Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Partisanship and the Baltimore Riots

Conservatives have had a lot to say about the Baltimore riots. This is only to be expected, since the fear of riotous disorder has long lain at the root of conservative thinking, and in America that fear has always been especially focused on poor blacks. So what are they saying?

The Wall Street Journal blames Democrats:
The men and women in charge have been Democrats, and their governing ideas are “progressive.” This model, with its reliance on government and public unions, has dominated urban America as once-vibrant cities such as Baltimore became shells of their former selves. In 1960 Baltimore was America’s sixth largest city with 940,000 people. It has since shed nearly a third of its population and today isn’t in the top 25.

The dysfunctions of the blue-city model are many, but the main failures are three: high crime, low economic growth and failing public schools that serve primarily as jobs programs for teachers and administrators rather than places of learning.
John Nolte concurs:
Baltimore is not America’s problem or shame. That failed city is solely and completely a Democrat problem. Like many failed cities, Detroit comes to mind, and every city besieged recently by rioting, Democrats and their union pals have had carte blanche to inflict their ideas and policies on Baltimore since 1967, the last time there was a Republican Mayor. . . .
This isn't a ridiculous charge; Democrats have been running Baltimore, Detroit, East St. Louis, and other such places for decades. So just the presence of an administration dedicated (or allegedly dedicated) to helping the poor doesn't necessarily achieve anything. But I would note, first, that some of America's most successful cities have also been run for decades by liberals (Minneapolis, San Francisco, Seattle, Austin), and, second, that Baltimore and Detroit have been running against some severe headwinds: the collapse of factory work and the flight of the middle class to suburbs where their property taxes contribute nothing to the cities. This is especially a problem for eastern cities that are geographically small; if Baltimore were as big as Houston it would include pretty much all of its suburbs and its fiscal situation would be radically different. While we're on the subject, white flight from Baltimore didn't just happen, it was engineered by investors through a scam called "block busting"; they would pay one black person to move into a white neighborhood, snap up all the houses during the panic sale and then flip them to black buyers at a big profit, or else turn them into rentals.

But it is certainly true that many liberal city governments have failed badly in many ways. This includes the one most relevant to the current crisis, managing the police. Liberal mayors often have bad relationships with their police departments, so they are reluctant to get too involved in running them, and as a result the police pretty much run themselves. This is a hard problem, and not unique to liberal cities: Houston, for example, has had a lot of trouble with its police. I don't know how to improve these fractured relationships, and I doubt anyone at Instapundit or the Wall Street Journal does either. Shouting "Democrats!" is not likely to help.

Elizabeth Foley expands the complaint about progressive influence:
The rioting in Ferguson and Baltimore isn’t driven by poverty, race, or even police brutality. It’s driven by progressive culture, which teaches that successful business people “didn’t build that,” accepts abortion/divorce/children out of wedlock as normal behavior, proclaims that poor children (particularly minorities) cannot succeed, that police and authority in general are the “enemy,” and that law is rigged against minorities. Urban music, “leaders” like Al Sharpton, and a Democrat strategy of balkanizing Americans through identity politics–echoed daily by mainstream media–has created a culture that has no respect for the rule of law. In the eyes of progressives, the American Dream is dead, and they are literally dancing on its grave.
Hmmm. Does this mean Elizabeth Foley doesn't know that the law in America really is rigged against minorities? Because it is; black Americans are more likely to be stopped by the police, more likely to be searched, more likely to be arrested, more likely to be prosecuted than whites who did the same things, more likely to be convicted, and if they are convicted they get longer sentences than whites. These are facts, not progressive inventions. As for accepting divorce as normal behavior, who idolizes Ronald Reagan, our only divorced president? This gets me back to what I was saying a few days ago, that I absolutely agree poor Americans have issues with values but am not at all sure they are any worse than the problems rich Americans have. Is disrespect for the law a bigger problem in West Baltimore or on Wall Street? West Baltimore is a tough place, but at least they never crashed the world economy. Their illegal wars are a lot less destructive and expensive than the one W launched in Iraq. And how about the problem of illegality among police who regularly violate the law and their own procedures (choke holds, shooting people in the back)?

