The lesson of California

ANNIVERSARY SPECIAL: The Golden State that invented the tax revolt is failing, but the conservative movement presses on
Image by Tom Tomorrow

Much of the right-wing agenda that has thrown this nation into economic chaos can be traced back to what was once called the Golden State.

The tax revolts that started here under Gov. Ronald Reagan and continued to sweep the country and the world under President Reagan never abated. Indeed, they have only been strengthened by the big business power that created and benefited from them.

But now that California is showing signs of being the country's first failed state — caught in fiscal freefall and mired in political gridlock as a generation's worth of neglected problems surge to the surface — this state has become a cautionary tale for that anti-government ideology.

Trends in America tend to start out west, and the economic and political disaster that California has become contains critical lessons for the rest of the country.

Lewis Uhler — president and founder of the National Tax Limitation Committee — speaks candidly and proudly of his key early role in helping build a conservative movement to limit the size of government and do battle with those who want the public sector to actively promote social and economic justice.

Uhler, a UC Berkeley Boalt Hall School of Law graduate who did legal work for conservative causes in the 1960s, was tapped by then-Gov. Reagan in 1970 to be the director of the Office of Economic Opportunity, a federally-funded legal assistance program created as part of President Lyndon Johnson's war on poverty.

While that may seem like a strange role for an avowed conservative and former member of the John Birch Society, Uhler says Reagan basically brought him in to wreck the program and fight the feds. "I was asked to put my money where my mouth was for my conservative philosophy," Uhler told the Guardian. "OEO was set up to ensure conflict and confrontation ... The mission of legal services was to change public policy through lawsuits they decided to file. I thought it was a corruption of the legal system."

At the time, public-interest law and liberal economic and social policies were on the rise in California and spreading to the rest of the nation. So the Reaganites fought back.

Rather than helping poor plaintiffs file environmental, consumer protection, equal rights, or other types of lawsuits designed to level the playing field with powerful interests, Uhler blocked lawsuits brought by attorneys he calls "ambulance-chasers" and gutted the program. "Ultimately," he said, "we vetoed funding for California Rural Legal Assistance."

And for his efforts, Uhler was rewarded with a cabinet-level position: assistance secretary of the Health and Welfare Agency. Again, his role wasn't to make the agency more effective, but to make it less effective in a realm where he believes government was too big and too active.

"The problem was uncontrolled state and local spending," Uhler said. "Intuitively, everyone who gathered around Reagan shared the same philosophy that government doesn't really contribute anything to economic growth."

In 1972, Reagan gave Uhler the opportunity to work more directly on the mission of cutting taxes and shrinking the size of government, naming him chair of the Governor's Tax Reduction Task Force. It was, in many ways, the beginning of the vast right-wing conspiracy.

"I asked to be given the chance to go across the country and find the best free market minds in the country to develop these policies," Uhler said, explaining that he wanted to borrow the liberal strategy of giving an academic veneer to their ideas, as presidents Kennedy and Johnson had done in the realm of foreign policy. "Our side had never really done that."

Uhler's first stop was the University of Chicago School of Economics, where he met with noted free market economists Milton Friedman, James Buchanan, and George Stigler, who were brought into the cause.

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