March-April, 1998
Number 88
Published by The Heritage Foundation 
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Broken Cities
Liberalism’s Urban Legacy

By Steven Hayward

Last New Year’s Day, Washington, D.C., residents awoke to the news that 10,000 more people had moved out of the nation’s capital in 1997, bringing the net loss of population during the 1990s to 78,000. Washington now has fewer residents than at any time since the Great Depression, and forecasters see no end to this exodus. At the height of World War II, Washington had 900,000 residents. Today it has 528,000. A newcomer might suppose from this flight that the conservative movement had succeeded in drastically reducing the size of government, turning the region into the public-policy equivalent of the Rust Belt. Yet the metropolitan area of Washington continues to grow rapidly while its core is hollowed out.

Even allowing for the notorious corruption and incompetence of Washington’s city government, it is nonetheless astonishing that the capital city of the free world finds itself in such straits. Instead of basking in the afterglow of victory in the Cold War, Washington is shriveling, much as vanquished Berlin and Vienna did after World War I while London and Paris thrived. Yet Washington is remarkable not because its infirmity is unique among modern American metropolises, but because it is so common.

Ten of America’s 25 largest cities have lost population during the 1990s, including Boston, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Milwaukee, Chicago, and, of course, Detroit. Most of these cities have been steadily losing population for a generation while their suburbs thrive. For example, as Atlanta’s population has declined by 19 percent since 1960, its suburbs have grown by 396 percent. As the table on page 15 shows, this pattern is repeated in many major cities across the country. The decline of these older central cities cannot be attributed to a faltering economy in any of these metropolitan areas. Nor is it due to "white flight," for blacks have also fled the central cities in large numbers. The black populations of Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and St. Louis have all fallen since 1970. Washington, D.C., has 140,000 fewer black residents than it had in 1970.

Our major cities were once magnets of opportunity for low-income people; now they are places where the poor are isolated from opportunity. In 1960, central cities housed roughly one-quarter of America’s poor. Today they contain nearly half. Urban unemployment is twice the national rate and median household income in central cities is typically half the level of surrounding suburbs. Job growth followed the middle class to the suburbs: Nearly 80 percent of all new jobs today are being generated there. The amount of suburban office space surpassed that of downtown office space in the early 1980s, and is now one-third higher (see chart on page 16). "Most new economic growth," writes Joel Kotkin, an expert on urban affairs, "is inversely related to its distance from the inner city." George Gilder reflects the general popular mood when he writes that "cities are dirty, dangerous, and pestilential."

Three Failures

The overriding cause of the nation’s urban calamity is modern liberal social policy. Big cities, the political strongholds of liberalism, were supposed to be laboratories for the Great Society expansion of the welfare state. Instead, cities became the principal victims of liberal ideology. Three failures of liberalism combined to generate a ruinous urban policy: the failure to nurture the sources of economic growth, the failure to understand urban neighborhoods, and the failure to appreciate the importance of a strong moral order.

The nature of economic growth has always been liberalism’s blind spot, but this was never so apparent than during the early 1960s. In thrall to the New Deal notion that the public sector was the key to economic growth, liberals were emboldened by the Keynesian myth that the economic cycle had been overcome once and for all. Liberals began to take the economies of cities for granted at the same time that they thought there would be endless amounts of government money to spend on social causes. "We’re the richest country in the world," President Johnson boasted. "We can do it all." Having taken prosperity for granted, liberals overlooked the harmful effects of higher taxes and regulation on urban economies. They thought the golden goose could not be killed.

Liberals were equally oblivious to the subtle dynamics of neighborhood social structure, where stability can often hinge upon a single individual—such as the corner grocer or the parish priest—and chaos upon a single broken window. While social scientists talked of treating the "root causes" of urban problems with "bottom-up" policies, the federal government reached down into local neighborhoods with top-down policies that displaced local residents and institutions. This was especially true of housing, where "urban renewal" meant the bulldozing of entire neighborhoods. Even the federal efforts to organize people on the local level had the effect of destroying the authority of local elected officials and existing community leaders.

