Picking a fight about Detroit with a Cato Libertarian

Posted 31 July 2011 by

The #GR2Detroit gang



As hard as we all try and avoid this kind of thinking, obviously we are all guilty of it at some point. The internet, blogosphere, and social media are full of it. However, a couple days ago, as I going through my Twitter feed I came across one of the more egregious examples I have seen in a while. Daniel J Mitchell, who according to his blog works as a Senior Fellow at the libertarian think tank Cato Institute. The other day Mitchell had a blog post entitled Atlas Shrugged Comes to Detroit.

It should be noted that I’ve read a couple of Mitchell’s pieces in the past, and while I don’t agree with much of his thoughts, I don’t think he’s a dumb guy. Which only leaves me to believe, after reading this latest post, that he is either totally intellectually dishonest or lives in a complete fantasy world. Mitchell’s central premise is that he believes that because Detroit has “blighted areas” and Atlas Shrugged author and prominent libertarian philosopher Ayn Rand once mentioned blighted areas in her writing, that makes Rand “seem like a prophet.”

Whatever, I know that many libertarians consider Rand a hero (despite it coming out that she accepted government welfare). That to me is the smallest issue in Mitchell’s post. Where he really falls apart is when he refers to Detroit as “a miserable case study in big government run amok.”

First things, first. The notion of big government has been bothersome to me for quite some time. I have never figured out how people say our government is too big, because there is no standard for what the size of our government is supposed to be. It would certainly be reasonable to say that our government is dysfunctional (see entirety of 111’th and 112’th Congressional sessions) lacking in transparency, and almost dishonest to a T. However none of this has anything to with size and has everything to do with good vs bad government. Could one make a case that a *portion* of Detroit’s problems are due to it’s government being too big? Sure. A bigger government is going to be more prone to dysfunction and one hand will have no idea what the other hand is doing. However, it seems much better to say that many of Detroit’s problems stem from poor to terrible governing practices (see Kwame Kilpatrick).

But all of this is really beside the point because Mitchell says that Detroit’s problems are all because of it’s government and leaves it at that, most likely because that’s what fits his ideological beliefs. Apparently all that stuff where GM, Ford and Chrysler made terrible cars for the better part of 30 years that no one wanted, and shipped all it’s manufacturing to the Third World, devastating the American economy, and then taking a bunch of tax payer money when their house of cards folded. I guess Mitchell forgot about that. I’m guessing that’s because to him those “private” sector companies are the job creators.

Just to make sure we are telling the whole story here, and not going purely by ideology, while I’m a huge lefty and almost completely support the rights of union workers and believe entirely that collective bargaining should be an absolute right, unions like the UAW had a ton to do with getting Detroit in the mess it’s in right now.

The great irony of this whole thing is that for it’s terrible economy and huge decline in population, Detroit is actually something of a libertarian paradise. I live in Grand Rapids about 150 miles west of Detroit. In my 26 years I have only been to the actual city fewer that five times. I always operated under the belief that aside from a sporting event or concert at one of the venues on Woodward Avenue to catch a band that wouldn’t stop in Grand Rapids, there was never much of a reason to visit The D. But a couple of months ago I had the privilege to be part of a bus trip with others from my city to go visit Detroit and learn about some of the radical changes (many for the better) that the city is going through.

Grand Rapids to Detroit: Bridging the Gap from GR Social Diary on Vimeo.

The one thing we heard over and over is that due it’s vast economic and political problems, Detroit is almost lawless for entrepreneurs and urban farmers (not that it’s stopping people).

Jerry Bellanger, who owns the beautiful building that houses Cliff Bell’s bar on Park Avenue describes the “lawlessness,” or libertarianism of Detroit like this:

You know one aspect of the blight and vacancy is it’s an open range. You can pretty much stake a claim here. It takes a lot of work and sweat equity and you know you’ve got to have some guts.”

There is no doubt, and I am speaking directly to Mr. Mitchell right now, that Detroit’s problems are numerous, and hardly limited to “big government.” There are people doing amazing things in that city, and while perhaps it will never be the city it was 60 or 70 years ago my few experiences in Detroit have been nothing short of wonderful. I invite Mr. Mitchell, as well as others from the Cato Institute to leave their Washington D.C. office for a few days and go visit. I think you might like what you see.


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4 Responses to Picking a fight about Detroit with a Cato Libertarian

  1. Claudia Sherman says:

    There’s also a deep history of racial tension and trouble in the city, starting around WWII with a wave of European immigration, continuing through the Civil Rights era through today. Of course, Ayn Rand was also a lightly-cloaked racist, so maybe these are just more of her PROPHECIES!!!1!! come to light.

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  2. […] 12. I wrote about my love affair with Detroit here and here. […]

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