When I was teaching at Brooklyn College back in 1965, a young lady who was one of my students in social philosophy discussed some issues with me after class, and in the course of her remarks she expressed thanks to the city government for continuing to impose controls on the rents of many apartment units, including the one she lived in. She'd never be able to afford her apartment, she said, if it weren't for rent control.
I tried to argue with her. "Look," I said, "wouldn't the best situation be that of having lots and lots of new apartment buildings built, so that the landlords would have to compete with each other for renters, and renters could pick and choose which apartments they wanted to live in?" She granted this. "Well then," I said, "suppose you were a landlord or apartment owner. If you had been thinking of building some new apartment units, would you do it in New York City, where you'd be so subject to controls that if you spent a million dollars on the enterprise you might have to operate the units at a loss because of the controls? If you had money to invest, wouldn't you prefer to invest it in something else that gave better promise of a return?" She admitted this also. "Remember," I said, "there are lots of apartments in the city now which are vacant, because the owner would rather not rent them at all than endure the wear and tear and hassle of renting them at a loss. And this adds to the housing shortage. Don't you see that as long as there are rent controls there's going to be a continuing housing shortage? Don't you see that it is the very fact of the controls that creates the shortage? None of us wants a housing shortage, and yet you are recommending the very policy that will guarantee that the shortage continues. New York City is the only city in the country that still has rent controls, and it is the only city in the country that still has an acute housing shortage. Surely this is no accident. Remove the controls, make it worth people's while to build and rent out apartments, and you won't have a shortage any longer. In France and Denmark and other countries where the government has imposed rent controls, there has been a perpetual housing shortage for decades; whereas in Germany, when Erhard lifted all controls in 1949 (against the wishes of American occupation authorities) housing was built with utmost speed, and soon there was no housing shortage any longer even though three-fourths of the buildings in Germany had been destroyed or damaged in World War II. Surely it's plain that the controls are directly responsible for the shortages."
She didn't deny the logic of all this. But suddenly she had a brilliant idea. "If there were no controls," she said, "The prices would be too high. We'd be gouged to death by high rents. That's why we need the controls."
"Not if you have genuine competition in the housing business," I said. "If there is plenty of housing available and somebody is charging high rents, people will leave those apartments and go to others where they can get the same facilities for less money. That's why competition brings the prices down. If someone doubles the rental price on his apartments, and has increasing vacancies as a result, someone else will rent the same quality apartments for less money and get more renters—in fact he'll probably make up for the lower rents by having a smaller percentage of vacancies. But the effect of the controls is to eliminate competition, because nobody wants to compete in a business where the chances of making money or just breaking even are small."
"But what about the slum-lords?" she said. "They make piles of money and give no service in return."
"What about the so-called slum-lords?" I asked her. "Why is it that most of the owners of apartment buildings in the ghettos are anxious so to unload their buildings, if they're making so much money from them? Why do you suppose that thousands of buildings in Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant and South Bronx are simply abandoned by their owners because with the taxes and controls and codes they can't make enough from them to even pay off the mortgage? Why should owners simply walk away from the millions of dollars you think they are making from them?"
"Well," she said, "then the government should build the buildings and charge low rents. That way the rents would be sure to stay low."
"Yes," I said, "and since almost all of these FHA buildings operate at a deficit, who do you suppose pays the deficit? The government, you say; but the government has no money that it doesn't first take through taxes from the citizens. The family in an FHA building is getting low rents, and you are helping to pay these rents. The deficit is made up by you and me and every taxpayer in the country, and we get no benefit from that building at all! Do you think it's fair for everyone to be forced to pay for the inefficient running of such buildings at a deficit?"
"Well," she said, changing her tactic somewhat, "I have an inexpensive apartment, and I owe this to rent controls. If it's harder for other people to find apartments that they can afford, the results of that policy are no concern of mine."