The common thread of liberal ideology underpinning all this was the effacement of moral and behavioral standards, a process that Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan has aptly labeled "defining deviancy down," and that Fred Siegel describes in his recent book on cities, The Future Once Happened Here, as "the moral deregulation of public space." Often referred to at the time as "lifestyle permissivism," liberalism’s loss of moral confidence was born of an egalitarianism and relativism that knew no limits. Liberals were increasingly unwilling to condemn behavior and social pathologies that had always been recognized as abominable or barbaric. In addition to its cultural effects, this process had manifold legal and policy dimensions as the 1960s and 1970s rolled on (especially the legitimization of welfare as an "entitlement") and has contributed to the inhospitable character of many urban public spaces.

Just as these three failures of liberalism manifested themselves, the government unleashed the "War on Poverty," and America’s cities were the main battleground. It should be noted that many Republicans, such as New York mayor John Lindsay, backed this enterprise, while congressional Republicans offered little cogent opposition to it. We tend to forget today that the anti-poverty warriors of the 1960s thought that, as Sargent Shriver told Congress in 1966, poverty could be completely eliminated in a decade. These liberals were on a millennialist mission.

"Confidence in the therapeutic power of reform had never been higher," wrote Allen Matusow in The Unraveling of America. "Model Cities" (the name of one program)

were on the way. Adam Yarmolinsky, one of the architects of the War on Poverty in the Johnson administration, said the effort would produce "the rebuilding of cities, not only in the United States but throughout the world," just as our careful policy of "graduated pressure" in Vietnam would lead to a Pax Americana Technocratica, as McGeorge Bundy put it. Robert Weaver, the first secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), declared that "it is our goal to reconstruct the physical and social fabric of the American urban environment." The result was just the opposite.

"Riot Ideology"

The three failures of liberalism—fiscal license, social engineering, and the absence of moral confidence—led to a comprehensive disaster in nearly every conceivable area of urban life: crime, education, housing, welfare and the family, and race relations .

The beginnings of disaster could be seen in the very first Great Society effort to fight urban poverty: the "community action program." Community action was a vague idea that poor people themselves should assist in the design of local anti-poverty programs. The idea originated with a few pilot projects of the Ford Foundation and was advanced by intellectuals on anti-poverty task forces in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. A number of Kennedy’s anti-poverty crusaders recognized that they had only a dim understanding of urban poverty, and recommended a slow and cautious approach with new programs, while traditional New Dealers like Moynihan favored a simple government jobs program. But more radical intellectuals on the poverty task force (including a few socialists such as Michael Harrington), along with an impatient Lyndon Johnson, pushed ahead with a national program of community action. For its initial budget, Johnson’s planners settled on $500 million, which grew immediately to $1 billion in the first year.

Community action was to be the focal point for the "coordination" of government anti-poverty programs. It aimed to encourage "maximum feasible participation" by poor people, but, in Moynihan’s memorable paraphrase, it really led to "maximum feasible misunderstanding." Instead of directly empowering individuals and families to become self-reliant, community action programs immediately degenerated into an effort to organize poor people into political lobbies. There’s nothing wrong with that as such, but in practice the new community activist groups were dominated by radical factions that demanded money and favors, often by threatening violence and riots.

"The government did not know what it was doing," Moynihan wrote emphatically in 1969. "It had a theory. Or rather, a set of theories. Nothing more." The program never met its ultimate goal: generating new jobs. One study of community action in Oakland found that it generated only 20 new jobs in three years. The results of job-training programs were similarly meager.

The formal Community Action Program of the mid-1960s, managed from the White House Office of Equal Opportunity, died a quick death as Democratic mayors throughout the nation bitterly complained to President Johnson. But the genie was out of the bottle. The protest groups the federal government had funded did not go away after federal dollars had dried up. The radicalization that community action unleashed widened the split in the civil-rights movement between the moderates who favored Martin Luther King’s strategy of nonviolent protest and the radicals who favored more of what they called "direct action."

