DETROIT — In 1860, an uneasy Charles Darwin confided in a letter to a friend: “I had no intention to write atheistically” but “I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars.” What appalled him had fascinated entomologist William Kirby (1759-1850): The ichneumon insect inserts an egg in a caterpillar, and the larva hatched from the egg, he said, “gnaws the inside of the caterpillar, and though at last it has devoured almost every part of it except the skin and intestines, carefully all this time avoids injuring the vital organs, as if aware that its own existence depends on that of the insect on which it preys!”
Government employees’ unions living parasitically on Detroit have been less aware than ichneumon larvae. About them, and their collaborators in the political class, the question is: What. Were. They. Thinking? Well, how did Bernie Madoff or the Enron executives convince themselves their houses of cards would never collapse?
Here, where cattle could graze in vast swaths of this depopulated city, democracy ratified a double delusion: Magic would rescue the city (consult the Bible, the bit about the multiplication of the loaves and fishes), or Washington would deem Detroit, as it recently did some banks and two of the three Detroit-based automobile companies, “too big to fail.” But Detroit failed long ago. And not even Washington, whose recklessness is almost limitless, is oblivious to the minefield of moral hazard it would stride into if it rescued this city and, then inevitably, others that are buckling beneath the weight of their cumulative follies. It is axiomatic: When there is no penalty for failure, failures proliferate.
This bedraggled city’s decay poses no theological conundrum of the sort that troubled Darwin, but it does pose worrisome questions about the viability of democracy in jurisdictions where big government and its unionized employees collaborate in pillaging taxpayers. Self-government has failed in what once was America’s fourth-largest city and now is smaller than Charlotte, N.C.
Detroit, which boomed during World War II when industrial America was “the arsenal of democracy,” died of democracy. Today, among the exculpatory alibis invoked to deflect blame from the political class and the docile voters who empowered it, is the myth that Detroit is simply a victim of “de-industrialization.” In 1950, however, Detroit and Chicago were comparable — except Detroit was probably wealthier, as measured by per capita income. Chicago, too, lost manufacturing jobs, to the American South, to south of the border, to South Korea and elsewhere. But Chicago discerned the future and diversified. It is grimly ironic that Chicago’s iconic street is Michigan Avenue.
Detroit’s population, which is 62 percent smaller than in 1950, has contracted less than the United Auto Workers membership, which was more than 1 million in 1950, and now is around 390,000. Auto industry executives, who often were invertebrate mediocrities, continually bought labor peace by mortgaging their companies’ futures in surrenders to union demands. Then city officials gave their employees — who have 47 unions, including one for crossing guards — pay scales comparable to those of autoworkers. Thus did private-sector decadence drive public-sector dysfunction — government negotiating with government-employees’ unions that are government organized as an interest group to lobby itself to do what it wants to do: Grow.
Steven Rattner, who administered the bailout of part of the Detroit-based portion of America’s automobile industry, says “apart from voting in elections, the 700,000 remaining residents of the Motor City are no more responsible for Detroit’s problems than were the victims of Hurricane Sandy for theirs.” Congress, he says, should bail out Detroit because “America is just as much about aiding those less fortunate as it is about personal responsibility.”
There you have today’s liberalism: Human agency, hence responsibility, is denied. Apart from the pesky matter of “voting in elections” — apart from decades of voting to empower incompetents, scoundrels and criminals, and to mandate unionized rapacity — no one is responsible for anything. Popular sovereignty is a chimera because impersonal forces akin to hurricanes are sovereign.
The restoration of America’s vitality depends on, among many other things, avoiding the bottomless sinkhole that would be created by the federal government rescuing one-party cities, and one-party states such as Illinois, from the consequences of unchecked power. Those consequences of such power — incompetence, magical thinking, cynicism, and sometimes criminality — are written in Detroit’s ruins.
George F. Will is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group.