing or any other tangible human progress? But you don’t say that, either. Don’t you think 64,000 “freedom fighters” can pool their money to buy a single foreclosed house and turn it into affordable housing for some worthy beneficiary?

You say 1022 spends our hard-earned tax dollars. Yes, Steve, the government subsists on tax dollars: I think we learned that in fourth-grade civics. But unless AFP-NJ wants to step up and create affordable housing, or propose a concrete means of creating it, what is the alternative? You complain that 1022 gives foreclosed houses “to drug addicts, ex-cons, and the homeless.” You conveniently omit to mention that it also does so for “victims of domestic violence,” “youth aging out of foster care,” “individuals with AIDS/HIV,” and generally, people who can’t afford housing (section 3). Why omit that? Because you don’t think such people should be housed, or because you’d rather solicit money by getting your readers to focus on drug addicts and ex-cons?

While we’re on the subject, are you proposing that no tax dollars be spent on housing these populations? In that case, where are you proposing they should live? Or should they not be housed at all? It’s not as easy as you think to house such people in a state in which housing costs are as high as they are here. There is in any case something deeply wrong with an organization that groups “drug addicts,” “ex-cons” and “the homeless” in the same group, as though all three were undesirables of the same sort. Do you think being homeless is morally on par with having committed a crime? Why would I send a cent of my hard-earned money to someone with moral views as “twisted” as those? (Incidentally, you might be a little clearer about how a temporary corporation empowered to borrow money will be spending that much in the way of tax dollars, but I’ll grant that it will inevitably end up spending some.)

As for driving our property values down, let me make two points to you. One is that you may have noticed from my address that I live in an apartment. People like me don’t have “property values” to worry about. Have you ever stopped to think that upwardly-shifting property values mean that people like me get priced out of the housing market by people with entitlement mentalities like yours? That brings me to the second point. Have you ever stopped to translate into plain English what your rhetoric about “property values” really means? It means that you feel entitled to increasing property values by doing whatever you can to keep “undesirable” people out of your neighborhood for fear that when the riff-raff come in, they might be able to buy housing where you live. That’s not a free market in housing. It’s the privileged whine of the haves stamping their foot at the possibility that the have-nots might come to live beside them.

I’m 43 years old, and have spent most of it in New Jersey. I’ve heard rhetoric like yours all of my life. I remember growing up around people who worried that the influx of black people would “drive our property values right into the ground.” Your mentality is no different from theirs. I’m sick of rhetoric like that, and sick of the people whose rhetoric it is. So count me out of your club of 64,000 “freedom fighters.” If I were homeless, or a victim of domestic violence, you wouldn’t want me in your precious little neighborhood. With an attitude like that, you might ask yourself why I would want my money in your bank account. Feel free to explore the rest of the envelope for my answer.

Sincerely,

Irfan Khawaja

[*] Not part of the original letter: I have tried it. I was briefly rendered homeless in the summer of 2002 after the apartment I was living in burned down. The Red Cross put my partner and me up for a few days until we found a new place to live. I’ve been utterly grateful to them ever since.

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2 Comments

  1. Matt Faherty says:

    “While we’re on the subject, are you proposing that no tax dollars be spent on housing these populations? In that case, where are you proposing they should live? Or should they not be housed at all? It’s not as easy as you think to house such people in a state in which housing costs are as high as they are here.”

    Why is it your default assumption that the government should be providing housing to anyone?

  2. irfankhawaja says:

    Because all parties to the dispute, Republican, Democrat, libertarian, anarchist, etc., are forced to deal with a fact that can’t be changed overnight: the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency exists, along with dozens of other interventions into the housing market, all of them somehow tax-financed. Ultimately, the libertarian aim is to abolish all force-initiating interventions. And as a matter of principle, the government should not be providing housing. But there is no way to leapfrog over the status quo to that aim. Lonegan’s way of doing so is to pander to the middle class beneficiaries of government largesse and pretend that the beneficiaries of the welfare state are the homeless. Lonegan is not himself suggesting that a free market be established tomorrow (as his comments on Mt. Laurel make clear).He’s suggesting: let’s use the statist status quo to disenfranchise the worst off, call it a free market housing policy, and manipulative free marketeers into voting for him under the delusion that doing so is a form of libertarianism.

    In that context, my response becomes intelligible as a libertarian one. My point is: Since everyone is proposing that some tax dollars be spent on some population, why is Lonegan proposing that none be spent on this one? He has no interest in talking about how government intervention has made housing so expensive for everyone in this state. What he’s done is turn a form of class-based resentment into a supposed crusade for the free market. It isn’t one.

    As a general proposition, I think defenders of the free market have to look more carefully at the politics of transition from where we are to our professed ideal. Given path-dependency effects, everyone is somehow dependent on redistribution, including the middle class. Imagine ripping public schools away from the middle class tomorrow. No one would dare suggest it, not even tough guy Lonegan. But if no one has the courage to suggest that, why the loud-mouthed talk about a temporary foreclosure buy-out for the benefit of the homeless? My own view is that if we’re to roll back the redistributive state, we should start with the beneficiaries who take the most and can survive it the best: the middle class. Any other approach is just the exploitation of the free market for purposes of class warfare.

    Irfan

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