Black activists especially found that they could get instant results by threatening local politicians. In San Francisco, for example, a small mob marched into Mayor John Shelley’s office in 1967 and threatened to start a riot if budget cuts for community groups were not rescinded by 5 p.m. that day. The mayor rolled over on the spot. Thus was born the tactic of "mau-mauing," which has fed the politics of grievance ever since. Fred Siegel describes this "riot ideology" as "a racial version of collective bargaining." The view that the primary way for poor groups to get ahead is to demand money and programs from government "became part of the warp and woof of big-city politics." Liberalism’s loss of moral confidence, which was retailed as sympathy for or understanding of racial grievances, only served to inflame riot ideology. Destroying your own neighborhood became the best way to get to the top of the federal funding list. New York mayor John Lindsay decided not to wait for a riot; he pre-emptively increased social spending precisely to head off rioting (it was thought of as "riot insurance") and later boasted of the success of this strategy, even though it led to the city’s bankruptcy.

Rioting, as Edward Banfield pointed out in his 1968 book The Unheavenly City, has been a standard feature of urban life since antiquity, and is not essentially mysterious. Riots often occur spontaneously when a provocation coincides with a general breakdown in order. Most of the riots of the 1960s were not "race riots" at all; in fact, blacks and whites in Detroit looted amicably together in 1967 (where, incidentally, it was found that 83 percent of the rioters who were arrested had jobs, and half were United Auto Workers ). Los Angeles, the site of the Watts riot of 1965, had been named by the National Urban League in 1964 as the best big city in America for blacks, and opinion polls of northern urban blacks found that more than 80 percent thought life was improving for blacks. Still, liberals read deep political significance into riots, the apotheosis being Hubert Humphrey’s 1967 remark that if he lived in a ghetto, he might riot, too.

"Riot ideology" suited both the grievance industry and the tax-and-spend mentality perfectly. Every riot seemed to be greeted with a new commission swathed in liberal guilt—the McCone Commission after Watts, the Kerner Commission after Detroit and Newark—which found (as the Kerner Commission put it) that "white racism is essentially responsible for the explosive mixture which has been accumulating in our cities since the end of World War II." The call went out for the creation of 2 million government-funded jobs and $100 billion in additional federal spending on poverty—this at a time when the total federal budget was still less than $200 billion and unemployment was below 4 percent. Anyone who criticized this state of affairs could expect to receive a withering attack. Liberals denounced calls for "law and order" as covert racism.

Community action was only the beginning. Other spectacular failures can be seen in crime, education, and housing. Probably the most egregious failure in the area of education was the use of busing to achieve racial desegregation. The busing of children miles away from their neighborhood schools had the effect of accelerating middle-class flight from the central cities. Hostility to busing wasn’t limited to whites; opinion polls found that a majority of blacks also opposed it. The worst backlash came in northern cities that had never practiced legal segregation, while many southern cities, such as Charlotte, North Carolina, implemented busing with much less rancor. Central-city public schools in the North soon became less integrated, exactly the opposite of the policy’s intent. As middle-class flight to the suburbs made the failure of busing obvious, liberals sought to bus suburban children into the central city. A federal judge imposed this on Detroit’s suburbs in 1972. Fortunately, the Supreme Court overruled this decision in 1974, slowing the spread of this bizarre practice.

No Housing Ladder

What liberals did to the public schools through forced busing, they repeated for urban neighborhoods through housing policy. For a certain cast of the liberal mind, it is always 1933, when one-third of America was ill-nourished, ill-clad, and ill-housed. (A 1962 book by a former head of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers was titled Poverty and Deprivation in the U.S.: The Plight of Two-Fifths of a Nation. Two-fifths!) But the low-income housing market of the early 1960s was not characterized by the appalling tenement conditions described earlier by writer Jacob Riis.

