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new york cityThe murder of two New York City police officers continues to reverberate in that city and in many parts of the nation. Officers have publicly turned their backs on a mayor who sides with race-hustler Al Sharpton, even hiring Mr. Sharpton’s former aide (herself living with a boyfriend who is a convicted murderer) against them. More recently police have engaged in a “work slowdown” by refusing to issue the thousands of citations for minor infractions (from double parking to public intoxication) expected of them. Some activists and citizens, especially delivery truck drivers, have welcomed the relief from constant surveillance and punishment. Others have expressed fear at decreased police presence. Higher ups in the police department have begun issuing threats and punishments.

Some observers have blamed tensions in New York in large part on “broken windows policing” which entails consistent punishment of low-level offenses to combat a general disrespect for law and public order. I have argued before that the problem with such a policy is that it attempts to use law to do the job of families, churches, and neighborhoods. Broken windows policing may be necessary in large, government-dominated cities like New York where fundamental institutions have been severely weakened by a culture of entitlement, dependence, and individual irresponsibility, but it is a poor substitute for a functioning society.

Broken windows policing is a sign of the overall decline in virtue and decency that comes with government entitlements and the drive to secularize society. But what does it tell us more specifically about places like New York City? After several decades of chaos, this city of eight and a half million people achieved a certain level of peace and stability by instituting a massive, pervasive, and consistent police presence. That was until election of the radical Bill de Blasio upset the balance of forces among police, various kinds of social workers, the rich liberals who run the city, and those who survive on government programs.

It is important to note that New York’s combination of a public ideology that despises free markets, a highly intrusive regulatory regime, and the privileged status of limousine liberals who “earn” vast amounts of money by manipulating the regulatory system to their own advantage is intrinsically unstable. Obviously, Mayor de Blasio was very foolish to take his ideology so far as to undermine relations with the police to such an extent. Cop bashing may be popular among some of his constituencies, but a population as far gone from self-control as New York’s must have regulation from the outside, and a massive police presence to enforce it. As Edmund Burke observed in criticizing conditions in revolutionary France—from which Mayor de Blasio and company unwittingly take so much of their political ideology—“men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.” A population educated from birth to expect the constant presence of government officials and social workers to protect them from all manner of bad things, including the consequences of their own actions, cannot survive without its regulators. They will have forgotten how to restrain themselves when that presence is no longer there and relatively soon there will be chaos.

None of this is to say that other large cities are not moving in the same direction as New York. Chicago is a new murder capital. San Francisco survives its cultural and regulatory insanity only because of Silicon Valley’s vast wealth. Even in smaller cities, where governments regulate much less, people are far more religious, and cities are much weaker in relation to their suburbs, crime rates are hideously high. Nor is this to say that the problem is purely one of bad character. Many fine people live in big cities. But they are living in places where there is a definite trade-off between freedom and security linked to the loss of natural social institutions and their replacement by the coercive power of the state.

It is not simply a matter of crime. For example, no one could pay me enough to drive a delivery truck in New York; there simply are not enough loading zones or parking of any kind for that job to “work” in a legal sense. This humble example of parking raises the issue of whether the rule of law works any longer in our largest city. When piles of traffic tickets are considered a regular cost of doing business there is a structural problem. When the police must take on so many thankless tasks, hectoring the public in so many ways for small infractions, charging large fines to keep the city’s coffers from becoming empty, there is a structural problem. That structural problem? New York City does not “fit” human nature. Its rules, institutions, and very infrastructure are so unnatural that only the constant threat and force of police action can maintain some semblance of order and basic function.

It is only its clear, intrusive authoritarian element that keeps New York’s chaos in check. Anyone who has dealt with members of any of the many “public service” unions in New York is aware of the confrontational and aggressively unhelpful attitude that pervades there. But there are reasons for this attitude. Police know they are hated. Transit workers know that their wages, while outrageously high by most standards, cannot buy them a decent standard of living in their city, let alone reasonable social status or common courtesy in a town enamored of various super rich stars and power brokers.

The Giuliani/Bloomberg balance was not sustainable over the long-term because it rested on a level of personal regulation and enforcement that breeds contempt for law and high levels of mutual resentment. Too many “crimes” seem unavoidable; too many “punishments” look like price-gouging taxes. Mayor de Blasio probably will bribe, threaten, and cajole a truce with his police. But it will be a temporary truce, sustainable only through further corruption and taxation that even the federally subsidized “markets” based there can no longer sustain over the long haul. The end is not nigh, but an unsteady descent into ever-more regulation and force, countered by occasional violence seems inevitable until and unless the federal government pulls the plug.

The natural response to any such critique of urban social democracy is “Europe makes it work just fine.” And that is or at least was true, in its way and as far as it goes. Outside the ethnic ghettos in which crime and terrorism are bred, most European cities seem distressingly well-ordered, if hyper-regulated. Such was the direction in which former Mayor Bloomberg’s nanny-city-state was headed before Mayor de Blasio took over in the name of liberation from order. But Americans, thank goodness, are not so obedient and respectful of their upper-class betters as are Europeans. And the influx of immigrant populations in European cities has bred the same kinds of tensions we see in American cities, with tragic, violent consequences.

Despite our increasingly corrupt instincts, Americans remain too unruly to fit into a European model of hyper-regulated social democracy. May it remain so, even at the cost of dysfunctional cities like New York, until and unless we regain more of our virtues and the institutions that sustain them.

