The Government Poisoned Flint's Water—So Stop Blaming Everyone Else

A failure of local government, brought on by public employee pensions.



Flint, Michigan, was a sickly town long before residents discovered something toxic in their water.

The city's appallingly high crime rate makes it one of the most dangerous places in the country. Its automobile manufacturing industry declined and disappeared decades ago, plunging Flint into a depression from which it never recovered. Its residents are poor. And the local government is so badly in debt that the state had to appoint an emergency financial manager in 2011. Flint is Detroit without the historic appeal. You wouldn't want to live there. You wouldn't even want to visit.

On top of all that, local authorities were recently forced to admit that Flint's drinking water is contaminated with lead. The new water source might also be linked to 77 recent cases of Legionnaire's disease (resulting in 10 deaths) in the area.

The #FlintWaterCrisis has captured the nation's attention: many pundits have seized upon the fact Michigan is governed by a Republican, Rick Snyder, and have thus spun the disaster as one primarily caused by conservative indifference to poor black people. During last Sunday's Democratic debate, Hillary Clinton explicitly blamed the crisis on Snyder's leadership:

I spent a lot of time last week being outraged by what's happening in Flint, Michigan, and I think every single American should be outraged. We've had a city in the United States of America where the population which is poor in many ways and majority African American has been drinking and bathing in lead-contaminated water. And the governor of that state acted as though he didn't really care.

He had a request for help and he had basically stone walled. I'll tell you what, if the kids in a rich suburb of Detroit had been drinking contaminated water and being bathed in it, there would've been action.

She reiterated this stance during an interview with MSNBC's Rachel Maddow, who holds the same view. Michael Moore, who hails from Flint, all but accused Snyder of pouring lead in the water supply himself. Elsewhere at Salon, writer Elias Isquith blamed "austerity," since the root of the problem was the decision to seek a more efficient, cheaper water supply. That decision was not made by Snyder, nor was it made by his emergency financial manager, a Democrat. In fact, Flint's own city council and mayor approved the idea. State treasurer Andy Dillon—also a Democrat—signed off on it.

In hindsight, the execution of the decision to seek a new water supply was a disaster of epic proportions. But it is one entirely caused by government actors—most of them local government actors—and ignored by regulators until it was too late. The people who have thus far done too little to fix the crisis are also government actors—at the local, state, and even federal levels. Flint is mostly a failure of governance, not a failure of markets.

At the same time, let's not forget the reason why local authorities felt the need to find a cheaper water source: Flint is broke and its desperately poor citizens can't afford higher taxes to pay the pensions of city government retirees. As recently as 2011, it would have cost every person in Flint $10,000 each to cover the unfunded legacy costs of the city's public employees.

The #FlintWaterCrisis is not a blueprint for what would happen if libertarians abolished government and let poor people drink poisoned water, as some enemies of free markets are no doubt claiming. Instead, it's a great example of government failing to efficiently provide even the most basic of public services due to a characteristically toxic combination of administrative bloat and financial mismanagement.

But as long as the media is tossing out blame, perhaps Flint's public employees—who cannibalized a dying city's finances—deserve more than just a drop?

Updated at 3:30 p.m. on January 21: Local officials dispute that they played any formal role in the decision to use the Flint River—the source of the contamination—as a water source, instead pinning the blame on the state-appointed emergency manager. The emergency manager, on the other hand, says the decision was made by the city long before his appointment.