Liberal reformers had no appreciation for the way in which a freely functioning housing market acts as a ladder, helping the working poor as they rise out of poverty. Howard Husock of Harvard’s Kennedy School has detailed the large amount of low-income housing produced by the private marketplace in the first half of the 20th century, a substantial part of which consisted of owner-occupied homes and small multi-family units.

But by the 1960s, the housing market had not been freely functioning for a long time. The increase in restrictive zoning and building regulations, along with the early efforts at urban renewal beginning in the late 1940s and 1950s, took its toll on the inner-city housing market. Martin Anderson pointed out in The Federal Bulldozer (1964) that between 1950 and 1960, urban renewal efforts tore down 126,000 homes and built only 28,000 new units in their place. The average rent in the new units was three or four times higher than the units they replaced. Anderson found that "it was virtually impossible for any person displaced from an urban renewal area to move back in." By 1965, Anderson later estimated, a million people had been displaced. Most were simply relocated to other slums, giving credence to the then-popular slogan that "urban renewal equals Negro removal."

During these same years, the private housing market built 12 million new housing units and halved the amount of substandard housing. Today the private market for new housing in central cities is virtually nonexistent. Were it not for Habitat for Humanity and other small nonprofit housing groups, many cities might resemble Detroit, which in 1996 issued a meager 86 new residential building permits.

In addition to treating entire neighborhoods and their residents as playthings for social engineering, the expanded housing programs that began in the 1960s ignored the elements of older public housing programs that made them relatively successful. Above all, "the nation’s first public housing projects," Siegel observes, "carefully screened incoming tenants." Troublemakers and criminals were swiftly evicted. Housing authorities favored the working poor; many would not accept single parents. Mothers were given instructions in child care, and all tenants were tutored on personal and civic responsibility. Cleanliness rules were strictly enforced.

On the other hand, the new housing projects of the 1960s, often huge high-rises, admitted all comers, and imposed "due process" requirements that made it difficult or impossible for local authorities to evict troublemakers and criminals. In some cases, perverse rules required poor people who got jobs to move out of public housing. Low-rise slums gave rise to high-rise slums that were usually separated from functional neighborhoods. Hence they lacked the small elements of poor neighborhoods—the corner grocer, the local priest or pastor, the cop on the beat—that gave them a fighting chance of stability and improvement.

A 1993 study found that crime rates in Los Angeles public housing projects are three times higher than crime rates in surrounding high-crime neighborhoods. In light of this finding, it is not hyperbolic to think of public housing projects as de facto adjuncts to prisons, in which parolees keep law-abiding residents hostage. In short, federal policy has done to the housing market what the minimum wage has done to the job market: It has cut off the bottom rungs of the housing ladder, disrupted the social function of the housing market, and made it more difficult for many poor people to improve their housing conditions.

Tax and Spend

The social programs of urban liberalism naturally required explosive growth in taxes and spending. Big-city spending took off during the 1960s and 1970s, fueled by generous amounts of outside aid. Between 1962 and 1972, spending in America’s 28 largest cities increased 198 percent, while federal and state aid to cities rose 370 percent. Federal direct aid to cities rose from less than $1 billion a year in 1964 to $21 billion in 1980, finally leveling off under President Reagan. Billions more were spent indirectly through HUD and other federal agencies. Between 1965 and 1990, the federal government spent more than $600 billion on cities in direct grants and HUD programs.

As spending rose, it also changed in character. The proportion of city budgets devoted to public works and basic services—streets, water, sewerage, fire, and police—dwindled as most of the new money was dedicated to social-welfare programs. Between 1965 and 1975, the proportion of New York City’s budget devoted to basic services fell from 46 percent to 30 percent, while social spending (excluding public hospitals) grew from 22 percent to 37 percent. This figure does not, however, convey the explosion in the social-service bureaucracy it fueled. Siegel reports that in New York City 87 cents of every welfare dollar was consumed by the welfare bureaucracy.