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9 replies to this post
  1. Those who’d like to grasp just how strong parental influence and how widespread the hostility to accepting “charity” once was might enjoy reading or listening to Edith Nesbit’s delightful The Railroad Children (1906). I’ve been doing that the last week in spare moments.

    Interestingly, that parental influence was apart from the often excessively close supervision of children’s activities that we see today. In that tale, the mother sets strict rules but must write constantly to support her family, so the children are free to do almost anything they want.

    Today’s parenting is often like NYC’s policing. There’s an attempt to cope with a loss of standards (such as a work ethic) by excessive regulation and enforcement. External control attempts to compensate for a lack of internal controls.

    You can find an audiobook version in various formats and narrated by an excellent reader here:

    Nesbit, by the way, was one of those who influenced C. S. Lewis and his Narnia tales.

    –Michael W. Perry, author of Untangling Tolkien

  2. I really can’t take this article too seriously considering the hall pass given to the free market and law enforcement while scapegoating those who would legitimately question authority, liberals, and unions.
    The basic question of whether New York can be policed should cause us to ask if the actions of all, including the police, can be policed. The violence and the selective enforcement of the law based on race are practices not mentioned in trying to answer this question. If the police feel the hatred, they might want to engage the public and ask why. I don’t say that as someone who hates the police, I don’t. I have a tremendous amount of respect for the job description. However, their responses to de Blasio and the protesters shows that too many in the police force have wrongly but understandably embraced tribalism.

    We should note that the free market contributes to the decay in the city whenever jobs are withheld from those in need of them in order to maximize profits for the wealthy or when payrolls are subsidized by gov’t assistance programs. We should also note the free market’s contribution to the financial collapse of 2008.

    There is an alternative that just might strike the fancy of the have-nots while challenging those whose only concern is dying with the most toys. That alternative is to expand democracy. We should expand it in the workplace, in the financial institutions, and in the neighborhoods. We should do that because where democracy is weak, elite-centered rule is strong. And the first concern of elite-centered rule is maintaining the status quo that so benefits them.

  3. “That alternative is to expand democracy.”

    Seems democracy was “Expanded” enough to elect DeBlasio, who’s about as left wing as you can get.

    “We should note that the free market contributes to the decay in the city”

    As opposed to what? East Berlin?

  4. Eric,
    Why is de Blasio’s election a demerit for democracy in general? BTW, de Blasio isn’t as left-wing as one can get. Americans have very little if any idea of what the Left is. Instead, they tend to use left-wing as pejorative.

    And yes, free markets do contribute to the decay of our cities especially under neoliberalism capitalism. Under such capitalism, almost everyone is made into a disposable object. We have no intrinsic value under neoliberal capitalism–such is hardly consistent with the Scriptures. So we see people and their neighborhoods sacrificed through underemployment and unemployment in order to maximize profits and eliminate the social responsibility of corporations and major financial institutions. And democracy and national sovereignty are sacrificed on the altars of the free market and free flow of capital.

    Also, expanding democracy is about installing democratic procedures where they currently do not exist–such as in the work place.

    BTW, can you still find East Berlin on a map?

  5. I could respond to everything in your post, breaking it down line by line, but that would take a long time and go off on God knows how many tangents, so i’ll just reply to this one point of yours:

    “Under such capitalism, almost everyone is made into a disposable object.”

    Are you KIDDING me? This sounds like something you’d hear from someone who has spent their whole life in academia, learning economics purely from textbooks (most likely of the Marxist variety), and who has never worked a day in the free market economy. I’ve worked any number of jobs, including some pretty low end ones (pizza delivery, cashier at Target), and at no point did I ever feel like a “Disposable object”. My work was valuable and recognized as such, or else I wouldn’t have been there. And, while an employee has to answer to a boss, don’t forget, the same employee is also free to quit any time he likes, no matter how much inconvenience this may cause his employer. The “Freedom” in Free Market economics cuts both ways.

    • Eric,
      Saying that the line sounds like someone who ________ provides no legitimate challenge. Such a statement only tries to discredit, it does not try to logically engage what was said. The number of returning students who felt the effect of being disposable does give those in academia some input into the outside world. What also provides input are conversations with workers who notice how disposable they are after observing the actions of their companies and after talking to their counterparts from other companies.

      But it is also simply deducted from the principles on which neoliberal capitalism has been working. That the only ethic required by such a capitalism is maximization of profits, all other codes are optional. IN addition, the basic concept of wages makes the work of the laborer a commodity and that makes the laborer disposable if his commodity can be bought at a lower price. We’ve seen that in the offshoring of jobs. And none of what I mentioned includes the corporate reliance on gov’t assistance programs as a way of subsidizing payrolls.

      The difference between our statements seems to be the sample size of the people whose experiences we are referencing. BTW, I have worked in both academia and the Free Market economy.

  6. “BTW, can you still find East Berlin on a map?”

    I mentioned East Berlin because it was the Crown Jewel (so to speak) of socialist and Marxist ideology. It’s what you get when excellence and achievement are suppressed and where mediocrity is celebrated. It’s also what you get when business and commerce are seen as the enemy and the State held up as a god to worship instead.

  7. What was Burke’s famous statement?

    “Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without.”

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