In Detroit, Democracy Isn't Worth Saving—Privatize It All

There's a great case to be made that large swaths of the city should be turned over to private individuals with better ideas and management skills.


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The recent water crisis in Detroit has brought renewed attention to the plight of the city, where many residents have not paid their water bills and are in danger of having their pipes shut off. It's just one symptom of the disease that's all but killed the now bankrupt Motor City.

Republican Gov. Rick Snyder has prescribed a cure: the installation of emergency city manager Kevyn Orr. Orr has broad authority under state law to change city policy, cancel contracts, slash spending, and privatize services.

That solution has rankled some on the left, who seem to have rediscovered the concept of federalism now that they have an instance of a Republican-controlled government taking over a smaller municipality. Sally Kohn wrote in The Daily Beast that the state takeover of Detroit amounts to white Republicans stripping black people of their autonomy:

So in the fall of 2013, Detroit voters went to the polls to elect a new mayor and City Council, but it didn't matter. The powers of the mayor and City Council have effectively been suspended. Detroit's emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, appointed by Snyder, has all the power and then some. A Democratic city that elected Democratic leaders is now controlled by the appointee of a Republican governor.

Or, to put it differently, Detroit—a majority African-American city—is now controlled by a governor elected by a majority of white voters in the state. It really doesn't matter that Kevyn Orr, the state-appointed emergency manager, is black, nor that Mike Duggan, Detroit's mayor, is white. What matters is that half of the state's black population lives in Detroit. So through the state takeover, "half of black Michiganders have essentially lost the right to vote," says Ife Kilimanjaro, co-director of the East Michigan Environmental Action Council.

I'm sympathetic to this argument. Local actors are typically better positioned to address their community's needs, and mandates handed down from on high by distant government bodies are often ill-advised. By the same logic, Kohn must surely oppose the Affordable Care Act as an unjust usurpation of states' sovereign right to set their own healthcare policies? Alas, no: Kohn found 317 million reasons to support the law.

Writing in The New York Times, Yale University philosophy professor Jason Stanley bemoans that the imposition of an emergency manager has stripped Detroit residents of their "freedom and equality." Woe to our democracy:

The Nazi political theorist Carl Schmitt was a fierce critic of liberal democracy. He argued that liberal democracy was incoherent because of what he called the problem of the exception. In emergency situations, there is not enough time to act democratically. In an emergency, someone would have to declare an exception to suspend the normal democratic process and handle the emergency. Schmitt argued that whoever had the power to declare an emergency situation and override the democratic process would be tempted to overuse that power, and declare nonemergency situations to be states of exception. This person would be in effect the sovereign.

The language of the emergency manager laws is that of exception. Calling the situation an "emergency," and the undemocratically selected financial manager an "emergency manager" is nothing other than a declaration of the anti-democratic nature of what has occurred. Detroit does not face an immediate threat from a hostile invading army. To suppose that financial exigency or advancing an agenda of privatization for corporate gain are reasons to suspend democracy is to capitulate to its worst enemies.

Okay, democracy has been suspended. Meh?

I will note that prior to state intervention, Detroit languished for decades under extremely corrupt but technically democratic (and also Democratic) management. Its city officials—from the lowest public employee to the mayor—were not merely criminally negligent but also negligent criminals. Evil bureaucrats bribed, stole, and swindled Detroit into utter ruin. It seems inhumane to me that anyone could think this result was what city residents deserved as long as some chunk of them cast ballots authorizing it on behalf of everyone else. What about all the people who didn't approve of their city government's criminal dealings? 

Now, if people like Kohn and Stanley are actually suggesting that Detroit suffers from too much big government planning, I could work with that. Indeed, there's a great case to be made that large swaths of the city should be turned over to private individuals with better ideas and management skills. Privatization of city services is actually one of Orr's goals, and I look forward to the day when neither the state nor the local government has much say over how city affairs are conducted.

That's not what these left-leaning critics of the emergency financial manager law are suggesting, of course. It seems they aren't too concerned leaving Detroit to rot under the corrupt tutelage of Kwame Kilpatrick, Monica Conyers, or some other crime lord, as long as precious democracy is maintained (in this case, at least).