Beyond the raw numbers, however, lies a deep and persistent misunderstanding about economic growth. Big-city liberals had never outgrown the New Deal model of government as the employer of first resort. "The New Left political activists who gained power in some of the new administrations," Peter Beinart wrote in the New Republic "were even more convinced that economic development would come through government spending, and even more willing to tax the private sector to pursue those ends." In other words, if government produces jobs, then who cares about the private sector?

The most notable case was New York City, which invented new taxes and raised old ones with wild abandon while leading the way in expanding welfare as a positive good. New York City’s per capita tax burden is three times higher than the national average for major cities, and its debt is five times the average for major cities. The business exodus from New York City is a well-known story. In 1965, New York City was the headquarters for nearly half of the Fortune 500 companies. Only 46 remain today.

The exodus of big companies is only the tip of the job-killing iceberg. High taxes and onerous regulations exact an even higher toll on the small businesses and entrepreneurs that actually generate most new job growth. As they reported in the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal, economists Steven G. Craig and D. Andrew Austin have estimated that New York’s tax and regulatory burden has lowered the city’s employment potential by a staggering 1 million jobs. Small wonder that unemployment has actually risen in New York City over the last three years while unemployment nationally has fallen to the lowest level in 30 years.

If other major cities are not as extreme as New York, many nonetheless have similarly debilitating taxes and regulations. Taxes in Detroit are six times higher than the Michigan average. Businesses in Los Angeles are confronted with a blizzard of different taxes and tax rates, fees, and regulations. Not surprisingly, much of the economic rebound the Los Angeles area has enjoyed in the last three years has taken place in nearby cities such as Burbank where the level of business fees and taxes is as little as one-tenth that of the city of Los Angeles. A 60,000-square-foot office project that would cost $54,000 in fees in outlying Ontario would cost $1 million in fees in Los Angeles.

"The Los Angeles City Council seems constitutionally incapable of learning the key lesson of modern urban government," writes Joel Kotkin. "Only cities that are capable of appealing to and retaining wealth-creating businesses can hope to provide adequate services to their residents. . . . The biggest losers of the council’s economic policies are not the business elites, who can always move their operations elsewhere, but the poor, heavily minority and working-class parts of the city."

Los Angeles and New York are not unique in their steadfast denial of common sense. Washington, D.C., dismisses the impact of its population loss on its tax base by noting that most departing taxpayers are low-income people, while newcomers to D.C. are more affluent. "It’s hard to paint this picture that the loss of population is destroying the District’s tax base," the executive director of the D.C. Tax Revision Commission told the Washington Post. Translation: Don’t expect the city to lower its personal income tax, which imposes the maximum 9.5 percent rate starting at $20,000 of income. The evidence suggests that high tax rates are clearly correlated with population loss. Eight of the 10 major cities that have lost population during the 1990s have per capita tax burdens above the national median, while the nation’s fastest-growing cities have per capita tax burdens well below the median.

Though the liberal tax-and-spend mentality has been blunted somewhat in recent years, it lives on in several potent forms. Liberal urbanists still think that, as J. Thomas Cochran, the executive director of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, said in 1993, "All we need is money." A group of mayors asked President-elect Bill Clinton for $27 billion in new federal money just after the 1992 election. Most of this was blocked by the Republican filibuster of Clinton’s "economic stimulus package" in 1993, but Clinton has tried to send some new cash to cities.

When cities aren’t able to grow their budgets with federal handouts, they usually resort to two other strategies: bribing large companies to move into their cities (or not to leave in the first place) with tax breaks, and indulging what might be called the "Edifice Complex"—building new sports arenas, shopping malls, convention centers, and other commercial "magnets" for economic activity downtown. New York is again the champion of the bribe-to-stay strategy, having recently induced the accounting firm Price Waterhouse to remain in the city by granting it a multi-million-dollar tax break. "The orientation is to go for the trophy rather than to open to entrepreneurs," notes urban affairs scholar John Kasarda. But the bribe-to-stay strategy does little or nothing to promote genuine economic growth and job creation.

