On a recent drive from the East Coast back home to California, I found myself thinking about four men. The first was President Dwight Eisenhower, who championed the notion of continental superhighways before signing, in 1956, the law that authorized the Interstate Highway System. It reflected an American passion for the open road, as symbolized in popular culture by the ad jingle “See the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet” and Jack Kerouac’s novel “On the Road,” written in 1951.
The second man was Wallace Libby Hardison. In 1870s Pennsylvania, he and a partner, Lyman Stewart, successfully wildcatted for oil until John D. Rockefeller put everyone like them out of business. Undaunted, the pair left for the land of opportunity—California—where ambition and industry were all a man needed to succeed. They struck oil in what is today Ventura County and founded the Union Oil Co., later known as Unocal. A few years on, Hardison and another Maine transplant, Nathan Weston Blanchard, gambled big by buying 400 acres and planting citrus. Thus was born the Limoneira Company, now one of North America’s largest growers of lemons and avocados.
The third man who came to mind was Edmund G. “Pat” Brown. As governor from 1959-67, his ambition was to make California the most livable state and thereby dethrone New York as the nation’s most populous. To that end, he turned the Golden State’s public university system into the world’s finest; built roads, bridges and other infrastructure; and constructed a water-delivery system that ensured adequate supply everywhere, from California’s agricultural center, to its coastal cities, to its deserts.
By the end of 1962—days before the governor’s second inaugural—enough Americans had moved here for him to declare victory and ring a bell kicking off a 72-hour statewide celebration. “My son asked me what I hoped to accomplish as governor,” Brown once said. “I told him, essentially, to make life more comfortable for people, as far as government can.”
That son who’d asked him was the fourth person I thought of while driving: Jerry Brown, California’s present governor. I was struck by the chasm that separated him from his father, Eisenhower and Hardison. Those three men believed government’s role was to provide Americans wider opportunities to pursue individual happiness—which worked particularly well in California, where there was more liberty than infrastructure. Jerry Brown, by contrast, appears to believe that happiness is a collective notion and that the endpoint of helping “as far as government can” is visible only through the Hubble telescope.
Take his insistence that California spend unknown billions of dollars on a bullet train connecting Southern and Northern California. Every poll shows that few people intend to ride it. Why? Because taking your own car will be faster and cheaper than driving to a station, parking, riding with stops along the way, and then renting a car or hailing an Uber at your destination. And anyway, tickets to fly between L.A. and San Francisco—which the train won’t even reach directly—can be had for less than $100. Why ride a rail that’s routed not along the state’s scenic coast (already served by Amtrak’s Coast Starlight) but through its distinctly unlovely interior?
An even more utopian folly is Mr. Brown’s determination to establish California as a model for climate-change politics and policy. It goes without saying that one state—or even one country—cannot reduce carbon emissions enough to benefit the climate in a meaningful way. The true consequence of the governor’s ubergreen policies is to reverse his father’s migration, at least for productive citizens and businesses. They’re leaving California for states where energy is cheaper, taxes are lower, and the regulatory burden is lighter. Middle-aged people making $100,000 to $200,000 a year are the largest cohort of those moving out, according to researchers Joel Kotkin and Wendell Cox.
Two years ago, Mr. Brown signed a bill requiring state-regulated utilities to produce, by 2030, 50% of their electricity from renewable sources like wind and solar. Although those are highly subsidized, Californians still pay about 50% more for power than the national average. Gasoline is no better. The moment my car crossed the state line from Arizona, a gallon of gas instantly cost a dollar more, and nearly twice what I’d paid in Louisiana. The higher price can be blamed on not only taxes but the cost of refining gas to California’s exacting specifications, a 25-year-old antipollution program that may well have outlived its need.
California’s gas taxes were, until recently, a mere 30% higher than the nationwide average, yet its streets and highways tend to be in poor shape compared with those in other states. So in April the governor strong-armed the Legislature into raising gas taxes 12 cents a gallon and annual vehicle fees $50. The extra $5 billion a year will barely address a backlog of repairs estimated at more than $100 billion. And there’s no ironclad guarantee the funds will be allocated to road improvements at all. Yet the governor dismissed his opponents as unworthy of argument. “Roads require money to fix,” Mr. Brown said. “The freeloaders—I’ve had enough of them.”
For most of human history, people spent much of their day in search of calories. Only in the past century and a half have those concerns been obviated by plentiful fossil-fuel energy that spurred new technologies and literally built California. See: W.L. Hardison. If Gov. Brown is looking for a legacy worthy of his father, he’d do well to take a page from California’s history of relying on the grit and ingenuity of Californians. Left unshackled, the species that invented language, music, and single-malt scotch can overcome whatever Mother Nature is going to do anyway, notwithstanding the state’s shrinking carbon footprint.
Joel Engel is author, most recently, of “L.A. ’56: A Devil in the City of Angels.”