Overreaching and Reform

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

I'm in the middle of a long article at City Journal about the latest wave of urban "reform." The gist of Steven Malanga's argument seems to be that this wave is one of self-reliance, at least in the sense of cities not necessarily looking for federal aid to solve all their problems.

But don't click through in the hopes of learning about a pro-capitalist wave, or finding an argument in favor of laissez-faire capitalism: It is clear that, with the example he gives of a mayor improving "the delivery of public services," that Malanga is writing from a mixed economy perspective.

That's too bad, because I suspect that many, if not most of the problems faced by crumbling cities like Detroit are due to government interference in the economy, and that would make for a fascinating article. At the very least, a pro-capitalist perspective would clarify an article like this on many levels, and allow a more profitable examination of its subject matter.

The following two paragraphs struck me as a good example:

The out-of-control corruption brought in response a reform era led by progressives, like Theodore Roosevelt, who argued that modern scientific principles and ideas of efficiency, not smoky backroom deals, should direct city policy. For instance, as president of the New York City Board of Police Commissioners from 1895 to 1897, Roosevelt revamped the city's police department, considered among the most crooked in America, by changing hiring procedures to favor the most qualified candidates rather than the politically connected.

However, some voters, not without reason, saw the progressives as cold, distant elites, uninterested in neighborhood issues. And the reformers occasionally overreached, as with their support of Prohibition. As a result, progressives -- New York City mayor Seth Low, who governed in 1902, is a good example -- were sometimes turned out of office as the public's zeal for reform waned. So the old-style ethnic political machines held on to some measure of influence in many American cities through the first half of the twentieth century. And cities that remained in thrall to the machines weren't ready to confront the economic and social changes that swept the nation during the 1960s. [minor format edits]
Immediately, the pro-capitalist will get a sense of history repeating itself when he reads of the Progressives making city government more "efficient." (Is the current wave of reform all that different in any important way?) And, while Progressives may indeed have resembled many of today's leftists in terms of possessing an air of aloofness and condescension, was a lack of interest in "neighborhood issues" really the source of their downfall? (Did Americans want even more government in their daily lives, or less? Would more such "interest" be properly seen as the meddling it would have been?)

As for "support of Prohibition" being seen as overreaching, this makes sense only if voters indeed wanted more involvement in their affairs, but just weren't ready for that much more of it (or they indulged in the "dictator fantasy" and somehow expected that area of their lives to remain exempt). To the point, a consistent advocate of government protection of individual rights would see support of Prohibition for what it was: simply another flavor of support for government meddling in the economy (and thus, meddling in the daily affairs of individual Americans). In terms of violating individual rights, Prohibition was actually worse than the corruption of the day, because it was an official government policy.

Thus, Malanga classifies anti-corruption efforts, legitimate efforts to reform city government (like instituting merit-based promotions for policemen), Progressive policies in favor of greater efficiency in the delivery of public services (legitimate or not), and support of Prohibition (which violates individual rights) under a non-essential similarity, "reform" (i.e., change from a status quo vaguely described as corrupt), rather than by looking more closely at whether these changes represented movement in the direction of better government protection of individual rights. And this makes his criticism of the Progressives fall flat (and sound like a typical, hollow conservative criticism about change of any kind), at least so far: that some wanted to "reform" things too rapidly. That's what Malanga seems to mean by "overreach" here. (There also remains the pregnant question of why "the public's zeal for reform waned.")

In fact, if that wave of reform were even good on balance, support for Prohibition would have been a major contradiction. It may well have been that Americans also favored such government controls, but weren't ready to accept that much government control of their lives then -- and in that sense, some of these politicians were overreaching. But in terms of reforming urban politics for the better, such politicians actually represented a step backward.

This may seem like a minor point, but it is important in the ongoing debate about the role of government in American society in two ways. First, there is the fact that in our current culture, it will be very difficult to make meaningful progress towards reducing government down to its proper scope. There is a legitimate concern along the way about what reforms we can accomplish at any given time. Second, many people recognize this on some level, but do not understand that the cause of this problem lies in the kinds of (changeable) political ideas that permeate our culture. Many such people will warn against "going too far," not just in terms of seeking a given reform too early, but even of floating the idea for it or making an uncompromising stand for freedom. I'm not sure whether the second applies to Malanga, but I have seen such a notion before, and it is one for advocates of freedom to be vigilant about.

-- CAV

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