Alexis de Tocqueville’s 1856 The Old Regime and the Revolution has recently become a surprise bestseller in China, setting off a minor flurry of news stories in the West. This lesser-known Tocqueville work suggests that improvements in society can be a prelude to revolution: “Evils which are patiently endured when they seem inevitable become intolerable when once the idea of escape from them is suggested. The very redress of grievances throws new light on those which are left untouched, and adds fresh poignancy to their smart: if the pain be less, the patient’s sensibility is greater.” Whether reform will lead to revolution in China remains to be seen, but closer to home, the rise of leftist New York City mayor Bill de Blasio might offer a test of the hypothesis.
New Yorkers, including the middle class and even the poor, have seen their overall welfare improve so much under the mayoral tenures of Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg that the city’s remaining problems, which are formidable, now may seem less tolerable. Thus de Blasio was able to gain critical traction in the mayoral campaign with his “two cities” theme, holding the Bloomberg administration responsible for the city’s high levels of inequality—even as Bloomberg has governed in many ways as a “progressive.” He raised taxes and went on a massive spending spree—total spending rose by more than 70 percent on his watch—on everything from schools to parks to streets. Per pupil spending on schools grew 73 percent under Bloomberg, and teacher salaries grew 40 percent, even as test scores were mostly stagnant and polls found parents saying the schools got worse under his administration. Bloomberg also toed the progressive line on gay marriage and gun control and pledged to make New York the “world’s greatest, greenest city.” His attempt to ban the Big Gulp was perhaps the best example of his progressive vision of better living through more regulation.
But ideology aside, Bloomberg delivered results. Most notably, Bloomberg built on Giuliani’s legacy of public safety. Fewer murders occur in the Big Apple every year than in Chicago, a much smaller city, and New York’s murder count is approaching that of Los Angeles. Bloomberg was uncompromising in his support for strong policing, whether by defending stop-question-and-frisk, cracking down on illegal guns, tracking gang members through social media, or running a large counterterrorism unit out of the NYPD. He knew that public safety is the sine qua non of civic leadership. Without it, any government loses its credibility and moral authority.
The steep crime drop, achieved through policies and tactics anathema to many on the left, has proved a dilemma for critics of Giuliani and Bloomberg. Unwilling to credit tough policing, they instead seized on anything that might explain away New York’s newfound safety as a lucky break. Some cited the national decline in crime. Others credited legalized abortion. Still others pointed to the elimination of leaded gasoline. It seems that in policing, the Left has finally found something it believes government can’t do. But those who doubt the ability of proactive, data-driven policing to cut crime and improve safety need only look to Chicago, a city whose worst neighborhoods are worse than ever. Meanwhile, former New York war zones like the South Bronx have seen radical improvements in public safety and are attracting new investment as a result.
New York has experienced similar improvements in other areas under Bloomberg. He aggressively maintained Giuliani-era efforts to keep New Yorkers free of harassment from squeegee men and panhandlers. The city’s air quality is the best in 50 years, which Bloomberg credits to his 2007 PlaNYC environmental initiative. Traffic deaths are down 30 percent. Bloomberg also worked with the MTA to create an enhanced “Select Bus Service” that reduced travel times by 20 percent and fought a bruising battle with taxi medallion owners over creation of so-called “Boro Taxis” servicing the outer boroughs and northern Manhattan—areas traditionally ignored by yellow cabs.
Serious problems remain in New York, of course. Taxes are high. Small businesses are drowning in red tape. Housing costs chase the middle class away. Some of this is a reflection of the same improvements described above, which have made vast tracts of the city newly attractive to investors and residents. However, New York’s dysfunctional housing laws—including rent control, an ever-expanding roster of historic districts, a grueling building-approval process, “affordable-housing” mandates, and eminent-domain abuse—keep rent in many parts of the city out of reach for all but the well-off and the well-connected. Yes, the city has a yawning income gap, as de Blasio has eagerly point out, but this problem is more of a symptom than a cause. Unfortunately, the new mayor seems more likely to attack the legitimate accomplishments of the “old regime” than face up to the structural challenges holding back poor and middle-class New Yorkers.