“If I had my druthers, the city government would determine every single plot of land, how development would proceed. And there would be very stringent requirements around income levels and rents.” — Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York City
We used to joke about the occasional politician who seemed to wish that he commanded a better class of citizenry, so he could replace them with a more sophisticated bunch. Today, too many Indiana mayors and councils adopt that very attitude. In doing so, they thumb their noses at the true driver of community development — respect for individuals and property.
The pluterperfect bad example is Bob Hall, mayor of Charlestown, Ind. Mayor Hall told a judge the other day, “I know it’s not politically correct to say this, but when you have a low-rent district, it invites people who are not contributing to society.”
The mayor was referring to Pleasant Ridge, an older section of town whose residents say he is conspiring with a private developer to raze their homes. Their attorney has presented evidence that the city is secretly attempting to lower property values there using selective enforcement of city codes to force those “low rent” residents out and make way for the more esthetically pleasing.
Municipal policy throughout Indiana increasingly is directed toward punitive zoning, tax breaks for politically favored developers and subsidies for “qualify of place” projects such as upscale subdivisions, classy downtown apartments, sports facilities, jogging trails and other recreational and entertainment amenities.
These supposedly will attract that better class of citizen through national corporations and the young professionals they bring with them. Does it work? More specifically, does it work for the people who actually call your town home?
Not unless you are in a small circle of insiders and political operatives — and then only for a limited time until bonding and tax revenue is exhausted. The strategy ignores how wealth is created or how Indiana towns have historically prospered.
Dr. Berry Keating and Dr. Maryann O. Keating want you to consider another approach. They will present a white paper at the Dec. 2 meeting of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation comparing the sense of well-being of various Indiana cities. It suggests that the cities that do best are those whose governments addresses the basic needs of actual residents rather than the aspirations of prospective ones.
“Although development is easily thwarted by bad policy, those who believe that planners and development agencies are capable of directing local economies are deceived,” writes Dr. Maryann Keating. “At most, they can nudge local economies in a specific direction. Economies consist of people and firms locating and doing their best to maintain and improve their level of well-being. The wealth of any town depends on its residents; how well it functions depends on trust and participation.”
For that is how you measure a community — by how average individual citizens go about their day, the respect they have for themselves, their neighbors, their local government, all wrapped into a sense of social justice. And our concept of private property encapsulates those values as well as anything. Tom Bethell, author of “The Noblest Triumph,” explains:
“The great blessing of private property is that people can benefit from their own industry and insulate themselves from the negative effects of others’ actions. It is like a set of invisible mirrors that surround individuals, households or firms, reflecting back on them the consequences of their acts.”
In a constitutional republic, we want our democratic representatives to set aside their ideological visions of what our community should look like. Rather, we want them to encourage a culture of government seeking to preserve the justice inherent in private property. That would mean a simple policy of serving constituents individually as you find them, not as you would prefer them to be.
For all of us are property owners of one sort or another, even if our property at a given time is only an old one-bedroom house in Charlestown, Indiana. Indeed, at every level of economic fortune or misfortune we hold easily understood ideas about what would make us happier and our property, such as it is, more secure. Challengers in upcoming primary elections would be wise to be familiar with those ideas, many of which can be realized under the law, within a city budget and without special favor.
Craig Ladwig is editor of the quarterly Indiana Policy Review.