Detroit: An Omen & An Opportunity

Sweetest Heart of Mary Polish Catholic Church, Detroit. By Garrett MacLean

A chap by the name of Drew Philp wrote a very interesting article for buzzfeed.com a couple of days ago on his decision to stay in Detroit and (re)build a home that he bought for $500.

It’s a fascinating read, tinged with both sadness and optimism. I think you have to admire the guy’s spirit and his desire to “…help fix this broken, chaotic city…”

It never ceases to amaze me how relentlessly human beings find hope in seemingly hopeless situations, and how astonishingly capable groups of them are at finding innovative solutions to social problems large and small.

The author writes “We [Detroit] boomed and we busted, hard and early, and like an alcoholic drunk on 20th-century capitalism, we hit rock bottom first and hardest,” but in fact it wasn’t capitalism Detroit was drunk on. It was the opposite. It was government.

50 years ago Detroit’s income per capita was almost identical to that of Indianapolis. Detroit’s population has halved since then. Indianapolis grew by 70% in that same time frame, and now boasts a per capita income 50% higher than Detroit’s. What accounts for Detroit’s regression and near-destruction is that its city government became significantly larger than that of Indianapolis, in terms of number of workers, and in terms of its sphere of control over the economy (i.e. it took on the provision of many more services than the Indianapolis gov did). The ratio of residents to city employees, a key measure of city government productivity, is 50:1 in Detroit, one of the worst in the United States, but is 203:1 in Indianapolis, one of the best.

The cancerous growth of Detroit’s city government alone accounts for Detroit’s regression; the corruption, whilst inevitable, was merely the foul icing on a rotten cake. Detroit choked to near-death on government monopolies, laws, regulation, legislation and corruption – both within government and without (the without kind is known as crony capitalism, which is the result of the exploitability & leverageability of gov powers). In short, the erosion of liberty & property rights.

Liberty and property rights are what the once great Detroit was built on; they are what all peaceful, prosperous and sustainable societies are built on.

There is some hope for Detroit as long as there are people with such spirit as the author and when you hear of the various impressive experiments in spontaneous order already happening there – such as: the repurposing of vacant land, the ‘mower gang’, the boarding up and securing of vacant housing by a church group, the Krege foundation purchasing ambulances and new police cars, and efforts at low-cost private policing. However, if the author’s belief that capitalism led to Detroit’s downfall is representative of the prevailing belief amongst its people, then the odds are history will repeat itself; if, that is, Detroit ever manages to get off the ground again in the face of such delusion. Which is unlikely.

How can Detroit become great again? The solution is breathtakingly simple – and given America’s historical ideological roots in minimal-government not particularly radical – and yet faces many barriers to implementation due to the abundance of corruptible power; and to the widespread falsehood that capitalism is fundamentally flawed and leads to destruction. If Detroit was declared a free city, however, it might just grab the world’s attention for noble reasons, just like America used to. Some would and do argue that even minimal-government is not the solution, but that’s a big debate for another time. It’s probably easier to phase out a small-government than a big one though once the prevailing intellectual winds are blowing in the required direction – and in the meantime people are going to live their lives and rebuild because that’s what people do.

The fate of Detroit is largely in the hands of its people. The fate of those people rests upon the beliefs, true and false, that guide their choices. If Detroit is to be ressurected, then its people must choose, with all their heart and soul, liberty over government – and then act accordingly. If they don’t take the opportunity to snatch liberty from the momentarily slack jaws of government, then Detroit may turn out to be a bad omen for the rest of America’s great cities.

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