The Edifice Complex is even more pervasive because politicians prefer tangible accomplishments they can point to as evidence of their foresight and accomplishment. But sports stadia, convention centers, and downtown malls more often simply redistribute existing economic activity rather than generate new business, while taxpayers pick up the tab for the municipal debt financing the new attractions.

Defining Deviancy Down

While the fiscal irresponsibility of urban liberalism was evident early on, it was the moral irresponsibility of liberalism that would leave its deepest and most lasting damage on urban life. Taxes and spending can be cut by a determined municipal administration, but restoring the moral order of a city requires more than City Hall’s willpower.

The new liberalism not only practiced toleration, but celebrated deviance. The American Civil Liberties Union and other legal extremists successfully litigated for the right of homeless and mentally ill people to practice their "lifestyle" on the streets of America’s cities. Some of the plaintiffs in these cases, such as New York’s Billie Boggs, a homeless woman who sued to remain on the streets despite her reported schizophrenia, became celebrities and were feted on talk shows. Disruptive students in the classroom, like disruptive vagrants on the street, were now excused as "high-spirited nonconformists" who should not be oppressed by white middle-class values. Classroom discipline went out the window. "There is no such thing as a self-regulating market in morals," Fred Siegel writes. "An unparalleled set of utopian policies produced the dystopia of day-to-day city life." Siegel reminds us of the contrast between the power blackout in New York in 1965, which passed peacefully, and a similar blackout in 1977, which unleashed massive looting.

Lifestyle permissivism had unintended consequences for public safety. For the police, who never relished enforcing public-order offenses like drunkenness and homelessness anyway, the new permissivism was a handy excuse to retreat to the sanctuary of the patrol car, responding by radio only to "serious" crimes. Meanwhile, the character of neighborhoods declined as broken windows went unfixed and petty criminals and disorderly people went unchecked. Punishing criminals was out; fighting "root causes" was in. "Every effort to improve life in America’s ‘inner cities’ is an effort against crime," said the President’s Crime Commission in 1967. As social spending increased along with excuses, incarceration rates and the length of prison sentences plummeted. Not surprisingly, 1964 proved to be, as Charles Murray put it, "the takeoff year" for crime. The crime rate tripled between 1964 and 1980, and most of this increase was concentrated in central cities (see chart). By 1970, a low-income central-city resident was more than four times as likely to be a victim of crime than a middle-income suburbanite, and a study by Arnold Barnett at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology concluded that a person living in a large American city ran a higher statistical risk of being murdered than a World War II infantryman had of being killed on the battlefield.

Liberals were intent on removing the moral stigma of receiving welfare. The Nation magazine argued in 1967 that 8 million more people should be given welfare benefits as soon as possible. The National Welfare Rights Organization, founded in New York in 1966, promoted the entitlement mentality for welfare and lobbied and litigated for a vast expansion of the number of people on the dole. In the late 1960s, New York City’s welfare director, Mitchell "Come-and-Get-It" Ginsberg (as he was called), announced that the city would not challenge the eligibility of any welfare applicant. Court rulings expanded "welfare rights," first by preventing caseworkers from conducting "drop-in" visits to households receiving welfare, and then by holding that the presence of a man in the house could not disqualify anyone from receiving benefits. "The very term ‘deserving poor’ was laughed out of use," Charles Murray noted in Losing Ground. Not surprisingly, the nation’s welfare caseload, which was heavily concentrated in cities, soared by 125 percent between 1965 and 1970, after having risen by just 7 percent during the the 1950s.

