Years ago, a high school class was asked to name the most pressing problem facing the United States. Most students got up and delivered a short speech on world peace, the environment, or some other “serious” issue. When it was his turn, the smartest student in the class stood up and said, “The timing of traffic lights on U.S. 1,” and sat down.
He was, as usual, 100 percent right. Future Supreme Court clerk and UCLA Professor of Law Daniel Bussel’s point was that governments work best from a bottom-up perspective, rather than a top-down one. It is a lesson lost on almost everyone. The recent debate in New York City over whether Mayor Giuliani is crazy to be wasting his time concerning himself with squeegee men (er, persons) proves that this issue is still relevant.
New York’s municipal government spends billions of dollars pursuing the noble goals of housing the poor, ending poverty, providing a free college education for every single citizen, etc., while at the same time its parks are filthy, roads are gridlocked, graffiti is everywhere, and citizens are afraid to walk the streets at night. It has operated under the theory that petty crimes are to be ignored because the police have more important things to do than chase after juvenile delinquents. This is dead wrong.
It is precisely government’s inability to tackle its small problems that leaves citizens with the impression that things are out of control. Graffiti on a subway train, a “harmless” person urinating on the sidewalk, and stalled traffic may not seem like pressing issues, but they are manifestations of a system out of control.
Governments don’t fail because they arc unable to build another senior citizen center, municipal hospital, system of high-tech interconnected infrastructure, or shelter for the homeless. Governments fail because the private sector has been so stifled by the “higher aims” of the government that it is unable to grow at sufficient speed to provide a growing population with jobs and a growing government with revenues.
Take the French, the Russian, or the American revolution. Not one battle was fought because the government was too little involved in the lives of its citizenry. No blood was shed because universities had underambitious affirmative action plans, because the military improperly discriminated against gays, or because milk price supports were too low. The common thread between all three was too much governmental interference in the economy, leading, in France and Russia, to poverty.
Similarly, today’s denizens of poorly run cities are not leaving because they are upset about an underambitious plan to build low-income housing or because the sociology program at the local community college is being cut back. They are leaving because they have been left with the impression that things are out of control. The inability to travel 15 city blocks in less than half an hour, the sight of graffiti on the walls of a subway car or bus, the total failure of the public school system: this is what threatens citizens. These things are as scary as the news that yet another drug dealer has been shot down in a neighborhood that most New Yorkers have been afraid to visit or inhabit for the last ten years.
For municipal governments to reverse their current downward spiral they must first reexamine their priorities. At the top of the list must come what is now at the bottom. Motorists attacked by squeegee men at every stoplight, businessmen forced to put up with a labyrinth of laws that would confuse Solomon, children who avoid the sandbox in the playground because it is full of hypodermic needles—or because someone has just urinated there—are all scared. They are scared that the system of government that they entrust to maintain order is in danger of failing.
Confidence will be restored in government when governments prove able to efficiently handle the quotidian problems of their citizenry. Only then will they be entitled to a shot at society’s more complicated ones.