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The Grim Logic of Urban Politics

When he was defeated by David Dinkins in the Democratic primary after three terms as mayor of New York, Ed Koch quipped “The people have spoken . . . and they must be punished!” That comment encapsulates a truth too seldom emphasized in democracy. Elections are not only about holding office-holders accountable but about holding the electorate accountable. Citizens will be held responsible for their votes by the consequences of the choices made by the representatives they elect. Voter responsibility will become most clear when these decisions are the worst.

The two-way street of electoral accountability has never been more relevant than today. Local leaders across the nation, many elected with handsome majorities, have been shown feckless in the face of mobs raging through their cities. Jacob Frey, the mayor of Minneapolis, ordered his police to abandon a station with the result that it was burned down. Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan permitted extremists to oust the police and establish control of key blocks of her city, calling it a symbol of a coming “summer of love.” Weeks of murders and lawlessness in the autonomous zone eventually forced her to take back control. The Seattle city council then banned the use of pepper spray, leading the Chief of Police to declare that her force will no longer be able to protect property against looters. In Portland, Mayor Ted Wheeler has done nothing to prevent mobs from torching statues, including one memorializing the Elk who once roamed freely there.

This recounting constitutes only a partial list of the cities in which leaders have not been keeping basic order. If tolerating mere broken windows leads to more crime, it is hardly a surprise that decisions, like the one to permit a police station to be torched, lead even more quickly to crime waves. And the victims are mostly members of the minority groups for which protestors are marching.

The politicians who have failed to keep order no doubt have their reasons. They may not want to be blamed for any police shootings that happen on their watch and putting down disorder always carries such risks. They may (wrongly in my view) believe that it is impossible to encourage protests without permitting some violence. They may even sympathize with the idea that some statues and property should be targeted by mobs. (The noble elk is just collateral damage.) In any event, many local leaders have shown that they have less sympathy for preventing violence and protecting property than pursuing their other objectives. New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio was more explicit than most in expressing his distaste for the values of order and protection of property when he recently quoted Karl Marx denouncing the state “as the executive committee for the bourgeoisie.” Most of these local leaders are not Marxists, but they are indifferent to the rule of law that undergirds a prosperous, market-based society.

In normal times, many people vote not with attention to consequences, but expressively to affirm their image of themselves as good people. 

Of course, most voters do have an abiding interest in social order, crime control, and the protection of their property. Such bourgeois values have been central to the increased prosperity of the West in the last centuries for all groups, including the poor. To be sure, some members of Antifa and other anarchist groups would like to force others to live in the squalor they celebrate, but these are nothing like a majority. Many voters—enough to swing the results of future elections—may become unhappy as they see property values decline and their neighbors, if not themselves, become increasingly likely to be victims of crime.

Most of the time, voters do not seriously consider such dangerous consequences when electing leaders. Part of the reason is that the combination of factors that lead to disorder (such as lockdowns against a virus and the obviously unjustifiable killing of George Floyd) are low-probability events. But more importantly, citizens are less likely to make a difference in the outcome of a major election by voting than they will suffer a car accident on the way to the polls. Therefore, in normal times, they are going to vote not with attention to consequences, but expressively to affirm their image of themselves as good people. Whoever is elected, they must live with themselves. In many urban settings, that means above all affirming the view of themselves as generous liberals, particularly in contradistinction to Donald Trump.

But when their elected leaders make decisions that lead to seriously adverse personal consequences, like loss of property values and increased fear of crime, accounting for results becomes part of the way they express themselves. When crime continued to rise under Mayor Dinkins and he failed to stop a riot against Jews in Crown Heights, enough voters in New York became concerned to elect Rudy Giuliani, although he was a Republican in a heavily Democratic city. The 20 years under his leadership and that of Michael Bloomberg ushered in a tremendous renaissance for New York City. The voters had indeed been punished by Koch’s defeat, and for a while, even New Yorkers recognized what David Pryce-Jones has called “the credo of the genuine conservative, namely that the veneer of civilization is frighteningly thin, hard to create but easy to destroy.”

The minds of voters are also concentrated by the ability of people and companies to exit cities where violence rises and property rights are disrespected. Ilya Somin in his fine new book, Free to Move: Foot Voting, Migration and Political Freedom, shows how foot voting may often be more effective than casting a ballot to bring about political change. These days, companies may seem focused on putting out public relations statements to align themselves with protests, but they decide where to locate based on the bottom line. They will flee those cities in which it becomes harder to recruit the best employees because of their periodic descent into chaos.

Powerful forces are at work to make many voters regret casting their ballots for leaders who tolerate lawlessness. For that reason, it is important for the federal government not to intervene in what are essentially local law enforcement problems. To be sure, the federal government has a responsibility to protect its federal property and enforce federal laws. Nevertheless, substituting for local law enforcement, no matter how badly led, only retards the process of making voters accountable for what they themselves have wrought. Indeed, low performing local leaders will then try to distract from their own responsibility for the chaotic situation by attacking federal law enforcement. Because such enforcement is associated with the administration of Donald Trump, supremely unpopular in their cities, they can change the subject from their maladministration.

Once a crisis recedes into the distant past, voters are likely to once again lapse into expressive voting with little regard to consequences. Localities may again elect the kind of leaders who have made so many serious mistakes today. Bill de Blasio could only win because the transformation of New York had been so great that its denizens no longer remembered the grim days before Giuliani’s tenure. Because of the nature of voting and voters, local governance generally only improves through crisis. It remains to be seen if the disastrous decisions of many urban leaders wake up the woke.

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