What's the Matter With Chicago?

and Seattle and New York and Boston...?

On May 15, 2008, a goose graced the right side of the Chicago Sun-Times’ front page, poking its beak into the paper’s masthead over the headline “Back on the Menu.” The day before, the Chicago Board of Aldermen had, by a vote of 37 to 6, repealed the city’s notorious foie gras ban, a 2006 animal rights–inspired ordinance that came to symbolize the City of Broad Shoulders’ remarkable transformation into the country’s biggest wet nurse of a metropolis.

Legalizing goose liver pâté was a rare moment of good news and sanity in an odious national trend that Chicago has been setting for the rest of the nation. From New York to Los Angeles, from the People’s Republic of Cambridge to the west Texas town of El Paso, city governments are using and abusing their authority to tell the rest of us how to live. Two decades of healthy economies and dropping crime rates have given many city councils the luxury of worrying about less urgent issues, from the last wisps of secondhand smoke to the discomfort of fatted geese. So even while self-styled progressives in Seattle, San Francisco, and Boston take a more relaxed approach to sex and pot, they’ve adopted increasingly restrictive laws regarding alcohol, tobacco, and junk food. It may be easier to smoke a joint today than it was 20 years ago (except in New York City—see below), but it’s getting much more difficult to enjoy a legal cigarette.

Public health measures tend to be less harsh than criminal laws: Drug bans are enforced by scary SWAT teams, trans fat bans by geeky health inspectors. But Denver Post columnist David Harsanyi, author of The Nanny State (and of our entry below for Denver), argues that public health measures may be more successful at limiting individual choice, because they target suppliers. “Public-health nannyism is more pernicious,” he says. “Neither brand of nannyism can truly be enforced—a market is a market, after all. But when government deputizes owners to enforce laws, it streamlines the process. It unfairly punishes business owners for the actions of individuals. Even worse, it’s corrosive to other liberties, including property rights and freedom of association.”

To find the best and worst cities for exercising personal freedom, reason ranked the 35 most populous municipalities in the United States in eight areas: alcohol, tobacco, sex, guns, gambling, drugs, freedom of movement, and a catch-all category of food and “other.” Within each category, we looked at criteria ranging from helmet laws to restrictions on alcohol sales to how aggressively police target recreational activities such as drug use, prostitution, and gambling. (We used proxies for the last category—figuring, for example, that a high number of prostitutes advertising openly on Craigslist suggests lax enforcement in that area.) The higher a city’s score, the more restrictive it is. The rankings are presented from worst to best. After each city’s entry, we’ve included how that city stacked up against the other 34 in each of the eight major categories.


Chicago wins the booby prize for most meddlesome metropolis by a wide margin. After more than a century of Big Apple envy, the Second City now has the honor of finally beating New York in at least one contest.

Chicago finished in the bottom half of all eight categories. The Windy City’s litany of meddlesome laws range from a tax on bottled water to a ban on serving alcohol at all-nude strip clubs. Local gun controls and a public smoking ban are among the most restrictive in the country. (That smoky Chicago blues joint of yore is now just a movie cliché.) There’s a primary seat belt law, meaning motorists can be pulled over for not buckling up, and a ban on using cell phones while driving. The city is second only to New York in the use of surveillance cameras in public spaces and has more red light cameras than any metropolis in the country.

Shortly after taking office in 1989, Mayor Richard Daley blew the dust off an ancient ordinance allowing individual city precincts to vote themselves dry. Today, nearly one quarter of Chicago’s precincts are alcohol-free; the number of Chicago taverns has dropped from some 7,000 in the late 1940s to just over 1,300 today.

The place Carl Sandburg once praised for being “stormy, husky, brawling” and “a tall bold slugger set vivid against the little soft cities” has gone soft, even soggy, like the last bites of a chili-and-cheese-soaked sausage dog. “That reputation is long gone,” says Doug Sohn, owner of Hot Dougs, the city’s locally famous purveyor of encased meats. Sohn has the distinction of being the only restaurateur in Chicago to be fined for violating the foie gras ban—a citation that may have had something to do with his decision to name a duck meat and foie gras sausage sandwich after Alderman Joe Moore, the sponsor of the goose liver prohibition.

But the repeal of the foie gras ban doesn’t herald a freer future. The same week Chicago reversed the ban, the Board of Aldermen considered a law that would require all pet owners to sterilize their dogs and cats, an overreaction to a pit bull attack on a woman one month earlier. And after a year in which the city’s notoriously rough-around-the-edges police department endured a series of high-profile shootings, beatings, and allegations of corruption, the city council addressed these problems by considering a bill that would...give overweight cops a nutritionist and personal trainer.

Sohn says this is typical of the way the Aldermen operate. “The board thinks, ‘This is our job; we pass laws,’” he says. “The trans fat ban, the smoking ban—these are easy problems to look like you’re solving. It’s easy, it’s elitist, it’s black and white. People don’t like smoking, so let’s ban it. Chicago is the fattest city in the country, so let’s attack McDonald’s with a trans fat ban. The knee-jerk stuff is a good way to look like you’re leading. It’s much more difficult to fix something like the broken sewer and street systems—why we have so many potholes.”

While the aldermen are fond of legislating health, the city is also subject to laws passed by the more conservative Illinois legislature. Chicago gets moral prudery and public health fanaticism—the worst of both worlds.

But personal freedom hasn’t totally suffocated. “There are black and gray markets in Chicago for all of these categories,” says Dan Miller of the free market Heartland Institute. “These are funny sorts of restrictions. For every prohibition you’ve named, there are ways around them. Everyone knew where to get foie gras when it was banned. You can find poker and dice games all over the city. The newspapers are filled with ads for escort services. Just don’t flout the laws openly, and you’re going to be fine.”

Radley Balko

Sex: 23 Tobacco: 34 Alcohol: 27 Guns: 33

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  • Sally O'Boyle||

    Would love an update on this article! We just moved back to the states from Costa Rica (because it's so frickin' expensive there) and are lookin' for liberty. In KY to start, then thinking of TX... Great article!



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