The Road to Renewal

To be sure, the worst of these liberal excesses have been repudiated in all but the most recalcitrant precincts, such as New York, San Francisco, Washington, and Detroit. Both crime rates and welfare caseloads are dropping in many cities, though many liberals still don’t get it. (The New York Times editorial page, for example, recently thought it incongruous that the prison population should be at record heights while crime is declining.) A number of big-city mayors have been celebrated for standing up to bloated unions, for introducing privatization and other fiscal responsibilities, and for reducing crime. But the condition of the cities suggests that we have a long way to go before we can confidently say we have turned the corner. Hence conservative thinkers and policymakers face an immense challenge. Even Philadelphia’s reform-minded mayor Ed Rendell admits to being discouraged. "Forget all the good things I’ve done," Rendell told Buzz Bissinger in his new book, A Prayer for the City. "Philadelphia is dying." The War on Poverty has left the cities with the moral and physical scars of prolonged battle.

For these reasons, America’s cities should be regarded as the next major frontier for conservative policy. How should conservatives go about restoring America’s cities? Conservative urban policy ought to begin with a clear-headed understanding of some general principles. First, don’t try to swim upstream. Liberal policies have driven many more people from the city than might otherwise have fled, but the decentralization of cities and the dispersal of people, especially middle-aged, middle-class people, is a natural phenomenon that we should not hope to reverse completely. Many middle-class people will always prefer low-density suburbs, with their spacious lawns and slower pace of life, as a place to raise children. Businesses find similar advantages in locating in the suburbs.

This does not mean that central cities are obsolete, as some argue. It is true that information technology permits further population dispersal and economic decentralization, but many industries depend on a pool of cheap labor and a critical mass of creative people, both common in large cities. One thinks immediately of Los Angeles, home not only to thriving multimedia and entertainment industries, but also to design and manufacturing centers for toys and clothing.

Instead of pining for a bygone age of central-city dominance, we should be seeking economic policies that foster the creation of a new middle class within the city. "A metropolitan economy," Jane Jacobs wrote, "if it is working well, is constantly transforming many poor people into middle-class people." Cities provide the primary venue for immigrants to assimilate and for low-income people to rise to the middle class. In order for this dynamic process to happen, cities have to make a virtue of cheap housing and business rents, ease of entry for entrepreneurs and tradespeople, and a large potential labor force and sales market. Cities must keep their taxes and regulations reasonable to capture this comparative advantage.

The second urban principle that conservatives should appreciate is that cities are the ultimate spontaneous order. Conservatives should be wary of trying to replace liberal social engineering with conservative social engineering, and should therefore be careful about adopting the liberal’s language about "model cities." Liberals ruined cities with their hubristic belief that planning could remake the urban order. People who are interested only in how a city "ought" to look are usually disappointed by real cities and clamor for wholesale changes in the way we conceive city life. Liberals today, for instance, are in a lather about "sprawl" and want to impose huge new land-use regulation schemes to achieve "the new urbanism" of higher-density development. The goal, as the title of one recent book puts it, is Cities Without Suburbs. Like the liberals of yesterday who wante d to bus suburban schoolchildren back into the city, liberals today want to keep still more people from fleeing the central city by putting limits on suburban growth. But as Jane Jacobs warned, "There is a quality even meaner than outright ugliness or disorder, and this meaner quality is the dishonest mask of pretended order, achieved by ignoring or suppressing the real order that is struggling to exist and to be served."

This leads to the third and main conservative principle of urban policy: get the core functions right. Failure to perform the core functions of local government is precisely what has have driven most people out of cities: public safety, public works, and education. One study estimates that an increase of one crime per zip code drives more than five people out of a city. And the disparity in the quality of public education between the central city and the suburbs is so huge that no middle-class residents can be expected to raise families in central cities unless something dramatic is done. Education Week recently published statistics showing that students in urban school districts perform significantly below the level of students in suburban public schools on national achievement tests (see chart). In Maryland, for example, 63 percent of suburban eighth-graders score at the "basic" level for math, while only 9 percent of urban eighth-graders make the "basic" level.

