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Eye on the News

David R. Henderson
A City That Works
Why I love New York
13 May 2011

This January, I found myself stuck in New York City after recording a segment for John Stossel’s TV show on Fox Business. A storm was approaching and the airline had canceled my flight, so I had to stay over another day. In the process, I discovered just how well New York City works.

Because my hotel had no rooms available for the extra night, I had to find another. My wife, back home in Monterey, California, found me a room online at the Holiday Inn Express, just three short blocks away. The transition between hotels was seamless, as I was able to extend my checkout time by an hour and check into the Holiday Inn early.

It was a frigid day in New York, and I felt a cold coming on. When I asked the hotel’s young clerk, who told me that she was from the Dominican Republic, about the Chinese restaurant next door, she recommended a different one and handed me its takeout menu, which advertised free delivery. Before ordering my food, I went to a local drugstore for some over-the-counter medicine. There were about ten people in line. When I’m in a long line in Monterey, I sigh and pull out my reading material. But three competent people had the cash registers humming, and I made it to the front in about two minutes. The cashier smiled when I praised her work.

My original plan had been to fly home to Monterey and then leave the next day for a conference in San Diego. But because I would get home a day late, I persuaded the airline to fly me straight to San Diego. Surveying my clothes, I realized that I would need a blue dress shirt for the conference, and so I bought one (on sale) at a store on Fifth Avenue. How did I find the store? From a flyer advertising the sale that someone on the street gave me. The man behind the counter, friendly and helpful, had an accent. I asked him if he was from Iran. He was. When he saw that it was just my curiosity at work and not some kind of negative judgment, he warmed up. When I asked him his name, it sounded complicated, but I managed to spell it correctly on a first try; he was pleased.

When I got back to the hotel, I ordered Chinese food from China Moon, the restaurant that the desk clerk had recommended. The food arrived in 20 minutes, and the hot and sour soup was the best I’ve had in years.

Why do I share all this? Because when I think of New York City abstractly, I think of a city that doesn’t work—high taxes, too many crowds, pushy and unfriendly people, and so on. But my experiences of New York have been very different. Everywhere I have found people trying to give me what I want at a fairly low price. The immigrants I’ve run into don’t seem to fit the stereotypes that one hears about sometimes. They’re friendly. They came to New York not for welfare but for wealth. And they exemplify Adam Smith’s insight in The Wealth of Nations that the best way to get wealthy is to serve others.

Why are such people friendly to me? Partly because I’m friendly to them but mainly, I think, because they want to get wealthier. They are paid to be friendly; they do better by being friendly. As I argued in The Joy of Freedom: An Economist’s Odyssey, markets can create virtue—and part of virtue is simple friendliness and helpfulness.

I remember visiting New York in 1988 and talking with my friend, the late Roy Childs, about how well the city worked, even with all of its big-government institutions. He proposed a metaphor: government is not a cancer but a leech. It sucks blood, but plenty of blood remains. Or to paraphrase Adam Smith, there is much ruin in a city.

David R. Henderson is an economics professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, and a research fellow with Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He blogs at www.econlog.econlib.org.

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