Monday, January 10, 2011

Conservative Ideas Work in Contemporary Cities: Liberal Ones Do Not

Here is a great article in the City journal by Heather MacDonald on the failure of liberal, welfare state, big government policies in America's cities between the 1960s and the 1990s and also on the major turn around in those same cities since the welfare reforms of the mid-1990s. She begins:

Conservative ideas are responsible for the two great urban-policy successes of the last quarter-century: the breathtaking drops in crime and in welfare dependency since the early 1990s. You’d never know it from members of the opinion elite, however, who have rarely recognized these successes, much less their provenance. So let’s recapitulate an epic battle about the foundations of social order, a battle that had not just a clear winner but also a clear loser: the liberal policy prescriptions for cities that many opinion makers and politicians still embrace. New York has been at the center of this battle because so many of the bad ideas that wreaked havoc on cities hatched there. Fortunately, so did many of the antidotes.

Liberal urban policy was based on several core assumptions. Number One: multigenerational poverty was the result of structural forces—above all, of rapacious capitalism and racism. It could never be the result of bad decision-making or a deficit of personal responsibility. Number Two: though men were still, alas, required for conceiving a child, they were purely optional for raising one. (Corollary: the role of illegitimacy in creating and perpetuating poverty could never be acknowledged.) Number Three: low-wage work was demeaning and pointless. It was better to receive a monthly welfare check than to labor at an entry-level job. Number Four: crime was an understandable and inevitable reaction to economic injustice and discrimination. (Corollary: the police could not lower crime; only government social programs and wealth-redistribution schemes could.) Together, these four conceits composed the most dangerous idea of all: that the bourgeois values of order, self-discipline, and respect for the law were decorative afterthoughts to prosperity, rather than its very precondition.

From the 1960s onward, liberal policymakers put these notions into practice, just as radical disorder was breaking out in American cities. In the name of economic justice, the welfare-rights movement, the brainchild of two New York academics, sought to eliminate all remaining stigma associated with the dole and to sign up as many people for welfare as possible. Within three years, welfare rolls in big cities had doubled. The urban riots of the 1960s heralded a decades-long outbreak of crime. A presidential commission responded to the growing anarchy in 1967 by recommending that prison sentences be shortened or eliminated and that the police focus on coordinating social services to offenders rather than on making arrests. The states complied, and the national incarceration rate dropped through the 1970s, while judges diverted offenders into social programs. Crime kept rising.

By the early 1990s, the fruits of this liberal monopoly over urban policy were in clear view. New York City homicides topped 2,000 in 1990. Drug dealers controlled the streets in the city’s poorest neighborhoods; children slept in bathtubs to avoid stray bullets from the dealers’ gun battles. Small businesses fled the city, unable to withstand the assaults on their employees and the constant break-ins. Manhattanites posted pathetic little NO RADIO signs in their cars, hoping for mercy from the circumambient thieves. The national welfare caseload was up fivefold, as was the nation’s illegitimacy rate. In New York City, one in seven residents was on welfare.
The failure of liberal, welfare-state policies is obvious. But do conservative emphases on individual responsibility, the dignity of even low-paid work, family values and law and order actually work any better? The answer is that the evidence is in and the debate is over. The conservative approach works.
President Bill Clinton, to his credit, ignored these doomsayers and in 1996 ended the lifetime welfare entitlement. The same women who, the advocates had said, were incapable of working or were unwanted by the economy entered the workforce in droves. The welfare rolls dropped 66 percent, and black child poverty experienced its greatest drop in history. In New York City, where Mayor Rudolph Giuliani had started asking people to go to work a year before federal welfare reform passed, the welfare rolls have dropped 70 percent. New York now has the lowest child poverty rate of the eight largest U.S. cities. . .

However significant the rout of the poverty-industrial complex, New York’s demolition of conventional thinking about crime was even more momentous. Since 1990, New York has experienced the largest and longest sustained drop in street crime of any big city in the developed world. In less than a generation, many major felonies have fallen 80 percent or more. New York did this by rejecting everything that the criminology and social-work professions counseled about crime. Police Chief William Bratton announced in 1994 that the police, not some big-government welfare program, would lower crime by 10 percent in just one year. He not only met his goal, he bested it—by ruthlessly holding precinct commanders accountable for the safety of their beats, by the rigorous analysis of crime data, and by empowering street cops to intervene in suspicious behavior before a crime actually happened.

Just as the liberal philosophy of exempting the poor from bourgeois standards of behavior set up a vicious cycle of fatherlessness, crime, and dependency, the conservative philosophy of universal standards set up a virtuous cycle of urban renovation. With crime in free fall across New York in the 1990s, the tourism and hospitality industries boomed, triggering demand for the low-skilled welfare mothers whom welfare reform was nudging into the workplace. Businesses moved back into formerly violence-plagued areas, creating more jobs. Neighborhoods were transformed.

Read it all here.

Is New York City a Utopia? No, but that is not the criterion conservaives use for evaluating social policy. That is the liberal goal. For conservatives, what matters is that the situation is actually better! For liberals that is irrelevant because conservatives aren't trying for Utopian solutions so their aspirations are not as high and in the politics of good intentions this is all that matters. Facts are irrelevant and incremental progress is despised. Conservatives know that Utopia is a pipe dream and so are fixated on making things a bit better than they were and so are much more useful in the real world than the left-wing ideologues.

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