Democracy Suspended in Detroit

The State of Michigan neutered the democratic institutions that govern the City of Detroit yesterday afternoon. The financial woes of Motown are so bad that the state has decided to appoint an Emergency Financial Manager to sort everything out. Kevyn Orr will serve as EFM, and he has the background necessary to perform well; he’s a bankruptcy attorney who worked on Chrysler’s recent restructuring. What grates here is the decision did not come from Detroit itself but rather was imposed by the state government in Lansing.

Democracy, as this journal has noted often, is a political system designed to put the governed on the hook for any failings of the leadership. It is not designed for efficiency nor does it result in wise leaders making wise decisions except by chance. It is a lousy system for deciding and implementing policy. It is a brilliant system for making sure that riots and civil disorder are rare. It allows for the peaceful transition of power without which violence is an ever-present threat.

Naturally, there are times when circumstances suggest the suspension of democracy is necessary to the continued well-being of the state, and by extension, the people. Almost always, this is nonsense. As the Romans discovered, suspending their constitution and appointing a dictator for the duration of a crisis eventually leads to permanent crisis, and therefore, permanent dictatorship. The war on terror is in its second decade, and there is no sign of the Patriot Act being amended or repealed.

In the case of Detroit, the city has seen its population decline radically, its economy shrink, and as a result, its tax base is smaller than it was a generation or two ago. The city has a $14 billion debt, a deficit of $327 million, and the mayor and city council have not been able to deal with these issues. So for the next 18 months, Mr. Orr will be in charge. Reuters explains, “As the emergency manager, he will supplant the authority of Detroit’s elected officials, both the mayor and the city council. Orr will have broad powers, including the ability to renegotiate labor contracts, privatize services and sell certain city assets.” In short, he can do what he likes as he likes to whom he likes, and no one can stop him

Where this gets dirty is in the way the State of Michigan enacted the law that allows for a takeover of Detroit. When the Party passed the original EFM law, it upset a great many people, and those people organized a petition to offer a referendum to repeal the law. The referendum went their way, but rather than admit defeat, the GOP passed a new version of the law which was explicitly excempt from repeal by referendum. As a result, the authorities in Lansing can take over any municipality without the consent of the people of that municipality. And they can do so under a law that most Michiganders opposed when asked about it.

It is one thing for a city to suspend its democratic institutions by choice. It is quite another to have that suspension imposed from the outside. Were the federal government to suspend the institutions of the State of Michigan, the unfairness would come second only to its unconstitutionality. Detroit is in a mess, no doubt about it. There are precedents for aggressive financial actions in US history, New York in the 1970s, Philadelphia in the early 1990s. The question is why the representatives of people who live in Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo get to take democracy away from the people of Detroit? Surely that decision ought to be made by the people who are affected by it, and by no one else.