I met these Democratic candidates for Readington Town Committee over breakfast the other day, and asked them what differentiates them from the Republicans who dominate politics around town. Without blinking an eye, they said that as Democrats, they favor a pro-development, pro-business platform against the local Republican machine, which is running against development and against business in the name of “Open Space.”
According Esakoff and Fiore, thirty percent of Readington Township is already open space, large swatches of it off limits to most people, but the Republicans want more: because you can never have too much of a resource that lots of people are excluded from using. Huge swatches of “preserved farmland” lie in Readington Township alone, acquired at 50-100% “State Cost” i.e., through purchases by the county or the municipality, or through purchase by State Agricultural Development Committee fees.
Having heard this, Alison and I went for a lovely drive around town, taking in the beginning tendrils of autumn while driving past acres and acres of “Preserved Farmland“–all of it behind gates, fences, motion detectors, cameras, and minatory signs warning away the inquisitive and the trespassory. From the State Agricultural Development Committee:
New Jersey’s farmlands are the foundation for a strong agricultural industry and a way of life for generations of farm families. Scenic landscapes of green, productive fields are an important part of what makes New Jersey a desirable place to live and work. Farmland preservation clearly is an important investment in our economy, our farming heritage and the overall quality of life for each and every New Jerseyan.
There are valuable incentives for landowners to participate in the Farmland Preservation Program. The program can help them meet their financial goals, providing them with the capital to expand their existing operations; eliminate or reduce their debt load; or further their estate or retirement planning. Participants in the program also are eligible to apply for cost-sharing grants to fund soil and water conservation projects. In addition, they enjoy limited protection from government acquisition of land through eminent domain; public and private nuisances; and emergency restrictions on the use of water and energy supplies.
The Farmland Preservation Program is administered by the State Agriculture Development Committee (SADC), which coordinates with County Agriculture Development Boards, municipal governments, nonprofit organizations and landowners in the development of plans that best meet the needs of individual landowners.
Who knew? It all gives new meaning to the lyrics to that old ditty, “America”: “O Beautiful, for spacious skies/For amber waves of grain…” You could almost punctuate that last line with a “ch-chhhing!”
The whole thing strikes me as something between a game and a scam. You can, at any rate, make a game of it, as I often have: find a splotch of green space on the map, drive to it, and see if you can get in. Fat chance. You’d have an easier time accessing an Israeli settlement. Open space may be a public good, but it’s undeniably private property. The invisible hand works in mysterious ways.
Put simply, the whole thing looks like a land grab rationalized by a state-subsidized ideal of gentleman farming right out of the eighteenth century (“the right to farm” is what they call it). Not that very much actual farming is taking place on these “farms.” But then, that’s what gentleman or yeoman farming is: “produce inefficiently, sell locally–at others’ expense,” might be its maxim. Eventually, I suppose, the exclusions involved in this sort of exclusionary zoning just become an end in themselves: better that no one is using a resource than that anyone is. It’s sort of a utilitarianism-in-reverse: “So act as to bring about the least amount of good for the smallest number.”
The Democrats want to balance the budget by making Readington more business-friendly; the Republicans are so averse to business development that they’re willing to forego the revenues that would arise through tax-ratable commerce, and drive the town into debt in the process. It’s the reverse of the usual ideological template, so don’t expect many people to figure it out any time soon.
The Democrats’ solution? Create a “Readington Economic Commission” to weigh the economic pros and cons of land use regulation so as to ensure that any new regulations satisfy minimal cost-benefit conditions. I’m almost afraid to say this, but I think the idea is that they’re prepared to nix regulations that impose high costs while conferring low benefits. I was tempted to ask whether such measures would pass muster with the Center for Progressive Reform, but decided not to say anything: not everybody gets my brand of humor.
The humor consists in the fact that Republicans nowadays seem to be agreeing with “progressive” regulatory zealots of old against “neo-liberal” Democrats defending a form of de-regulation. Except that no one can quite say any of that, the ideological situation and general “optics” being so damn unexpected and weird. What to say when there’s no script to follow?
Equally amusing is the contrast between the dogmatic nonsense one so often hears, versus the reality one discovers over a half-price breakfast at the Whitehouse Station General Store. Ask anyone about it–libertarians, the mainstream media, the Chamber of Commerce, the democratic socialists themselves–and you’ll hear a lot of stuff about the Democrats’ turning into the “party of socialism,” coupled with talk about the imperative to keep the Republicans “the party of capitalism.” But then go out into the world and spend some time with Democrats and Republicans, and you’ll encounter–or at least I encounter–something completely different. What to do about the fact that the Democrats are turning into the party of capitalist enterprise, while the Republicans turn into the party of national socialism?
In a shrewd essay, Roderick Long despairs of reaching what he calls “the aristocratic left.”
There are some left-wingers whom I call the “aristocratic Left,” and whom I despair of reaching. These are left-wingers who have a particular vision of an idyllic society and are prepared to hammer into place anyone whose preferences or behavior don’t align with the vision; in effect they see other people as their property.
We now have the additional task of dealing with the aristocratic Right, with all the worst features of their left-wing brethren–but adding insult to injury with their red baseball caps, state-subsidized farms, and country music. No nation can subsist for long on a diet of Luke Bryan, locally grown produce, and #MAGA, but the American Right is willing to try.
Anyway, as far as I’m concerned, the Readington Town Committee campaign is a no-brainer: Esakoff and Fiore have my vote. “The Republicans,” they said, “have made development a four-letter word.” LOL. Well, that may be, but that’s not the kind of thing that’ll deter me. By comparison with either the Democrats or the Republicans in Hunterdon County, I’m a pro-development fanatic. “Development” may have become a four letter word for the aristocrats of left and right, but four letter words kind of seem called for, and are in any case my favorite kind.