Myths of Small Government
The New York Times has a pretty local and pretty disgusting story on a vacant lot in New York City. The local assemblyman for the Lower East Side, Sheldon Silver, is a well-known and well-respected politician representing a very ethnically diverse district. As it has changed character over the past decades from Jewish to increasingly Asian and Latino, he has remained in office. As it turns out, this was at least partially because he was interfering in policy to make sure his district stayed demographically friendly. He arranged for the tear-down of a mostly Latino housing project and has kept the lot empty for almost fifty years. Because if the lot wasn’t empty, minorities less loyal to Silver might move in.
There are a lot of convincing abstract arguments for a very democratic approach to land use and housing policy. People should be able to elect leaders and set the laws of their own communities. People should have a voice in what happens in their own districts. Local government should be responsive to the will of the people. Small government is more enlightened government.
America’s last century is a powerful counter-argument to these abstract ideas. The power of local government in housing has been deployed, in its least worrying versions, to push awful economic policies like rent control and all manner of terrible NIMBYism. But the power of local government to push social policies has been much worse, and local governments spent the 20th century wielding their power as tools of exclusion and discrimination. We have run the experiment in strong local control over local policy, and as it turns out the people who care most about local government authority are those with noxious views. People like Sheldon Silver should be kept far away from decisions about housing.