For more on fixing Detroit, watch Reason TV's "Anarchy in Detroit."

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  1. ” It really doesn’t matter that Kevyn Orr, the state-appointed emergency manager, is black, nor that Mike Duggan, Detroit’s mayor, is white. What matters is that I can beat my chest about race and feel morally superior to you people.”

  2. A Democratic city that elected Democratic leaders is now controlled by the appointee of a Republican governor.

    “Instead, let them wallow in the Democratic mess they’ve made.”

    1. Which is what most of the rest of the residents of the state desired.

      The reason the “takeover” happened was because Detroit needed – demanded – “other people’s money”. Then “other people” are gonna “take control and fix all the shit you broke, until you’re not stealing my money to ‘fix’ your problems. Then you can have your fucking piece of shit city – and ‘democracy’ – back.”

      The Progs – including most “spokesmodels” for the city – always neglect the OPM part of it. “You’re coming in here and it’s racist and democracy and….send us money with no strings.”

      Well – Michigan finally caught The Tater, and it’s getting its wings clipped. The EM expires soon, Kevin Orr will turn back into a pumpkin, and Duggan and his band of thieves can set about stealing from the residents again.

      Just leave me out of it this time – no more of my money to fix your problems. Mmmkay?

      /fuck Detroit rant

      1. So much this.

        Why is it hard to understand that other peoples’ money comes attached to other people telling you what to do. From family loans to mortgages to international aid, there are always strings attached.

  3. so would the whiners cited in the article be happier if Detroit was left to its own devices? Of course, not; they would be clamoring for the feds to come to the rescue, if for no other reason than to rally around The Obama. Because Team.

    1. Let’s ask former City Council member JoAnn Watson:

      “Our people in an overwhelming way supported the re-election of this president and there ought to be a quid pro quo and you ought to exercise leadership on that,” said Watson. “Of course, not just that, but why not?”

      “After the election of Jimmy Carter, the honorable Coleman Alexander Young, he went to Washington, D.C. He came home with some bacon,” said Watson. “That’s what you do.”

      1. Wow. The Free Shit mentality laid bare.

        1. I will not sacrifice the Constitution. We’ve made too many compromises already; too many retreats. They invade our lives, and we fall back. They assimilate entire industries, and we fall back. Not again. The line must be drawn here! This far, no further!

          1. Remember what happened to the folks who proclaimed ?No pasar?n!…

          2. Make it so.

          3. you broke your little city.

        2. Come on – this is The D! Home of the soundbite from WJR with the local woman talking about “Obama money…” he gets it from “his stash”.

          Smart people.

          1. In what ways is our government not like a crime syndicate?

            1. …..


              1. I guess you don’t elect the criminals you submit to, normally. So that’s novel.

            2. Unlike bureaucrats, criminals are cool. The genius of government is re-branding a criminal enterprise as something so boring that people stop objecting.

              Instead of calling it “The Council of Robber Barons,” they just call it “California Board of Equalization” or “California Coastal Commission” and suddenly people ignore the fact that lawless warlords can order troops to seize their lands and produce.

            3. Crime syndicates are usually run for profit?

              1. Government is just a front. The criminals still get rich even if the “store” goes broke. I mean, you never see people enter Congress and leave with LESS MONEY.

              2. The government is run for profit, too. The officials and their special friends all profit.

    2. I have an idea: Make Detroit an independent nation. Let it have its own navy, its own UN delegation, and its own Customs and Border Protection officers to keep guns and Republicans out of the black utopia that they will be able to create once they are out from under The Man’s thumb.

      1. they did that its called Liberia…..
        how does the continent with the largest amount of resource wealth end up being the poorest worst place in the world?
        well one things for sure it wasn’t because of “the man holdin em down”, screwed that one up all on their own….then america elects its first black prez and slowly starts turning as shitty as africa not to be racist but there is a pretty clear pattern almost anyone can see if they arent afraid of the icky “R” word

        1. “Not to be racist but [says a bunch of blatantly racist stuff].” Who are you, my grandmother?

