Does Detroit’s fate foretell the end of American democracy? In becoming the first major American city to die before our eyes, Detroit is the prime case study of the destructiveness of the traditional liberal model of governance, public-sector-union rapacity, and the abandonment of any sense of civic responsibility by a governing elite that feasted like Roman senators while their city burned. And as in late republican Rome, a dictator may be appointed before long in Detroit; this has happened already in four bankrupt Michigan cities, including Flint (population: 102,000). The question is whether today’s dictators are a necessary means to save otherwise irredeemable places or whether they foreshadow an end to democracy in America’s dysfunctional states and cities (and perhaps in the country as a whole).
In both ancient Rome and modern Michigan, the dictator was appointed to restore order. Given the dangers facing both, the dictatorship seemed a prudent and necessary measure. The modern American dictators are Michigan’s state-appointed emergency managers (EM), each of whom has been named to his position by the state legislature after it has identified a locality that has defaulted on its debts or is in danger of bankruptcy. In Michigan, the EMs have sweeping powers — among other things, to hire and fire local government employees; renegotiate, terminate, or modify labor contracts (with state-treasury approval); revise contract obligations; sell, lease, or privatize local assets (with state-treasury approval); and change local budgets without local legislative approval. They can strip local elected officials of their power; indeed, according to Joe Harris, the EM of Benton Harbor, Mich., “the only authority that [local elected officials] can have is the authority that’s provided to them, or is given to them by the emergency manager.” Unlike in republican Rome, however, where the dictator could not rule legally for more than six months, Michigan’s nouveaux dictators have no term limit, and they are answerable only to the state government.
In Wisconsin and Indiana, elected governors are using democratic means to change ruinous labor contracts and balance budgets. But in Michigan, an apparently ingrained inability to fulfill basic governance duties at all levels has led to the governor’s supporting the erasure of local freedom in the name of expediency and urgency. Michigan’s example may appeal to other similarly dysfunctional and cash-strapped states.
In Rome, what began as a position with limited powers to respond to emergencies and to ensure the smooth running of elections changed into a far more powerful post whose holder directly made laws and altered the constitution. Under Julius Caesar, the dictatorship became a ten-year position — and ultimately a lifetime appointment for Caesar by a supine Senate. In Michigan, similarly, the persistent failure of local government led in the 1980s to the creation of a new position with limited powers: emergency financial managers. But the state’s endemic problems led to the replacement of this position with the far more comprehensive emergency manager, and that may not be the final iteration, either. For example, EM 2.0 was passed last year once it became clear that the original EM statute didn’t go far enough. Soon afterward, in April 2011, Benton Harbor’s Joe Harris issued an order stripping all city boards and commissions of their authority to take any action.
From the perspective of the liberal, technocratic state, creating American dictators makes perfect sense. What better way to ensure the welfare of the people than by taking away the powers of those elected officials who failed them? There’s a perverse logic to this style of one-man rule — accountable to a higher (elected) authority, but not to the people themselves. And there’s no question that numerous states are now being forced to recognize the failure of democratically elected local governments that have impoverished generations of city dwellers. Yet this is not a temporary measure: Given the extent of the collapse of Michigan’s cities, some may have EMs for years.
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.