"But it is a concern of yours, much more than you think," I said. "As I just pointed out, you are paying for the rent of thousands of people in government-built housing. You are also paying prohibitive taxes in this city: a seven percent sales tax on every item you purchase, and on every bit of labor; plus the highest public relief bill in the nation, and the bureaucracy that administers it, all paid for out of your taxes. Besides federal income tax and a high state tax, you also have a city income tax. Every item in the grocery store is more expensive than it would otherwise be because the government has paid, with your money, to subsidize the farmers for growing crops, as well as for not growing them, which means there is less production and every product you buy in the grocery store costs you more. And there are countless hidden taxes: every loaf of bread you buy has over a hundred taxes imposed on it at every stage of production and distribution. Every time you turn around in this city you have to pay more for something because of hidden and not-so-hidden taxes—more than half of your income, probably. You probably blame the merchant for the high prices, but you should blame the government for the taxes that made the prices necessary. In fact you might be able to afford to pay higher rents if you didn't have to pay all those endless taxes. But in a control-free economy you probably wouldn't have to pay higher rents anyway, because the landlord has to pay the same endless taxes too, and to break even he has to charge higher rates because of the taxes that he has to pay. As long as the system you favor is in operation, you'll have a shortage of every item (including housing) that's controlled, and there'll be an increasing spiral of taxation—not to mention the inflation the government goes in for in order to pay for all these projects which it finances. No, I would say that it's very much a concern of yours, not only for the sake of other people but for the sake of yourself."
She was still defensive about the issue, however. Perhaps too many arguments had been thrown at her all at once. She was in her third year in college and yet she had never heard a single one of the arguments for a control-free economy which I presented. And yet these arguments were in no way subtle or profound—they were simply, one might say, common sense—obvious conclusions drawn from equally obvious facts, which stared one in the face. At any rate, she mumbled a few words about being grateful that the government had stopped her landlord from charging her more rent, and with a few maledictions against private enterprise and capitalist exploiters she retreated from the scene. But since it was obvious even to her that she had no answers—she just kept shifting her objections—it is possible, just possible, that I made a slight temporary dent in her thinking. Yes, I thought to myself, and what would it take to make a dent in millions of other students in our schools who are being taught to believe that government must interfere in the market for their benefit, not to mention still more millions not involved in school at all but left with countless uncorrected prejudices about the role of government and the operation of the market? In a poll of U.S. high school students a couple of years ago, 75 percent said that the government should exercise greater control over business. Trying to change that prevailing trend is like trying to scale up Niagara Falls. And of course, state institutions will tend to promote the state—and the more the state institutions of education grow, the more the state itself will grow.
Very similar remarks could be made about government fixing of prices, government subsidies to special industries, government interference with practically anything. But you have read Hazlitt and Von Mises and Rothbard and Rand—I don't have to carry coals to Newcastle by telling you all this. Instead, I want to share with you my own reflections on New York as I knew it as a student at Columbia University during the 1940's, and contrast it with New York as it came to be during later years, especially around 1966 when I left it, and as it is today, and then ask the question: why?
NEW YORK IN THE 1940's
I vividly remember the day I first arrived in New York City via Pennsylvania Railroad from Des Moines, Iowa, fresh from the hills and cornfields and seldom having even been east of the Mississippi before that day when I enrolled in the graduate school of Columbia University. As the cab took me to the Columbia campus, I reflected on how grimy and tacky Amsterdam Avenue looked compared with what I had been used to—though now in retrospect it seems to me that it was Mr. Kleen himself compared with what that avenue looks like now. Anyway, in those halcyon days of the 1940's, Morningside Heights was a model sub-city, gracious, elegant, somewhat snobbish. A few years later, when I joined the Columbia Faculty Club, one could dine in comparative elegance on the top floor overlooking Morningside Park and much of the city below. No one ever thought about being mugged in those days, because such things didn't happen, or when on rare occasions they did it was considered newsworthy enough to be mentioned on local radio broadcasts. The president of Columbia, Nicholas Murray Butler, used to go on evening strolls with his wife along Morningside Park, as did nonpresident Eisenhower a few years later. The Upper West Side in general, while not elegant, was considered respectable, and certainly quite safe; one did not even think of safety on the streets in those days. One could walk from one end of Central Park to the other by day or by night without ever having to think of it. And the Central Park lagoon with the 59th Street towers reflected in it was a famous postcard view which thousands of tourists came to see; that was when New York City was the tourist mecca of the United States, the prime attraction of the East coast, the ideal place to spend a vacation if you wanted to relax in splendor.