        2. You ARE leaving out that whole colonialism thing. I don’t think that is even the biggest source of the problem, but it certainly didn’t help.

          1. Funny, Hong Kong’s never been anything *but* a colony, and it’s coming out ahead. Hmm, I wonder why?

        3. What? Just … what? Africa was colonized by European empires for centuries. That’s the reason the continent is in such turmoil. And yes, I understand there was imperialism in Africa long before Europeans ever arrived. But that’s true everywhere.

  4. “You have no right to interfere in Detroit’s business…except we do expect you to pay for all the decisions we make.”

  5. He looked a lot like Che Guevara,
    Drove a diesel van.
    Kept his gun in quiet seclusion,
    Such a humble man.
    The only survivor of the National People’s Gang.
    Panic in Detroit, I asked for an autograph.
    He wanted to stay home, I wish someone would phone.

    Panic in Detroit.

    He laughed at accidental sirens that broke the evening
    The police had warned of repercussions.

    They followed none too soon.
    A trickle of strangers were all that were left alive,
    Panic in Detroit, I asked for an autograph.
    He wanted to stay home, I wish someone would phone.

    Panic in Detroit.

    Putting on some clothes I made my way to school,
    And I found my teacher
    Crouching in his overalls.

    I screamed and ran to smash my favorite slot machine,
    And jumped the silent cars that slept at traffic lights.

    Having scored a trillion dollars,
    Made a run back home.

    Found him slumped across the table.
    A gun and me alone,
    I ran to the window. Looked for a plane or two.

    Panic in Detroit.

    He’d left me an autograph,
    “Let me collect dust.”
    I wish someone would phone.

    Panic in Detroit.

    1. We played this a LOT while the automakers and suppliers were on death watch. Fun times…

      1. See the part about having “scored a trillion dollars?” Bowie was prescient.

        1. The key to this song is Mick Ronson’s guitar. Epic…

          1. The key was Bowie meeting Jimmy Osterberg.

  6. Democracy isn’t self justifying the way progressives like to pretend it is, but I understand why a resident of Detroit might be upset that an outsider they never voted for is calling the shots. Of course, there are two solutions to that problem: vote for someone who will actually change things for the better, or get the hell out of Detroit. I guess insurrection followed by much tarring and feathering could also work. But those options have been available for decades. Sort of tempers my sympathy.

    1. Given that Detroit is now somewhere around 700K population, versus 1M+ not so long ago, many have voted with their feet. It’s sad to see – but was utterly foreseeable. Watched it unfold most of my life.

      I just hope I live long enough to see Detroit “looking good – on the upswing!”

      1. I hope it recovers, too. I’ve never been to Detroit, but I like the idea of the cities that were so integral in making America as prosperous as it is today being prosperous themselves, again.

        My family’s from the Pittsburgh area. That city managed to turn itself around, and the result is that there are now lots of really nice neighborhoods.

        Unfortunately, the places where my family actually lives, outside the city, seems to get worse by the year. I guess Detroit is still surrounded by lots of nice suburbs? So maybe there is hope if the city proper can get its act together.

  7. Sounds like some bad juju to me dude.

    1. No anon bot just incompetent people who can’t be bothered to research the people they vote for

    2. How does anon bot know? HOW?

  8. I love how the same folks that bemoan the appointment of the Emergency Manager are the same ones who believe that the State of Michigan should be on the hook for pension obligations ran up by the City of Detroit. So all those non-Detroiters who had no say in electing the officials that ran the city into the ground should pony up and pay to fix the mess – and still get no say in running the city.

    1. See, it’s just like how the national gummint works! People in [pick any state] get to pay for shit going on in [pick any other state] cause “Federal dollars”.

      And it’s all borrowed from your grandchildren and great grandchildren, so no worries!

      Ain’t it great?!

  9. Since I live here (well, live in a surrounding community and work in central Detroit) I’ve been following this closely. I find the whining about ‘democracy’ to be stupid and annoying. As Lynchpin said, ‘democracy’ produced the mess the city’s in, so it’s unlikely that simply returning to the status quo ante would improve anything.

