Strakon Lights Up, No. 37

Where's Dick Daley
when you really need him?

Back when Jerry Springer was getting big, nationally I mean, you were sure to read in every background piece that he was — gasp! — a former mayor of Cincinnati.

I always pleaded with folks to remain calm.

Reason was, I'd lived in Cincinnati, and I knew that the city was actually governed by a city manager and that the mayor was only a "head of state," good for cutting ribbons but possessing little if any actual power. When I lived in the Queen City, I never bothered to learn the mayor's name. I never knew the city manager's name, either, but I'll get to the significance of that a little later. My point here is, while Cincinnatians might deserve to be a little red-faced about electing a creature such as Springer to an honorary post, it wasn't as if they'd done something meaningful such as electing Bill Clinton president.


In the run-up to the raid on Elian Gonzalez's home in Miami, TV viewers were treated to interview after interview with Miami Mayor Joe Carollo, who assured Miamians and the rest of America that his city's police force would confine itself to keeping order in a restrained, dignified manner and would refrain from aiding the organs of state security in their plot to abduct Elian. It sounded as though some good old splenetic federalism might be bubbling. John C. Calhoun, meet Joe Carollo! (Hey, I know it's not as if liberty or anything like that was threatening to break out, but to avoid starving we libertarians sometimes have to nibble a stale crumb and pretend it's cake.)

As it happened, the Miami constabulary did not directly participate in the raid itself, but in its wake it did make free with the pepper spray and rough up some peaceful protesters, outraging quite a few Miamians — including Joe Carollo! Yes, there he was again in front of the cameras, only this time he was denouncing "his" police chief for going too far. One TV commentator wondered what on Earth was going on when a mayor couldn't control "his" chief. For me the penny dropped when Carollo huffed that he was certainly going to take the matter up with the — ta daaa — city manager and the commission. (The City Commission, that is.)

It turns out that, all this time, we'd been listening to Queen Elizabeth! — an unusually voluble Queen Elizabeth, true, and one with fingers in an unusual number of interesting political pies, no doubt, but Queen Elizabeth nonetheless. And I don't mean Elizabeth I.

Can you imagine what would have happened during the glory days of Dick Daley if a Chicago police chief had pulled off a police riot when Daley didn't actually want one? Da guy woulda been lucky to a been escorted to da parrrkin' lot wit a carrrdboard box full a his stuff. Tell ya da troot, he praably woulda woke up in Iowa wit his legs broke. 


Chicago's never been very progressive. Or, rather, Progressive. The city-manager, weak-mayor form of government is one of the chief legacies of Progressivism. The object was to break up the old, corrupt machines run by immigrants, typically Catholic, who got their political education in saloons, boxing gyms, and other places regarded as too, too smelly by the Better Sort; and to turn matters over to technocrats who could be trusted — trusted by the Better Sort, that is. Efficient, university-trained, incorruptible city managers from out of town would replace homegrown mayors, with their sentimental weakness for the old neighborhood and the more remunerative class of felony. Rambunctious, competing city utilities, many of them under the thumb of some wardheeler or another, would be coercively monopolized and municipalized. In some cities, the Moral Uplifters even rendered elections nonpartisan.

Populist historian Walter Karp tells us that before the Progressives undertook their Long March, city councils in many medium-sized cities had scores and scores of members, each representing a particular ward; but the Progressives worked strenuously to slash that number to half a dozen or so, ideally elected at large. In cities where the Progs won that victory, an aggrieved citizen whose alderman in the old days ran the beer joint down the street and represented a couple thousand residents might now find a City Commission member barricaded behind clerks and "representing" 50,000 or more.

I'm sure the old Progressives would have been pleased that I didn't know the city manager's name when I lived in Cincinnati. Why should I have? He was a professional administrator busy with good works, not a politician chasing headlines and hip-deep in politics. Anytime they succeeded in laying hands on a municipal function or institution, the Progs set about trying to "take it out of politics." Murray Rothbard used to say that the Progressives were so determined to take this out of politics, and that out of politics, and that over there, too, out of politics that it was clear they were really trying to "take politics out of politics."

I'm no fan of politics, democratic or otherwise, and I won't be forced into a defense of corrupt wardheeling. But each mode of governance has its particular, predictable flavor, and while I can just about stomach Tammany Hall, technocracy makes me retch. Any nasty thing I've ever said about elected politicians as a class goes double for certified, professional, out-of-town technocrats. Corruption in the service of some local Boss is vicious, but it almost looks like a virtue compared to corruption of the soul in service of the modern centralized state.

Democracy in its formal workings is a disastrous, necessarily fraudulent, and totalitarian-tending form of government. In its informal workings, at the local level, old-style democracy erects few barriers against privilege and corrupt influence — but at the same time it erects few barriers against public outrage. What do I mean by informal workings? I'm thinking of a more muscular time than ours when neighborhood residents, upon discovering that their alderman had been stealing from them instead of from the other guy, could simply charge down to the saloon and throw the bloody man into the street.

In Miami, the city-manager and commission form of government seems to have worked just the way the old Progs would have wanted. It erected a barrier against public outrage at the conduct of the technocrats, leaving Weak Mayor Joe Carollo sputtering in the street along with his constituents.

Whether or not his outrage at the secret-police raid and the conduct of "his" police force is real, Carollo knows he'd better look and sound outraged. That's not worth much, I suppose, but it goes down a lot better than the garbage we're being fed by the non-Cuban psychiatrists, pediatricians, and lawyers — "out-of-town" technocrats all — who are telling us via the telescreen that abducting Elian at gunpoint was the right, humane, necessary, and progressive thing to do.

Dem guys — now, dey're da ones dat really should wake up hurtin' in Iowa.

April 26, 2000

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