It's true that there was inefficiency and corruption even then, unmatched by anything I had previously experienced. I remember the Chinese laundry on 123rd Street that had to pay $5 a month (that's what it was then) to the Mafia for the privilege of not having its windows bashed in. I still remember the shock I experienced when I first found out about this and the fact that the police wouldn't touch it. And of course the old buildings in the garment district which would have had to close if they had really been made to live up to all the fire regulations—so many inches for the tread of every staircase and so many inches for the rise, and so on—with the result that there was no way to survive but to pay up, and the building inspector who was supposed to examine the premises would examine exactly one thing every month—the owner's desk—to see if his monthly payoff check was there.
Even in the 1940's they had a maze of building ordinances, for example that during the construction of a new apartment building one couldn't block the sidewalk with piles of sand; and since there is no way under heaven that a 20-story apartment building can be constructed without such things, the building inspector was simply paid to ignore this necessary aspect of building-construction, thus increasing the cost of every building. And that was why building inspectors with city salaries of $4,500 a year could afford to live on Sutton Place on in Brooklyn Heights or Bay Ridge, or if he was really lucky, in North Bronx. But the city was still on the whole a pleasant place, urban blight had not set in very much, people seemed much less haggard than now, and the subway fare was only five cents—the subway lines had just been taken over by the city, which has subsequently increased the fare sixfold, about the same proportion by which they have decreased the service and maintenance. It was possible then for a student to consider New York City one's second home, a very pleasant home away from home of which one could be truly proud; I remember the pride with which I exhibited the sights of New York to my parents and my fiancee when they came to see me graduate, and how obvious it seemed then that New York must be the greatest city in the world.
After graduation I left the city to start my professional career at the University of Minnesota, and did not live in New York again until 1956, being a professor at Brooklyn College until 1966. The city sales tax had gone way up from the one percent it had been at first (I can still remember the indignation which greeted this one percent city sales tax, and there wasn't any state sales tax at all then); there were now lots of dangerous areas to be avoided even by day; the slums had multiplied, and huge blocks of slum areas that had at least been kept relatively clean before, were now wastelands full of litter and rubbish, as if the inhabitants had given up all hope and personal pride—and this was especially the case in the new federally subsidized housing projects. Large areas of the city looked like the parts of London that had been blitzed during the war. And Brooklyn, once the pride of various ethnic groups, with well kept apartments and shops and individual pride of ownership and customer service, so important in American culture that no movie could be produced without referring sentimentally to Brooklyn at least once, had become a desert of nondescript and tacky-looking buildings, and streets which though constantly under repair always seemed to emerge worse off than ever for each alteration. It had become in a few years a kind of forgotten backwash, like the props behind stage which one isn't supposed to see, and even Coney Island had become decrepit, dangerous, decidedly unglamorous, and already half closed down.
I hadn't quite put it all together in my mind then, the growing similarity of life in New York to that of some Latin American republics where all attempts of enterprising people to rise in life and make something of themselves were systematically squelched by the reigning bureaucracy governing all aspects of life. The minute one tried to get somewhere one was hit over the head by some city-owned monopoly, plus a grab-bag of unworkable and unintelligible regulations, plus a tax structure that was eating up more of every worker's earnings so that one couldn't turn around in New York without paying for something, and a worker or shopkeeper would have to walk faster every year just to stay where he was. One could see the haggardness, the silent bitterness and frustration in people's faces as they rode the noisy subways, not knowing just what had happened to their lives and who to blame, only knowing that the quality of life had shockingly deteriorated, and that life was now so beset by apprehension for the future, difficulty in remaining solvent, and actual physical danger, that it just wasn't as worth living any more, and people who sensed the trend started to leave the city in droves, as they would a sinking ship.
