Every city has leaders and boosters who want to make it the hot, hip, cool place to live. They come to summits and discussions and campaigns with grand visions about what their city could be if only everyone else would hop aboard, and a lot of these visions involve shoveling taxpayers’ money at people who want to build stadiums, convention centers, or other things designed to show everyone else that it’s a big league town.
Maybe we should be a bit more humble. Politics, even at the local level, should not be about making your vision a reality and getting everyone else to adhere to your idea of the good, the true, and the beautiful. It should be about making it possible for people “to pursue [their] own interest in [their] own way, upon the liberal plan of equality, liberty and justice,” to quote Adam Smith. It should be about protecting others’ liberty, specifically, others’ liberty to become the people they want to become, to paraphrase the conclusion of James M. Buchanan’s “Natural and Artifactual Man.”
So, if you agree that local politics should be about protecting others’ liberty to become the people they want to become rather than giving you the tools to turn them into the people you want them to become, what should your city do? Here are four suggestions.
Deregulate It. People think the “regulation” battle is about safety versus costs. It isn’t. Regulations are more often about creating barriers to entry, albeit frequently with some kind of public interest justification. Onerous municipal rules and regulations contribute to joblessness, homelessness, and urban decay as buildings sit empty and unused for years. Yes, building codes and the like make it less likely that buildings will burn down, but they also make buildings more expensive. Some people are willing to accept greater risk in exchange for lower prices just as they are willing to buy off-brand shoes or cereal–or, in a case where safety is most clearly at issue, drive old cars that don’t have the latest and greatest safety features. “But we asked businesspeople around town, and they said they aren’t too burdened by regulation.” Be wary of survivorship bias: just like we probably underestimate the horrors of war because we can’t interview the dead, we probably underestimate the burden of regulation because we don’t interview the deterred. It would be better to locate people who aren’t doing business in your city–contractors, for example, who will work in the suburbs but not in the central city–to find out why not.
Buses, Not Trains. Just about every city has someone clamoring for light rail, and indeed, trains are cool. They’re also incredibly expensive, and they can only follow fixed routes. Buses, meanwhile, can be used with existing infrastructure–which, of course, doesn’t create lucrative contracts for area construction companies–and they can be redeployed much more flexibly than trains can.
Price The Roads. We might not even need municipal transit if people were charged market prices for using the roads. This was part of my Policy Wishlist for Summer 2021, but alas, we haven’t made much progress where I live. Road pricing would lead to innovative solutions and, I suspect, more “public” transportation (albeit privately operated by services like Uber and Lyft).
Don’t Subsidize Private Goods. Maybe your town or mine would benefit from being a “big league” city, but there are lots of important global cities that don’t have major-league sports, or that aren’t famous for their major-league sports. London and Paris didn’t become London and Paris because people built stadiums and attracted sports teams. As the economist J.C. Bradbury and his coauthors argue, stadiums don’t produce the economic benefits that highly-suspect “economic impact” studies promise. Governments that build stadiums are essentially buying nice things for the well-to-do, and honestly, we should have the same conversation about libraries and museums. Like a lot of other families in our situation, my family benefits handsomely from our “free” public library and “free” art museum, but these are basically transfers from people who have little (the average local taxpayer) to people who could afford to pay for library and museum memberships (my family). Someone might argue that public libraries produce positive externalities, and I’m sympathetic to that; however, I’m not sure exactly what spillover benefits I and my neighbors enjoy because people can choose from a broad selection of bodice-rippers and action movies. Little Free Libraries are also popping up all over the place, which suggests that book distribution is something civil society can handle.
There are a lot of other things places can do, like work to reduce crime and improve schools, change the tax system, and so on. Any of the ideas above, I believe, would be a very good start and a step toward a freer, more dynamic, and more prosperous city.