Rome Redux
Detroit and the emergence of the American dictator

Joe Harris, EM of Benton Harbor, Mich.


Michael Auslin

Is the dictatorial path the way of the future? What will happen when Illinois, New York, and California declare bankruptcy? Will legislatures believe the only way out is to appoint EMs for their own states? And how long before Washington, D.C., finds some pretext in the “penumbras” of constitutional powers to allow the federal government to appoint state dictators so as to ensure the equal rights of all citizens and the public welfare? After all, North Carolina governor Beverly Perdue recently suggested suspending congressional elections for two years in order to let Congress solve the country’s economic crisis, which was a result largely of the policies of . . . Congress.

Americans assume that political life in our country can never become so anti-democratic or dictatorial. And indeed, there are lawsuits in Michigan to suspend Public Act 4, which empowers the EMs. But today’s activist judiciary doesn’t seem the best bet to preserve limited government. In reality, the loss of government accountability is already happening, as Barack Obama’s recent unconstitutional recess appointments to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and National Labor Relations Board highlight. Not to mention that the CFPB itself is all but exempt from congressional oversight, and it is by its very nature a move toward dictatorial control of financial markets. Yet the danger is more acute at the local level; one-party rule by state and local governments means fewer checks on attempts to suspend democracy. With Michigan showing the way, how long before more bankrupt cities and counties fall under the threat of emergency managers? The loss of local sovereignty is the thin edge of the wedge to a broader loss of liberty.

If you can’t imagine what could bring America to this pass, check out these stunning pictures of Detroit, which look like scenes from the apocalyptic films Mad Max and Beneath the Planet of the Apes. They terrify at the same time that they make understandable the desire to appoint a dictator — just as in ancient Rome. In truth, Detroit, with its $20 billion debt, may represent the Rubicon. If a city of 714,000 people, the largest in its state and a major American industrial area, can be taken over because of its inability to govern itself, then the mold will have been set for ever-larger entities to come under non-democratic control. Government engineering always seems to triumph during times of fear and crisis. What seemed like a temporary expedient may soon be relied on as the only means to keep some localities viable.

Rome lost its liberties when it lost the ability to govern itself, relying ever more regularly on strong men to instill order. Yet if you had asked a Roman in 46. b.c. if his city was at risk of changing forever, he probably would have scoffed. The lessons of the dictator still hold.

— Michael Auslin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.


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