At about that time I got to know Ayn Rand, and in the early sixties I decided one day that it would be better to practice some free-enterprise capitalism than just talk about it, so I took over a luncheonette in the Jamaica section of Queens, and even worked in it a few hours every day on the way from Brooklyn College back home to Rego Park. Well, by that time I should have known better. The shop was attractive enough, there was no competition in the neighborhood, it was right across the street from a large junior high school, everything looked very promising. I remember that first evening before closing up, when the fire department came to visit. "In case of fire, you want us to come in two minutes or in twenty minutes?" the man asked me. I did not quite comprehend at first, until he said, "Two-minute responses will cost you $100 a month." That was the beginning of a series of similar visits from other branches of city government, each to much the same effect. Although the luncheonette was busy most of the day, the profits couldn't cover the bookkeeping, the taxes, and the payoffs. I finally sold out at a loss, but relieved to be rid of the miserable business. The new owner closed it down shortly afterwards.
And yet there was a great need for the services offered there—nowhere in the entire area was there a luncheonette or a restaurant that wasn't the appendage to a bar. No, it was not the competition, it was the city monopolies—this was the lesson I learned the hard way. Had it really been capitalism, I am confident that the enterprise would have succeeded; there was nothing wrong with the original conception. I was licked, along with thousands of other restaurateurs, shopkeepers, who unlike me depended on it for their livelihood, not by the evil bogeyman capitalism, but by a series of interlocking city monopolies. After that I lost quite a bit of enthusiasm for residing in New York City. And when the city income tax came, and three sets of forms had to be filled out every spring, I saw the handwriting on the wall and got out. I have lived in California ever since; but the New York I feel for, which even makes me skip a few heartbeats with nostalgic recollection at times when I think of it, is the New York I remember before government started to hook a spigot into its arteries and drain its life-blood away.
THE LIGHTS GO OUT
My most dramatic recollection is one early evening in November of 1965 when I was driving across the East River Bridge into Manhattan to have a conference with Nathaniel Branden. I had just started to cross, with the millions of sparkling lights of Manhattan visible ahead of me through the windshield, when all of a sudden, in a swift and dramatic silence, all the lights went out. There was only the purr of the motors and the headlights of the cars to fill the sudden terrifying vacuum. I thought of Atlas Shrugged and the lights of New York going out, and thought in a wild but prescient moment, "My god! is it happening already?" Well, I did get to Branden's building on 34th Street, in spite of the chaos caused by the absence of traffic lights in the city; but when I got there the elevators of course were not running either and I did not feel like walking to the 22nd floor. I tried to talk with him through the speaker system in the lobby, but that was electrically operated too—and the phone lines were jammed. So I spent the evening driving up and down the canyons of the city, then parking my car and walking for mile after mile, with the dark hulks of buildings illuminated by the pale white full moon. The experience of that darkness has never left me, although the power shortage that caused it was not so much a symptom of the sickness of the city as a symbol—a haunting, ominous symbol, to be ignored at the peril of one's life. It put one in mind most of all of the awful dependence of every resident of the city upon products and services coming in from the outside—food, building materials, gas, electric power—all at the mercy of state-supported unions and city and state monopolies, rather than the institutions of freedom who could and would willingly and efficiently have provided them. It was as if one had a serious illness, and instead of entrusting one's life to a skilled physician who was available, one entrusted it to a drunken quack, hoping that somehow one would recover and have no further relapses in spite of the incompetence of the doctors and nurses.
What has happened to the New York, the very thought of which used to be a motivating force toward fulfilling one's ambitions? It used to be a mark of distinction for one's company to have located its head offices in New York City; today many important companies are moving out of the city entirely, thus eroding its tax base further, and many executives who are assigned to a position there quit their jobs rather than go, even if they are offered a considerable raise in salary. And the only reason that many companies stay at all is that they can't move the real estate. It is not that they fear their competition; no, it is not their competitors, but their masters—the city and state governments—who have become devouring monsters and are destroying them.