    On the other hand, the current Mayor (who is an interesting guy, and won election to his post as a write-in, despite assorted dirty tricks by his opponents) and the Emergency Manager are getting along pretty well, and even the city council is not being as racist and obstructive as they were a year ago.

    This bankruptcy thing might actually work. Or it might just revert to the bad old days instantly when Orr’s term ends, which is in the next few months.

    On the other hand, the Light Rail project, which broke ground Monday, might just destroy the downtown revival that’s going on right now. If it gets delayed and downtown businesses die, that’ll be ‘all she wrote’ for Detroit. It’s a public-private partnership, so it might not wind up imitating the Boston ‘Big Dig’, but I don’t have high hopes.

    1. Cause nothing will help traffic flow down Woodward like a fixed rail being ridden by 12 people daily.

      This is doomed. I think the City writ large will be much better off regardless, and will start to “recover” in some sense.

      We shall see…

    2. The wife and I headed to Detroit last month for a wedding.

      We decided two things: the state of Michigan hates its roads, which is why they’re letting them turn into gravel paths instead; and anybody who says they live in the city actually lives somewhere in the suburbs.

      The suburbs are actually really nice, aside from the fact that the roads are 90% pothole.

    3. So to a local, is it completely out of the question to buy up like six of those 500$ houses in Downtown? I mean there has to be a reason it hasnt already been done. But I am thinking if I can buy a whole block and put up a fence and “wait out the shit” then it will be prime property in the future.
      what am i missing?

      1. They’ll charge insane property tax based on an assessment of some mythical value that nowhere approaches the actual value of your property while expecting you to also pay the back taxes owed by the previous owners.

        1. This.

          I looked at Detroit myself when I got out of the Navy. The $500 properties (some of the houses I looked at were actually salvageable) would have actually been in the tens or even hundreds of thousands once the back taxes and penalties were calculated. The tax assessed values were also comically absurd.

          And this is precisely why there hasn’t been a Renaissance in Detroit and likely never will be.

          1. According to the Detroit News, half the property in Detroit is in default on property taxes — which are higher than in any other major city in the USA. This leads to an interesting dodge:

            “‘It was a business decision,’ said landlord Lamont Hunter, who said the $45,400 he owed in taxes and fees were too high on four of his foreclosed rentals that he bought back at auction for $5,801 total.”

            Got that? Don’t pay your taxes, let the properties go to auction, then buy them back at something approaching market price — one-ninth of the delinquent taxes. Detroit is completely delusional about property values. Even with a competent administrator and an honest mayor, it may be too gone to save. Maybe the best thing to do is put a cyclone fence around it and make it into a paintball park.

  10. If it gets delayed


    1. I live here. I like what’s happening downtown. Cool restaurants, great music festivals, etc. I can hope, can’t I?

      1. I get down regularly for bidness – some pleasure. It’s definitely improving.

        I really like Hart Plaza and environs, for some reason.

        We were down for the Supercross race and Autorama this winter…and I had a conference at the UAW-Ford joint progrs center a couple weeks ago. Took the….Detroit Princess??…boat ride up the river. THAT was cool.

  11. My first reaction to the headline was “Is this an OCP advert, and what are they bidding for Detroit?”

    1. Robocop was far too optimistic about Detroit’s future.

  12. Sally Kohn wrote in The Daily Beast that the state takeover of Detroit amounts to white Republicans stripping black people of their autonomy:

    This reminded me of the scene in Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? where the black guy was telling them he had sold his soul to the Devil.

    “I wasn’t doin’ nothin’ with it.”

    That probably means I’m a bad person.

    1. How else you gunna be a blues musician?

  13. Detroit does not face an immediate threat from a hostile invading army. To suppose that financial exigency or advancing an agenda of privatization for corporate gain are reasons to suspend democracy is to capitulate to its worst enemies.


    1. “Detriot does no face the threat of an invading army…”

      I don’t know about that, I think the Quebecians may still have designs on Fort Detriot.

  14. All voting is about some people losing out on the decision despite expressing the opposite opinion. Once you have reasonably open and fair elections, all the remains is wrangling over the scope and terms of what the elections may decide.

