All Commentary
Sunday, November 1, 1998

The Future Once Happened Here: New York, D.C., L.A., and the Fate of America’s Big Cities

Good Intentions and Bad Ideology Can Produce Urban Disaster

Sanford Ikeda is an associate professor of economics at Purchase College—SUNY in New York.

There are many ways to tell the story of urban-policy failure. Economists have shown how rent control creates housing shortages, sociologists how welfare programs destroy poor communities, and urbanologists how urban planning can debilitate cities. In his book The Future Once Happened Here, historian Fred Siegel has added a new and insightful chronicle of modern liberalism’s influence on social policy in New York, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles over the last 30 years.

Siegel identifies racial tension as a main force that has driven urban policy since the 1960s. He lucidly and engagingly describes how that policy, informed by “riot ideology” based on liberal guilt and fear, transformed some major American cities from communities of tolerant strangers and great incubators of ethnic integration into rolling riots and sinkholes of federal largess.

Associated with the riot ideology is what Siegel terms “dependent individualism,” the idea that each person has an absolute right to his “lifestyle,” at public expense and regardless of the consequences for social cooperation. Those consequences have been a “moral deregulation of public space,” which has eroded the trust that urbanologist Jane Jacobs identified as the lubricant that permits great cities to work well.

The largest part of the book is devoted to New York City. Siegel explains how Mayor Fiorello La Guardia’s success in getting federal aid from FDR’s New Deal in the 1930s set the pattern for fiscal irresponsibility in New York for the next five decades. Consequently, New York became dependent on an artificial, make-work economy, based on federally funded jobs and welfare bolstered by dependent individualism and the riot ideology. Nevertheless, its productive sector was still so large that both New York City and the state of New York have regularly sent more taxes to Washington than they have received in transfers. Surprisingly, supporters of big New York government appear blithely unaware of this fact.

Siegel sees hope in the evident success of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s administration in New York in promoting public security by enforcing higher standards of public behavior. Less tolerance of “quality of life” crimes, such as loud car stereos and prostitution, seems to discourage the incidence of more serious crimes. As in Los Angeles, however, giving greater power to the New York Police Department may also have had its price.

The sections on Washington and L.A. are also illuminating. The peculiar nature of Washington’s governance, which until recently lacked home rule, left it with no political tradition save for that of its notorious race-baiting mayor, Marion Barry. The pervasive federal presence has stifled the growth of the trust and informal organizations that mediate between citizens and their government, what social theorists now call “social capital.” Thus, says Siegel, the morally and functionally bankrupt city of Washington appears to require solutions from the outside.

Siegel is somewhat more hopeful about Los Angeles. Siegel characterizes it as a city of energetic small entrepreneurs and flexible, decentralized government that has practiced less urban interventionism than New York or Washington. With its dispersed and diverse population, however, Siegel claims that L.A., like Washington, possesses little social capital. Nevertheless, he argues that its growing Latino population, with its relatively strong family and community structure and entrepreneurial spirit, is a cause for hope for the future even while language and cultural barriers remain sources of some present concern.

For those who would like to delve more deeply into the history of policy failure so readably presented here, the book’s lack of references is frustrating. Nevertheless, Siegel has shown how good intentions, bad ideology, and what he calls “militant anti-consequentialism” can produce urban disaster. According to its perverse logic, “the devastation wrought by misguided politics was adduced as proof that even more money had to be spent on those same policies.” He concludes: “Modern liberalism was born in the big cities and died there, a suicide of sorts. Liberals lost their birthright to govern big-city America not so much because they were overwhelmed by a well-armed foe but because their sense of moral superiority was so suffocating as to make it impossible for them to either adapt to new conditions or learn from their critics.”

Milton Friedman, Nathan Glazer, and Jane Jacobs have each analyzed an aspect of the dynamics of what Ludwig von Mises termed interventionism, a process in which an intervention’s unintended consequences only encourages further intervention. The process consists not in the isolated failures of regulation, welfare, or urban policy, but rather in their mutual interactions. While the definitive work on the dynamics of urban interventionism has yet to be written, Siegel’s compelling book will deepen the reader’s understanding of the turbulent forces that move great American cities.

  • Sanford Ikeda is a Professor and the Coordinator of the Economics Program at Purchase College of the State University of New York and a Visiting Scholar and Research Associate at New York University. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.