Detroit decides to give up its freedom

A year ago, I wrote about Michigan’s emergency-manager laws and the danger that modern dictators could become commonplace (as they did in Rome). The article hinged on whether Detroit, with its 700,000 people, would bankrupt itself into losing control over its own government. A new report by Michigan’s treasurer makes crossing that Rubicon almost certain. The state government has concluded that Detroit is in a “financial emergency” and that the governor has to act (indeed, is mandated to act). State Treasurer Andy Dillon said Detroit “doesn’t have more time,” seeing as how it faces total deficits of $427 million (nearly half a billion dollars) and $15 billion in unfunded pension and employee retirement liabilities. Most damningly, state officials have formally concluded that the city government is unable to or incapable of solving the crisis.

This hasn’t deterred some, like “community activist” Susan Hines, who was quoted by the Detroit News as saying: “We have a mayor. We have a council. . . . We feel it’s nothing the city can’t handle.” That, of course, would be the same council that abjectly failed the city for years, and a new mayor who hasn’t been able to make any progress.

There are lots of reasons to support emergency-manager laws, including protecting innocent citizens from the incompetence of their elected officials. Readers of my previous posts on this have noted that cities don’t have sovereignty like states, and thus taking away their independence is not a major constitutional issue. Others upbraided me for criticizing the expansion of state control, but failing to mention the emergency-manager law was passed by a Republican governor.

All good points, but the underlying issue remains. Our democratic tradition starts at the smallest, most local level, and works its way up to the federal government. Anything that undercuts that is to be feared, just as the pathetic, corrupt, and incompetent failings of locally elected government are to be condemned. I don’t know which is worse (and in the circumstances, I’d probably want the state-appointed dictator), but the trend is what we should be worried about, as municipal bankruptcies spread in California, Michigan, and around the country. Democracy seems increasingly broken, and one-party (largely Democratic) cities cripple themselves by being beholden to public service unions and local interest groups. But the trend is moving up the food chain. Soon, states like Illinois may need their own emergency managers, once they fully bankrupt themselves.

That may be a long way away, but it took hundreds of years for Rome’s dictators to slough off constitutional restrictions. Given that Michigan has already gone through at least two iterations of the emergency-manager law, we should at least be aware that freedom can slip away in drips and drabs for what seem like the best of reasons. If the Motor City winds up with an unelected, extremely powerful executive running it, then we’ve taken a large step towards accepting the erosion of liberty, no matter what the causes.

Also Visit
AEIdeas Blog The American Magazine
About the Author

 

Michael
Auslin

What's new on AEI

AEI Election Watch 2014: What will happen and why it matters
image A nation divided by marriage
image Teaching reform
image Socialist party pushing $20 minimum wage defends $13-an-hour job listing
AEI on Facebook
Events Calendar
  • 20
    MON
  • 21
    TUE
  • 22
    WED
  • 23
    THU
  • 24
    FRI
Monday, October 20, 2014 | 2:00 p.m. – 3:30 p.m.
Warfare beneath the waves: The undersea domain in Asia

We welcome you to join us for a panel discussion of the undersea military competition occurring in Asia and what it means for the United States and its allies.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014 | 8:30 a.m. – 10:00 a.m.
AEI Election Watch 2014: What will happen and why it matters

AEI’s Election Watch is back! Please join us for two sessions of the longest-running election program in Washington, DC. 

Wednesday, October 22, 2014 | 1:00 p.m. – 2:30 p.m.
What now for the Common Core?

We welcome you to join us at AEI for a discussion of what’s next for the Common Core.

Event Registration is Closed
Thursday, October 23, 2014 | 10:00 a.m. – 11:00 a.m.
Brazil’s presidential election: Real challenges, real choices

Please join AEI for a discussion examining each candidate’s platform and prospects for victory and the impact that a possible shift toward free-market policies in Brazil might have on South America as a whole.

Event Registration is Closed
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.