People from other parts of the nation often complain that New York merchants and salesmen are unfriendly and churlish. If so, I can imagine why. The manager of one hamburger stand at a downtown subway arcade told me a few years ago that he had to pay $2000 rent a month ($24,000 a year) just for a little hamburger stand that did not seat more than a couple of dozen customers at a time. That one item alone is a pretty killing bit of overhead, even though the location was a good one, right at the main subway entrance. If he served up more hamburger buns than hamburger beef, and possibly mixed a bit of sawdust in with the beef, it was simply an attempt at survival: there is after all a limit to what one can charge for hamburgers, but that $2,000 had to be paid every month whether he sold many hamburgers or few. And then if he did make a profit, the feds took a slice, the state took another slice, and the city still another slice, and they did not even care whether he survived or not, even though their income depended on what they could loot from his. And the churlish attitude was probably the result of having to keep all those two dozen seats pretty well occupied during all hours of the day and night if he was going to keep his head above water in the face of the taxes. And the beef cost him more because the government paid the farmers not to raise more of it.
People say, "Oh, but the merchant passes on these cost increases to the customer." And in general that is true—he cannot keep on forever absorbing these added costs himself unless he is a millionaire doling out hamburgers below cost for charity purposes. But think of the consequences of the passing on of added costs: the customer pays more, which means he has less to spend on other items; if he pays more for A, they he won't buy items B and C, and the merchant who sells B and C may well go bankrupt because of this inability of customers to pay for the items they would otherwise have bought. Taxes always initiate an unending chain-reaction of this kind.
And then of course there is not only taxation but regulation, and in New York City regulation means payoffs. One merchant in Jamaica from whom I was buying some supplies said, "You can't make it any more in this town. If I had any sense I'd get out, but my family and all my relatives are here and I don't know any other place. But in the end," he added with bitter resignation, "it won't make any difference anyway. In another twenty years the regulation will be everywhere—we'll all be owned by the goddam government. In a few years I'll just quit, but I sure feel sorry for the kids who are growing up now, because they'll never know what it means to be free." (Many years later I heard almost identical words from an old worker in Soviet Russia.) This man had never read 1984, or free enterprise economics, or any other book as far as I could tell. But he was speaking from the wisdom of his own years of increasingly bitter personal experience. The thought that haunted me was, yes, and most of the college and university professors of the nation, who are molding the ideas of the next generation, don't give a tinker's damn for this merchant or thousands of freedom-loving individuals like him; this man belongs to a dying breed, because the socialist theories expounded in ivory towers throughout the United States are producing an army of cocky young bureaucrats with a yen to control, and they are clubbing him to death by slow degrees.
For the decline and possible death of New York City, there will be just one murderer responsible—and its name is government.
THE WELFARE TRAP
Perhaps the most indicative single statistic of all is the fact that the welfare rolls quadrupled under Mayor Lindsay, and that today one out of every seven families in New York City lives off city welfare—that is, lives at the expense of the other six.
I am not blaming the welfare recipients, other than those who have work available but refuse to take it. For the most part they are locked into a system that they did not create. They cannot get jobs because of minimum-wage laws that make it economically impossible for overtaxed shopkeepers and factory owners to hire them, and because employers in the face of taxes and regulations and city licenses etc., cannot expand their plant facilities, and because they are shut out by restrictive union rules (backed up by the state), and for a dozen other reasons having to do with the coercive effect of government on their lives. And if they try to go into business for themselves, the cards are so stacked against them that they can seldom survive: I am told that over 90 percent of the restaurants that open in New York City have to shut down within the year, because of the taxes and regulations.