In all three areas, conservatives can point to encouraging success stories. Crime has been falling fastest in those cities, such as New York, where the police follow an aggressive strategy of targeting high-crime neighborhoods and cracking down on nuisance offenses that have contributed so much to the degradation of public spaces. Just as important as basic strategy was the determination of former New York police commissioner William Bratton to hold police captains accountable for results in their local precincts. Longer prison sentences and "three strikes" have helped, too.

Indianapolis mayor Stephen Goldsmith has shown how cities can cut the cost of city services and hold down taxes through privatization and better fiscal management. During his tenure in office, more than 70 city services have been placed on a competitive footing. Goldsmith and other reform mayors have endeavored to base fiscal decisions on the unit cost of various government services (a basic fact about services that many cities simply do not know) and to reduce costs through managerial reform or competition.

Education is the toughest nut to crack, in part because it is the one major area of urban life that is typically beyond the direct control of mayors and city councils. Chicago’s Richard Daley, however, provides an encouraging example of a mayor who understands the importance of schools to the health of city. He successfully petitioned the Illinois state legislature for control of the Chicago school system, and has, among other things, fired 1,700 administrators. But even if Daley and other mayors succeed in shaking up their local schools, many middle-class urbanites are still likely to lack confidence in the public schools because the current public-school system is obsolete.

As the world grows more complex and technologically advanced in ways that offer increasing choice and opportunity, frustration with the public-school monopoly is certain to grow, no matter how many administrators are fired. Conservatives should redouble their advocacy of school choice not just as an educational reform policy, but also as an urban renewal policy. People who are able to choose their children’s schooling are more likely to remain in the city. A Calvert Institute survey of parents who moved out of Baltimore found that half cited poor public schools as the chief reason for leaving. Half of those (and 80 percent of blacks in that group) said they would likely have stayed if the city had offered school choice. The Calvert survey concluded that school choice could keep more than 4,500 people a year from fleeing the city.

Beyond the core functions, there are several specific policies conservatives should emphasize. For the sake of economic development and jobs, cities should forget the Fortune 500 and focus instead on the Inc. 500: the small, rapid-growth, private companies that generate most new jobs. This strategy obviously requires substantial deregulation and lower business fees and taxes. Deregulation is also required to revive the urban housing market. It is equally important to recognize that the social effects of deregulation are as important as, and perhaps more important than, the economic effects. The enhancement of opportunity and job growth that deregulation spurs will help restore cities block by block, as small businesses spring up and neighborhoods stabilize.

The federal government can help this process by reducing or eliminating federal mandates and regulations that are costly to cities. One major obstacle to central-city revitalization are environmental laws that have designated many urban sites as "brownfields," which present would-be developers with huge cleanup costs and potential liability. Many of these sites, however, are only lightly polluted, and could safely be put to many uses with a more reasonable safety standard. The New Democrat, the journal of the Democratic Leadership Council, even went so far as to suggest the following experiment: "For two years, let’s allow a major city to forego all federal aid in return for which it and its citizens will be relieved from federal regulations and taxes. Would such a city be better or worse off? It’s worth finding out." Says Mayor Goldsmith, "I know a dozen mayors who would jump at the opportunity to find out."

"Modern liberalism was born in the big cities and died there," Fred Siegel writes, "a suicide of sorts." Out of this failure, an urban rebirth is underway. Urban voters are showing some signs of maturity and seriousness, and have started rejecting politicians who shill for the grievance industry. More and more often, urban candidates who play the race card are being trumped by centrists offering a back-to-basics platform. The relative success of some of the reform mayors of both parties, wholly unforeseeable as recently as a decade ago, gives us reason to think that much more progress is possible. These signs suggest that the time has come for conservatives to turn their attention to the cities. Liberalism has turned cities into a wasteland. Conservatives now have the chance to bring them back to life.

Steven Hayward, a Bradley Fellow at The Heritage Foundation, is the author of Churchill on Leadership (Prima Publishing).


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