I would never deny that black urban culture creates barriers between the people in those neighborhoods and the American mainstream. Those barriers are real, and anyone who wants to cross over faces real obstacles. But black culture didn't spring out of the air; it arose from 300 years of oppression and resistance. Blaming Obama, as they like to do on Instapundit ("This madness and chaos and anarchy is a Democrat-driven culture that starts at the top with a racially-divisive White House heartbreakingly effective at ginning up hate and violence") is particularly inane, since we have had riots like these for 50 years, under Democrats and Republicans, in cities run by liberals and cities run by conservatives.

I was moved to respond to these posts not so much because I think they are wrong as because I despise flip partisan responses to hard problems. The problem of how to improve the lives of poor Americans is a very hard one; so are the problems of what to do about minority ghettos, how to help old industrial cities that have lost their factories, how to improve relations between the police and the residents of tough neighborhoods. Shouting about liberalism and blaming the President for "ginning up hate" are just stupid.


Anonymous said...

His friends are inclined to notice that Dr. Bedell has much to complain about in respect to the Baltimore police, but that on April 21 he wrote that "[o]nly a big, expensive, intrusive government can do the things necessary to protect and promote public goods." But the Baltimore police are agents of exactly "that big, expensive, intrusive government" that he was inclined to praise fewer than ten days ago, and those police are at liberty to behave as they do exactly because, as agents of the state, they can do as they wish for the most part with impunity. Were the Baltimore police a private company, they would have gone bankrupt years ago, and been replaced with better; not so a police force with the protection of the state, who can beat and kill, for the most part, as they like. Would Dr. Bedell condescend to reconcile his theoretical esteem for big government and his realistic grasp of what happens when the creatures of such government are let loose in the real world?


John said...

This is of course the hardest question for anyone who supports a powerful state: when such a state goes wrong, its crimes are monstrous. The twentieth century supplies many examples. "Liberal Facism" is a trite slogan but it is not absurd to note that fascist states embraced many of the measures that Roosevelt made part of the American system. In America today we have the War on Drugs and the attendant mass incarceration of lower class men, especially black men; the NSA reading our emails; civil forfeiture used to destroy legitimate businesses because of minor violations of tax or banking laws; and police brutality.

All I can say about these things is that I want to reform them but accept them because the alternative of a weak, libertarian state seems to me even worse. What would happen if we really reduced our government to 1850 proportions? It seems to me that large areas of all our cities would soon be run by criminal syndicates, as (I read) some parts of Brazilian cities are; the justice meted out by their enforcers is not likely to be less onerous than that of the Baltimore or Houston police. Meanwhile the wealthy would retreat to gated neighborhoods where their private security forces would relentlessly harass anyone who didn't look like he belonged, keeping the riffraff out by any means necessary. As recent events in Florida showed, private police are just as capable of shooting innocent people as city cops are. Since in such a world carrying guns would become even more common, such police as there were would become even more paranoid and quick on the draw.

Meanwhile large international corporations would accumulate power beyond that of any local government, and so would throw their weight around like United Fruit used to do in Latin America. Etc. At least we have some measure of control over our governments through elections.

I have spent a lot of time reading anarchist stuff and thinking about anarchism because I have my own doubts about our bureaucratic age. I do not fear, as some Americans seem to, that a world without a large government would descend into chaos; other powers always emerge to enforce order. But I don't see how we can have much of modern life without powerful states. Who would run the air traffic control networks? Control pollution? Defend international commerce against piracy?

Every system has its weaknesses. Social Democracy has its own, from red tape to internal power blocs like police unions to decision-making crippled by the need to consult everyone to arbitrary power wielded by state agents. I say it is still the best system.

John said...

That was the theory. In practice, of course, the choice Americans have is between a political party that wants big government in every area of life and one that wants big government only in the parts of life that deal with security. Republicans are generally just as bad on civil liberties issues as Democrats. So In practice Americans can choose between a government that leaves old people and poor people out to dry and supports abusive cops and military intervention around the world, and a government that supports abusive cops and military intervention but also supports strong measures to help old people and the less fortunate. For me this is an easy choice.

As I have said, I would be torn if actually presented with a choice between a smart libertarian who offered reduced military spending and strong civil liberties protections alongside big budget cuts, and Hillary or someone like her. But I am not likely ever to be presented with such a choice.