The more I have studied government policy over the last 40 or so years, the more strongly I have come to believe that whatever problem you name, some government intervention—a tax, a subsidy, a spending program, or a government regulation—was an important cause or, at a minimum, made the problem worse. The evidence for this view is so strong that I think it merits being called Henderson’s Iron Law of Government Intervention.
One instance of this law is the famous, or infamous, Detroit riot of 1967. After the riot various pundits “informed” the public that it had happened because so many of Detroit’s black inner-city residents were poor and hopeless. That became the accepted explanation and, to the extent that anyone remembers it, probably still is. But a close look at the record reveals a much more interesting story—of a government’s police force oppressing people who simply wanted to live their lives peacefully. This is not to say that the people who rioted bore no responsibility—everyone is responsible for his own actions. However, without the police force’s intrusion and without a previous federal program that had destroyed a community, the riot probably would not have occurred. And the evidence for this is hidden in plain sight.
During a five-day period in July 1967, 43 people were killed during the riot in Detroit’s inner city. Shortly after that, President Lyndon B. Johnson created the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders—the so-called Kerner Commission, named after its head, then-governor of Illinois Otto Kerner. (Kerner was later convicted of having taken a bribe while governor and served time in prison.) The Commission was tasked with determining the causes of that and other riots during the summer of 1967 and with making recommendations to prevent such riots in the future.
Its 1968 Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders made a big splash, selling about two million copies. The report stated that black poverty was a big cause of the Detroit riots, and its recommendations for more government jobs and housing programs for inner-city residents were explicitly based on that assumption. These recommendations, plus the charge of white racism, received much of the publicity at the time and are what most people took away from the report. Publishers make a distinction between book buyers and book readers: The latter tends to be a small subset of the former. That distinction seems to apply here. It’s too bad that more people didn’t actually read the report. The Commission’s own account of the details of the Detroit riot tells a story that is fundamentally inconsistent with the Commission’s own conclusions and recommendations. Here’s the report’s first paragraph on Detroit: “On Saturday evening, July 22, the Detroit Police Department raided five ‘blind pigs.’ The blind pigs had their origin in prohibition days, and survived as private social clubs. Often, they were after-hours drinking and gambling spots.”
These “blind pigs” were places that inner-city black people went to be with their friends, to drink, and to gamble; in other words, they were places where people peacefully enjoyed themselves and one another. The police had a policy of raiding these places, presumably because the gambling and the unlicensed alcohol were illegal. The police expected only two dozen people to be at the fifth blind pig, the United Community and Civic League on 12th Street, but instead found 82 people gathered to welcome home two Vietnam veterans. The police proceeded to arrest them. “Some,” says the Commission report, “voiced resentment at the police intrusion.” Who’d have thunk it? The resentment spread and the riot began.
In short the triggering cause of the Detroit riot, in which more people were killed than in any other riot that summer, was the government crackdown on people who were going about their lives peacefully. For the rioters the last straw was the government’s suppression of peaceful, albeit illegal, black capitalism. Interestingly, in its many pages of recommendations for more government programs, the Commission never suggested that the government should end its policy of preventing black people from peacefully drinking and gambling.
This is par for the course. When a government intervention helps cause a problem, even those people who recognize that the intervention was somewhat to blame rarely call for an end to, or even a scaling down of, such intervention.
The government’s fingerprints show up elsewhere in the Commission’s report. Urban renewal “had changed 12th Street [where the riot began] from an integrated community into an almost totally black one,” says the report. It tells of another area of the inner city to which the rioting had not spread: “As the rioting waxed and waned, one area of the ghetto remained insulated.” The 21,000 residents of a 150-square-block area on the northeast side had previously banded together in the Positive Neighborhood Action Committee (PNAC) and had formed neighborhood block clubs. These block clubs were quickly mobilized to prevent the riot from spreading to this area. “Youngsters,” wrote the Commission, “agreeing to stay in the neighborhood, participated in detouring traffic.” The result: no riots, no deaths, no injuries, and only two small fires, one of which was set in an empty building.
What made this area different was obviously the close-knit community the residents had formed. But why had a community developed there and not elsewhere? The report’s authors unwittingly hint at the answer: “Although opposed to urban renewal, they [the PNAC] had agreed to co-sponsor with the Archdiocese of Detroit a housing project to be controlled jointly by the archdiocese and PNAC.” In other words, the area that had avoided rioting had also successfully resisted urban renewal, the federal government’s program of tearing down urban housing in which poor people lived and replacing it with fewer housing units aimed at a more-upscale market. Economist Martin Anderson, in his 1964 book, The Federal Bulldozer, had shown many of the problems with urban renewal. Even some of Anderson’s harshest critics at the time admitted that urban renewal could be called “Negro clearance.” Indeed, at the time, an even blunter term, also beginning with the letter “n,” was used.
But the Kerner Commission, even in the face of its own evidence, refused to admit that urban renewal was a contributing factor to the riots. Indeed, the Commission recommended more urban renewal. The Commission’s phrasing is interesting, though, because it admits so much about the sorry history of the program:
Urban renewal has been an extremely controversial program since its inception. We recognize that in many cities it has demolished more housing than it has erected, and that it has often caused dislocation among disadvantaged groups.
Nevertheless, we believe that a greatly expanded but reoriented urban renewal program is necessary to the health of our cities.
In short the commission’s antidote to poison was to increase the dose.