In a wide-ranging and candid interview with New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio casually noted that the “way our legal system is structured to favor private property” provokes his “anger, which is visceral.” The mayor elaborated on this point, insisting that “people all over this city, of every background, would like to have the city government be able to determine which building goes where, how high it will be, who gets to live in it, what the rent will be.”
The mayor begs the question of who would build anything under these strict conditions. Developers plan and build housing to make a profit: if zoning regulations or income restrictions are too stringent, then there is no incentive to build. But it’s not clear that these are pertinent considerations for de Blasio, who appeals to the “socialistic impulse” that he finds among all New Yorkers. The mayor, echoing the Communist Manifesto, told his interviewer that people “would like things to be planned in accordance to their needs.” In order to make and implement these plans, the socialists of New York City would “love to have a very, very powerful government,” explained the mayor, “including a federal government, involved in directly addressing their day-to-day reality.”
It is no surprise that New York’s progressive mayor believes that private ownership of wealth and property is a hindrance to the creation of a just society, but it’s remarkable that he would state his utopian vision so bluntly. “If I had my druthers,” he said, “the city government would determine every single plot of land, how development would proceed. And there would be very stringent requirements around income levels and rents.”
It’s refreshing, in a sense, to hear the mayor admit that he detests the free market, that people should not be allowed to choose where to live, that property should be controlled by a “very, very powerful” state, and that the government should direct the smallest details of people’s lives—though it’s unclear how his desire for a strong federal government would mesh with his vow to “nullify” federal authority on immigration, as he wishes to do regarding President Trump’s decision to rescind DACA. It’s also unclear how his major political donors—consisting largely of real estate developers and owners—might feel about their candidate’s call for expropriation of their property, or if the mayor senses any dissonance between his redistributive words and his fundraising deeds. In any case, one struggles to recall another significant American elected official who has said that he wants to establish central control over property and development.
De Blasio’s political impulses tear him in two directions. On the one hand, he says that no individual should have all the power to make decisions on planning, citing in July the example of Robert Moses, who was “racist and classist.” The mayor says that “the last thing I want to see is the kind of engineering of our society we saw with him. I also think that that much power concentrated in one person allowed for a lack of accountability.” Here we see de Blasio’s consensus-driven Democratic Socialist side, which nominally rejects the principle of top-down decision making.
On the other hand, de Blasio has been known to indulge the autocratic, Dear Leader-style of socialist control. Last week, for instance, he attended a town hall in Brooklyn as part of his citywide electoral barnstorming. A public-housing resident told him that her development needs a new trash compactor; called to answer, NYCHA chief Shola Olatoye responded, “Thanks to the mayor’s generosity in the rat mitigation effort, you will have a new interior compactor . . . it’s coming!” De Blasio was unembarrassed by the reference to his “generosity,” and he did not correct Olatoye by pointing out that he isn’t paying for the trash compactor; New York City taxpayers are. But this grandiosity fits a man who, in the same New York interview, expressed bewilderment that, given the incredible successes of his administration, he is not more widely celebrated. “You’d assume,” said de Blasio, “they’d be having parades out in the streets.”
It’s worth recalling that de Blasio was an ardent supporter of the Sandinista revolution, traveled to Nicaragua in the 1980s to distribute supplies as part of the leftist solidarity campaigns of the era, and later was active in the Nicaraguan Solidarity Network of Greater New York. Throughout the period of Sandinista rule, thousands of people were killed and tens of thousands jailed, and the Nicaraguan economy was largely nationalized. The regime brutally forced indigenous tribes from the Atlantic coast to relocate.
Even after the 1990 election, when the Sandinistas lost control of Nicaragua, de Blasio remained true to the cause. Interviewed by the New York Times as “William Wilhelm” (one of his transitional names on the road from Warren Wilhelm to Bill de Blasio), he explained that the Sandinistas “gave a new definition to democracy. They built a democracy that was striving to be economic and political, that pervaded all levels in society.’’ The future mayor remained an active member of the Nicaraguan Solidarity Network for a year after the Sandinista defeat, and he later defied the U.S. ban on travel to Cuba in order to honeymoon there.
De Blasio insists that New Yorkers fervently want to have a powerful government that gets involved in the minutest details of how they organize their lives. Based on their voting behavior, he may be right. But New Yorkers are also obstreperous, entrepreneurial, and small-d democratic; they typically reserve a Bronx cheer for authorities who dare to tell them what to do. De Blasio has now come out explicitly as a central planner whose politics sound frankly Bolshevik. We’ve been warned.
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