July 24 2013

Detroit: Death by Government

Lindsey Dodge

In Detroit today, it is possible to buy a three-bedroom, 1,300-square-foot home for $39.

The media is now paying due credit to the financial struggles of Detroit as one of the hallmarks of urban America finally enters into bankruptcy (or tries to). But still so many of the pundits are using Detroit to air their personal grievances. Detroit is just the tip of the iceberg for American cities. Detroit’s an exception and subject to malicious “market forces” (again, nonsense). Then there’s the nonsensical “return to the wild” romanticizing of Detroit, such as in the “Girl’s Guide to Detroit” video.

The most pernicious conception about Detroit is that somehow it came down to a cultural issue. This has ranged from commentary on racism preventing job growth to commentary on how single motherhood has dragged the city down.

A cultural breakdown is not to blame for Detroit — Detroit's plight is the legacy of Detroit’s economic arrogance. Symbolic of America’s greatest industrial success (not to mention Ayn Rand’s Starnesville), Detroit is confronting its history, characterized by a belief that government can pick and choose winners in a free economy. This is the city’s fatal character flaw that led to the bulldozing of an “undesirable” neighborhood in the 1950s, effectively crushing growing African-American entrepreneurship. It led to the highest income tax in the state of Michigan, and the highest property tax in the nation. It led to debilitating public pensions. It led to massive job decentralization, where 61 percent of those who work in the city live in the suburbs. It continued in recent years, when regulations barred street vendors from selling any hot fare except for hot dogs. This attitude that government could choose what was right for people led to debt, crime, bad schools, and above everything else, corruption.  

This isn’t about one issue. (Few things written about Detroit aren’t true, so in a sense it’s functioning as a jobs program for commentators right now.) It’s about the attitude. A cultural breakdown of heavy racial segregation and nearly 80 percent single parenthood is hardly the governing cause; it’s symptomatic of bad policies thrust on people who have few economic choices. Detroit was the perfect storm of progressive, centralized thinking that devalues the individual at the expense of preserving some “greater good.”

The only option left was bankruptcy. But it will take much more than aligning accounting columns to resuscitate Detroit. It will take a heart transplant.

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