    Is there a truly meaningful distinction between letting Michigan voters make decisions that affect their cities, and letting Detroit voters make decisions that affect their neighborhoods? Because it seems to extent arbitrary drawing of lines.

    Voting is about some people losing out to the will of a greater number of people. Don’t like it? Then increase the number of decisions that can be “voted on” by individuals making their own choices.

  15. I recently visited family living just north of Detroit and got my first look at it. We took a couple of trips into the city, downtown mainly. The overwelming impression I got was of emptiness. On a weekday at 11 am, wide open roads with few cars. Go to the center of downtown at lunchtime and see fewer people than a small town’s square. Belle Island, recently taken over by the State, is a little rundown but still a nice big park was almost empty of people on a sunny day – wtf. It wasn’t a Mad Max wasteland – it was an empty city going to seed.

    I was thinking of all the opportunities this city with existing infrastructure and riverside location and wondering why was it so empty. My inlaws blamed a the corporations for abandoning it and a few corrupt politicians. But then there was a newspaper article about vultures like the Quiken Loans guy buying up large blocks of land BUT neighborhood “activists” and such were worried that “outsiders” would be buying up all these abandoned properties for “too cheap.” It’s like they think the city has a fucking choice.

  16. Honestly, most of us in Detroit, don’t care that much about what the government is doing. The great thing about living in a city where the government has lost all credibility and to large degree, its power, is that the people are more free to pursue their goals without worrying about the heavy hand of government. Of course they are still very annoying. But I think the lack of government competency and credibility are playing a major role in the fast pace revival of many parts of Detroit.

  17. I’ve spent time on a consulting assignments in both Detroit and Singapore. I know it sounds unAmerican and unlibertarian, but I much prefer a well-managed autarchy to a botched democracy.

  18. To quote Will Rogers:

    “Stupidity got us into this mess – why can’t it get us out?”

  19. Opportunist, definitely but Schmitt wasn’t a Nazi.

  20. Didn’t Black Detroit ask for a giant bailout from White Michigan? That doesn’t sound like an autonomous democracy.

  21. What about all the people who didn’t approve of their city government’s criminal dealings?

    People who talk (laughably) about democracy in the USA forget about our rigged 2 party system. What about all the nonvoters who don’t even participate because they are not at all “represented”?

    Detroit lost its democracy? Oh? Did it ever really have it?

  22. I don’t understand the problem here. At all. There is not one democratic jurisdiction in this country where there aren’t people living under a government they didn’t vote for. They’re called the “minority,” otherwise known as “voted for the other guy.” Bringing race into this is completely inappropriate. Whether a person lives in a predominately black jurisdiction really has no bearing on anything. Why is no one making a stink about all of the black Philadelphians who have to abide by rules set by Pennsylvania’s Republican government? I’m a white guy who didn’t vote for Obama. I have plenty to complain about in regards to the president and never mention his race, and yet I’m still accused of not liking him because he’s black. Yet it’s totally cool for these assholes to claim on behalf of the black population of Detroit that the white governor has no authority over the city? If Democrats don’t like this because they’re being subjected to something that didn’t vote for, then their problem should be with non-limited government, which violates minority rights. But that would require actual self-examination. I’m going to stop here. There’s just too much to criticize about this to be at all coherent. Hope I’m at least making some sense.

  23. I saw this videos of corruption in Detroit, a long history.

    1. And one more about the former mayor Coleman A. Young

      One guy on DetroitYes forums nicknamed hortonz posted a interesting point then I decided to quote:
      Had Coleman Young called it quits after his first decade in office, there’s no doubt he would have been one of the great mayors of Detroit. In his first decade in office he contributed a lot to the city. His lobbying efforts on behalf of Chrysler and the UAW helped rescue the company from certain bankruptcy in 1979, he built Joe Louis Arena, convinced GM to build the Poletown plant and convinced white business leaders to invest downtown. Unfortunately, he spent too long in office and by the early 90’s had become a national embarrassment and a cantankerous demagogue.”

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