Cities should advance citizen freedom

By Steven Greenhut: Guest columnist

Most Americans have the naïve notion that their local city officials busy themselves fixing potholes, providing police and fire services, dealing with the occasional code violation and quietly running the parks and recreation service.

But those who run city government have their own prerogatives and ideologies. Their priorities aren’t happenstance, but are carefully crafted in university public administration departments and at organizations such as the League of Cities and the American Planning Association.

The typical local government agenda has these goals: finding ways to get more tax dollars, improving the pay and benefit packages of those who work for government, hiring more staff, securing additional powers for those who run the government, implementing more rules that dictate how citizens can live while reducing the number of rules that govern those who run the government.

Local officials argue there is no alternative to their regimen of regulation, taxation and control. But there is another alternative. Instead of being centered on what’s best for the officials who run the city, and the privileged interest groups that live off of government largesse, it is an agenda centered on advancing the freedom and opportunities of those who live in the city.
No wonder few cities have embraced it.

1. Give individuals the maximum latitude to do what they choose with their businesses and their property, provided they conform to some easily understood, fairly applied rules.

Freedom results in better, more interesting cities. Central planning not only crushes the human spirit and destroys entrepreneurship, but it results in blandness.

2. Respect property rights and deregulate development rules.

City officials tend to be dismissive of property rights. They want to control every land-use decision and are constantly imposing costlier and more burdensome regulatory hurdles on developers and even homeowners.

Cities should be viewed as living organisms that are the result of thousands of people making millions of individual decisions, not as sterile laboratories where the officials control everything.

3. Reform the education system.

City officials don’t control their local school districts, but most officials I have known have been reluctant to even use the bully pulpit to push for the type of school change that would instantly revive many parts of their cities.

No urban policy will be complete without recognition that poor, bureaucratic school systems are forcing middle-class people into the suburbs. One relatively simple solution: Allow residents to send their kids to any school district of their choosing, with no exceptions.

4. Wrest decisions about public safety away from government unions and their bought-and-paid-for politicians.

In most cities, the police and fire unions control the city council members, and these powerful unions control public safety policy. Police officials always push for more police, no matter the number already employed and no matter whether the crime rate is rising or falling. Some cities need more cops, others don’t. But every city says it needs “more.”

It’s time to base public safety decisions on objective factors (e.g., response times, crime rates) and on the public’s best interest.

5. City officials should embrace the nuts-and-bolts of city governance.

As city officials fancy themselves as planners and social engineers who will remake their cities and transform the folks who live there, they increasingly forget their basic responsibilities. Officials love to dabble in “redevelopment,” but are notoriously bad at dealing with the less-glamorous aspects of city governance that the citizenry depends upon, such as maintaining roads and sewers.

A new city agenda should be focused on providing the best services in the most efficient and customer-friendly manner. Cities need to keep fees and taxes low. Hey, why not schedule office hours at times that suit those customers not that suit city workers?

Next time a potential city council candidate comes to your door to ask for support, don’t ask if the candidate is a Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative. At the city level, those distinctions mean little. Ask if the candidate supports a new, freedom-friendly urban agenda before pledging your support.

Steven Greenhut is a columnist for the Orange County Register in Santa Ana, Calif. Contact him at:
sgreenhut@ocregister.com