Most enterprises would simply get out, in the face of such odds, if it were not that their physical plant is already in the city and they cannot just get up and move it without enormous expense. But the fact that the garment district is contemplating a move into Georgia and South Carolina, and that the stock exchange wants to move out of New York City at all costs, is a clear danger signal: in the face of mounting taxation and regulation, which they see as only increasing, they are willing to spend what assets they have just to get the hell out. How many enterprises would leave New York City today if the physical plant could be moved out of the city as easily as the owners could move their physical bodies?
As a result of all this intervention, the worker or would-be worker or entrepreneur who tries to make a go of it in the Big City barely has a chance, and when he finally gives up he is thrown onto welfare—by the system, not usually by his own wish.
And this isn't the worst of it. Those on welfare are a burden on the productive—an enormous, disheartening, crushing burden—but the bureaucratic maze is even a much greater burden. This bureaucratic corruption of city government and city life is the real crisis of the cities.
The socialism in which New York City now exists requires that all municipal functions be city-owned and operated, and free of profit-taking. Water and power, fire and police protection, the entire school system, garbage disposal, civic buildings, public transportation, all these must be directly owned and operated by the city or provided by quasi-public corporations publicly regulated. They could all be supplied better and cheaper by free enterprise, and the city-dwellers' needs could be much better served with competition by privately owned and operated companies. Consider that New York is constantly teetering on the brink of power failures, although there is really no lack of electric power available (in the long run there may be—but as of 1974 the shortages are strictly man-made), then contrast it with the goods and services provided by the free market. You never hear of an automobile shortage, or shortage of consumer goods except when there are droughts or floods or strikes—you are never told not to eat bread, or buy toys for your children, or to drink liquor (on which the city collects very fat taxes, of course): but I well remember that back in 1965, when it was raining in New York every other day, we were told to conserve water because the supply was critically low, and even to take a shower with a friend in order to conserve water.
What is the cost to the citizens of New York, not merely of the welfare system that takes from the citizens a high percentage of their income, but of the stifling government bureaucracy? There is no means I know of, to calculate the total cost of all this, not only on the pocketbook but on the human spirit. But one thing is sure: the corrupting and stifling effect is enormous and all-pervasive. For example: "With all the built-in graft and inefficiency the cost of restoring old buildings is so great that they are razed and replaced with new structures, which, with all the structured-in cost and inefficiency of new construction in the cities, have unnecessarily high rents. A federal save-the-cities solution is to subsidize part of that rent, and also to subsidize the new construction. But if free enterprise were allowed to function here, many of these old but still sound buildings could be maintained, and completely restored where required, and rented at reasonable rates. Then decent and reasonable small shops and offices would be available to small businesses, making upward mobility from the slums much less difficult, and providing the whole city with a reasonable and adequate service industry, which the cities once had, and which they totally lack today. It was once customary for every city to have an adequate service industry, small independent shops supplying every need at reasonable rates, from shoe to appliance, repair, plumbing, painting, whatever. Now all these are monopolized, or taxed out of existence. All that is needed for their return is to do away with the graft and monopoly and legal restraints. Then independent contractors can repair sound buildings that are now being demolished because repair is too expensive, rent them at reasonable rates, and if all the other restraints are removed an independent service industry will soon supply all the city needs. And this would also make it possible for pensioned and other people on low fixed incomes to have suitable and cheap living space. But socialist theory and city corruption prevent this. "The government answer is to subsidize new buildings, then subsidize the rent for those who cannot afford it, and subsidize those in the lower income groups who want to start in business." (Robert Sagehorn in the Western World Review, Summer 1973, p. 6.) The government answer has not worked; it won't work; but the workable solutions are not permitted by government. There is no way to get past the bureaucracy and the do-gooders who support this coercive legislation.
The statist reformers are really not very different from the Mafia. The Mafia sees productive people as material for exploitation; the do-gooders see an imperfect world in need of improvement—so important that they do not see any need to obtain the consent of the people whose lives are to be affected. Neither one of them is a respecter of individual rights. Both see individuals as grist for their mill. The reformers publicly agonize over the slightest wrong done one of their chosen beneficiaries; but they are callously indifferent to deceit, invasion of privacy, and theft if it is done in the name of their chosen ideas. The effect of both groups is much the same: to reduce a free people to the status of subjects.
