Detroit decides to give up its freedom

A year ago, I wrote about Michigan’s emergency-manager laws and the danger that modern dictators could become commonplace (as they did in Rome). The article hinged on whether Detroit, with its 700,000 people, would bankrupt itself into losing control over its own government. A new report by Michigan’s treasurer makes crossing that Rubicon almost certain. The state government has concluded that Detroit is in a “financial emergency” and that the governor has to act (indeed, is mandated to act). State Treasurer Andy Dillon said Detroit “doesn’t have more time,” seeing as how it faces total deficits of $427 million (nearly half a billion dollars) and $15 billion in unfunded pension and employee retirement liabilities. Most damningly, state officials have formally concluded that the city government is unable to or incapable of solving the crisis.

This hasn’t deterred some, like “community activist” Susan Hines, who was quoted by the Detroit News as saying: “We have a mayor. We have a council. . . . We feel it’s nothing the city can’t handle.” That, of course, would be the same council that abjectly failed the city for years, and a new mayor who hasn’t been able to make any progress.

There are lots of reasons to support emergency-manager laws, including protecting innocent citizens from the incompetence of their elected officials. Readers of my previous posts on this have noted that cities don’t have sovereignty like states, and thus taking away their independence is not a major constitutional issue. Others upbraided me for criticizing the expansion of state control, but failing to mention the emergency-manager law was passed by a Republican governor.

All good points, but the underlying issue remains. Our democratic tradition starts at the smallest, most local level, and works its way up to the federal government. Anything that undercuts that is to be feared, just as the pathetic, corrupt, and incompetent failings of locally elected government are to be condemned. I don’t know which is worse (and in the circumstances, I’d probably want the state-appointed dictator), but the trend is what we should be worried about, as municipal bankruptcies spread in California, Michigan, and around the country. Democracy seems increasingly broken, and one-party (largely Democratic) cities cripple themselves by being beholden to public service unions and local interest groups. But the trend is moving up the food chain. Soon, states like Illinois may need their own emergency managers, once they fully bankrupt themselves.

That may be a long way away, but it took hundreds of years for Rome’s dictators to slough off constitutional restrictions. Given that Michigan has already gone through at least two iterations of the emergency-manager law, we should at least be aware that freedom can slip away in drips and drabs for what seem like the best of reasons. If the Motor City winds up with an unelected, extremely powerful executive running it, then we’ve taken a large step towards accepting the erosion of liberty, no matter what the causes.

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About the Author

 

Michael
Auslin
  • Michael Auslin is a resident scholar and the director of Japan Studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he studies Asian regional security and political issues.


    Before joining AEI, he was an associate professor of history at Yale University. A prolific writer, Auslin is a biweekly columnist for The Wall Street Journal Asia, which is distributed globally on wsj.com. His longer writings include the book “Pacific Cosmopolitans: A Cultural History of U.S.-Japan Relations” (Harvard University Press, 2011) and the study “Security in the Indo-Pacific Commons: Toward a Regional Strategy” (AEI Press, 2010). He was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum, a Marshall Memorial Fellow by the German Marshall Fund, and a Fulbright and Japan Foundation Scholar.


    Auslin has a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, an M.A. from Indiana University at Bloomington, and a B.S.F.S. from Georgetown University.


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