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The Dashed Dreams of President Bloomberg

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In a valedictory interview with the Atlantic, Bloomberg uttered the single phrase that best encapsulates his worldview. Following the polls, he said, is not only “not ethical” but ineffective politics, “because people aren’t good at describing what is in their own interest.” They need the Bloombergs of the world to scrutinize the data on their behalf and figure out what is in their interest. And then, even if he does something for them that they think they don’t want, they’ll appreciate him in the end.

Bloomberg’s methods have been most distinctive and even shocking in the field of “public health”—the term itself is a misnomer, since Bloomberg has erased the distinction between public health and private choice. Through a progressive series of laws, he first banned smoking in bars and restaurants, then trans fats, and finally (and famously, yet unsuccessfully) large sugary drinks.

Bloomberg’s health crusade is so unusual because it embraces a political mode usually associated with the right. Conservatives favor regulation of vice and personal behavior, especially related to sex, because they believe that the state has a legitimate role in shaping the culture. Traditional social values, they believe, undergird stable families and a well-functioning community. Liberals traditionally want to remove the government from regulating personal behavior and to deploy it only in the economic realm.

Bloomberg’s odd synthesis thrusts government into the role of directing personal behavior, in the classic conservative way, but not doing so on behalf of traditional values. Intrusive personal regulation has been used frequently to prevent social change—to suppress premarital sex, abortion, homosexuality, dancing, or other threats to traditional values. Bloomberg’s paternalism imposes social change, forcing a liberal nanny state upon an often unwilling public. That his campaigns have generally met with success in transforming the culture—that smoke-free bars have gone from unimaginable to indispensable—only reinforced his conviction that he, Michael Bloomberg, knows best.

This explains Bloomberg’s distinct political style. He displays contempt for all procedural niceties, dismissing opposition as corrupt, ineffective, or otherwise illegitimate, and relies upon his overwhelming personal wealth to bury all opposition. Bloomberg’s fortune is of such a massive scale that his direct campaign spending—outspending his mayoral opponents by first a three-to-one, then an eight-to-one, then a ten-to-one ratio—doesn’t even capture its full effect. Bloomberg’s charitable donations create a sector of their own, serving as a form of private patronage.

In the mayor’s mind, the ends not only justify the means, the ends are the only conceivable metric by which to judge him. When he took control of the city’s schools from the State Board of Education, he shrugged, “The public said we want a decision-maker to go in there and do it right. You can’t please everybody.” In response to critics of the city’s stop-and-frisk policy, he snarled, “We are not going to walk away from a strategy that we know saves lives.” He waved off the backlash to his soda ban by promising, “Let’s try for a period of two years. We’ll measure the results and see if it works.”

To the critics, this missed the point. The violation—an individual’s right to make a choice that affects nobody else—was a principle that couldn’t be measured. That is the sort of concern Bloomberg seemingly cannot process. Bloomberg’s suspension of the prohibition on a third term was his most representative political act. Did suspending the rules to keep the boss in power have the whiff of Huey Long? Should the process by which Bloomberg went about securing his third term be weighed at all against the potential substantive benefits? The question exasperated him. The only thing that mattered was that the city would wind up with him running it rather than an inferior successor. There was no way to quantify this nebulous idea of “fairness” his critics kept bringing up.

The political style of Bloombergism flows naturally from its policy content. If you set about to flout public opinion, if you believe people will come to love your decisions even if they think they hate them now, then sooner or later you’re going to have to steamroll the opposition.

Bloombergism at the city level is creepy but undeniably effective. But Bloomberg­ism at the presidential level would require scaling up Bloomberg’s political methods in a way that would be utterly unworkable, or else frightening, or possibly both. Residents of New York, and most cities, care far more about ends than means. American citizens care a great deal about means. Bloombergism is the sort of thing the Constitution was designed to prevent.


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