In fact, the Mafia comes off rather better in the comparison. The Mafia did not destroy education—the statist reformers did that. The cost of the school system continually rises while the quality of education declines; the schools of New York City were once among the best in the nation, and now they are in the lowest percentiles, and many eighth graders can hardly read or write, and many classrooms require two teachers, one to talk and keep the pupils amused while the other tries to keep them from killing each other with switchblades. Yet the taxpayer of New York City is paying a higher amount per pupil per year than that of any other city in the United States.
The moral of the tale can be stated in three words: Decontrol, decontrol, decontrol! or: Get the government off my back! And yet it is only the Libertarian Party that wants to put this simple precept into practice. The established political parties won't do it, or are scared, or too heavily involved with government, or opposed to it on principle, or don't even understand it.
WHERE—AND HOW—TO BEGIN
Should the switch to libertarianism be sudden or gradual? I think that reality has pretty much decided that for us. Those who think the whole mess could be transformed by tomorrow morning just are not living in the real world. If public relief were ended tomorrow morning in New York City, without any changes in the economy having been effected first, there would be riots in the streets, much suffering, and (in New York City at least) probably starvation. It would after all take some time before private charities accumulated the funds to handle such a situation, and it would take longer before people really were convinced that the government was not freeing them of tax burdens only to lower the boom again later, so that even the charitably inclined would tend to hoard against the next fall of the ax rather than give now. Besides, at the moment they would have far less to give with, and it would take some time for prosperity to percolate through the newly freed economy so that a private system of charity could work.
But again, there is something that a libertarian president could do tomorrow morning, and that is to abolish all drug laws. Professor Ernest van den Haag of N.Y.U. has said, and I think the statistics bear him out, that more than two-thirds of the violent crime in New York City is caused by addicts who need the money for a fix. Since the actual cost of a heroin shot is about 10 cents, and the addict who has a supply is the most nonaggressive of human beings, we would wipe out most of the real crime in this city at one stroke by abolishing such laws. That one change would do more than any other single thing to make the streets of New York safe to walk in; this one thing is what makes you take your life in your hands if you walk down 125th Street now at night, whereas it was as safe as walking from the kitchen to the dining room when I was a student at Columbia during the 1940's—I did it dozens of times and never even thought about safety.
One thing seems clear to me in all this, and that is that the first move of both a libertarian president and a libertarian mayor of New York, would be to take the shackles off the economy—to get rid of the taxes with the maximum possible speed, to get rid of the franchises, the building codes, the government housing projects, the city ownership of the subways and the bus lines and the garbage collection and the rest of the utilities, and to leave it to the far greater efficiency of competitive private enterprise, plus relieving unemployment by getting rid of all minimum-wage laws. This would do more than anything else to give nonworking people jobs, and to create new jobs by creating a climate of business confidence which would make stores and factories and other entrepreneurial enterprises remain solvent, expand their operations, take on new workers, and develop new markets through the new prosperity.
Once this was done, and once the investors were really convinced that they were not being set up for another act of looting, business would boom, employment would increase, the standard of living would rise dramatically, and under true competition the costs of products purchased would decline, thus creating more of a market for the products while simultaneously providing the workers with higher wages for them to spend. In fact the degree of prosperity we could have now, in our present advanced stage of technology, if we took the ball and chain off the economy, is truly incredible, and practically unimaginable to us now, accustomed as we are to the stupefying influence of government that permeates every sector of our lives. In fact, if once the economy got to the stage I have described, the problems which now seem so overwhelming and insurmountable, such as relief for the poor and the disabled, would tend to take care of themselves. But it couldn't all be done by tomorrow morning; if any libertarian office-holders tried that tactic on very many issues, I suspect that their assassinated bodies would be washed out on the tide by the next morning, and they would be replaced by statist gangs who would tell us with a sneer or smirk that they knew all the time that libertarianism was for ivory towers only and would never work in the actual world. Let us remember in this connection John Stuart Mill's remark, that what is claimed to be true in theory but unworkable in practice, is not true even in theory.
REMOVE THE BLUDGEONS
Meanwhile the citizens of New York City are being bludgeoned to death from three sources all at once.
First, there is the federal government, which regulates their lives and interferes with their freedom in ways so numerous that it would take years of perusing the law books just to count them, and which also robs them of one-third to two-thirds of their earnings through direct and indirect taxes on every penny of their income and every product which they buy. True, the federal government is now making a gesture of returning some of the tax money to the states and cities—minus its customary 50 percent handling charge—but this is like being robbed of a dollar and being returned 25 cents and then being expected to be grateful for the gift. Besides, as long as it's returned to governments rather than to individuals, it's only going from one set of gangsters to another, with the individual (as usual) lost in the shuffle.
Second, there is the state government, which in the case of New York is among the most avaricious in the nation, exacting one of the highest income taxes and sales taxes, adding to an already crushing burden for every citizen to bear. After all, Governor Rockefeller and his family have been accustomed all their lives to seeing decisive results occur from massive expenditures of money: the elimination of disease from the Panama Canal Zone, the clearing of jungles and the blooming of deserts, the building of various projects and developments all over the world—only as governor, Rockefeller continued the spending habit, not with his own money but with your money, so that you have to pay for his projects whether you like them or not. And now that he has spent millions of his grandfather's money and millions of your money, only one burning ambition of his life remains thus far unrealized. But doubtless even the presidency of the United States will be used by him only as a stepping-stone!
And third, there is the New York City government, which alone among the cities of the United States exacts a city income tax on top of the other two—which in spite of the collection of vast sums of money from its most productive citizens, returns it to them in the form of crowded and dirty subways (operating at a deficit which every citizen must pay to meet), dangerous and crime-ridden streets, slovenly constructed housing projects which become slums and centers of crime even before they are completed, dangerously outdated roads and railroads which try the patience of Job every time one rides of them, and a criminally unjust sales tax not only on products purchased but on labor performed. The citizen's morale is reduced to the point that when he walks home to save bus fare, after working overtime to pay for other people's benefits, he isn't surprised to be assaulted on the streets even though he has paid through the nose for the police force that is supposed to protect him.
Any one of these sources of plunder would have been enough to justify his impulse to get out; but when he is clobbered by all three of these gigantic systems of robbery and regulation at the same time, what doesn't regulate or rob him from one sector will be sure to get him from another. It is a wonder under these circumstances that the citizens of New York have survived under the constant and unremitting hammer-blows administered by their greatest enemy, government. And the result of it all is that the city is slowly dying, because government has reached such monstrous proportions that it has spat upon the rights, and drained and frustrated the energies, of even the most heroic of its citizens.
But the human spirit has not yet been broken. New York City today is skittering along on the momentum generated by an earlier and freer era. It could never get off the ground if it had to start in the condition it is in now. But that same driving energy, of free people acting freely and trading goods and services on a free market, which once made New York City great, can also restore it. And nothing else in the world can, and nothing else in the world ever will.
I love New York City, for what it was as I remember it when I first came here. I love New York City also for what it could be, if the shackles were unloosed and its citizens could be free again. And I love it for what it will be when the Libertarian Party has once again restored it to its position as the pride and glory of the American continent.
Contributing Editor John Hospers is chairman of the School of Philosophy at the University of Southern California. He is the author of a number of scholarly works, including the landmark volume Libertarianism (Nash, 1971). In 1972 he received one electoral vote as the Libertarian Party's candidate for president; currently he is the LP's candidate for governor of California. This article is adapted from an address given by Dr. Hospers to members of the Free Libertarian Party of New York during last fall's mayoral campaign.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "The Life and Death of New York".