Baltimore: A Lesson in Why Robin Hood–ism Hurts the Poor

The morning after the Baltimore protests first turned violent and destructive, USA Today carried a front-page photo well worth a thousand words. With a burning car and police van in the background, a looter carried away his prizes: two cans of Pringles, a gallon of iced tea, and a bundle of diapers. So much destruction, such puny rewards.

This plundering was widely — though not universally — condemned. A few radical-splained that a riot is the language of the unheard, the voice of the voiceless, yadda, yadda, yadda. The more mainstream talking point was that the rioting was a “distraction” from the narrative that the Left is trying to build out of the death of Freddie Gray: We are a nation ruled by racist, oppressive institutions abetted by brutal cops, where social and economic injustice is pervasive, and deep “societal change” is necessary.

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In Baltimore, of course, the rhetoric of powerlessness just won’t play. Even the incendiary Rev. Jamal Bryant, an Al Sharpton wannabe who has likened the city’s police force to ISIS, has noticed that he lives in a city with a black mayor (the fourth in its history), black police chief, black chief prosecutor, and majority-black city council.

But pay no attention to that black power elite behind the curtain. Let’s talk about “the burn behind the burn,” in the words of Malik Shabazz, described by the Southern Poverty Law Center — not known to be part of the vast right-wing conspiracy — as a “racist black nationalist” with a history of “violently anti-Semitic remarks and accusations about the inherent evil of white people.” Shabazz, according to SPLC, is “particularly skilled at orchestrating provocative protests.”

The source of “the burn” is urban poverty and inequality, and the treatment is money. President Obama announced with his usual confidence that “there’s a bunch of my agenda that would make a difference right now in that,” while also asserting that the evil Republicans running Congress would, of course, refuse to make the “massive investments in urban communities” required. So, hey, don’t blame us progressives.

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Baltimoreans are justifiably angry — just at the wrong people.

As a matter of historical fact, however, it is with progressive ideology that responsibility lies for Baltimore’s stagnant economy, its lack of job opportunities, and its meager stocks of physical, human, and social capital. Baltimoreans are justifiably angry — just at the wrong people.

The responsible parties have always meant well, of course. Before World War I, it seemed clear to those of good will that the federal and state governments weren’t doing enough to improve the lot of the poor. Because big cities often contained more than their share of both the destitute (usually recent immigrants) and the compassionate, what we call “Robin Hood Government” first took root there. The well-off would be made to pay for policies and programs that would lift up the poor. Public-works projects and swelling public payrolls would enhance poor people’s employment prospects; their slums would be cleared and replaced with better, cheaper public housing.

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#related#Of course, this could get expensive. Boston’s “Mayor of the Poor,” James Michael Curley, quintupled that city’s property-tax rate in his four terms and bragged, not inaccurately, that he had inspired imitators in places such as Baltimore and in the New Deal itself. But it would all be transformational.

And it was — just not in a good way. Playing Robin Hood at the local level, it became clear, had a huge downside. Take from the rich (and working classes) at the national level, and the unenlightened among them may grumble. Do the same thing at the local level, however, and they simply move.

With them will go vast quantities of capital in all its forms: not just knowledge, financial wealth, and social networks, but over time the factories, offices, homes, and stores that are the machinery of a successful city. The old capital wears out, and the new investment needed to replace it goes elsewhere.

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So it was that Baltimore, which in 1950 enjoyed a median family income 7 percent above the national level, grew progressively poorer (double entendre, um, intended) as it cleared “blight,” sprinkled housing projects around town, expanded social-welfare programs, and paid for it all with 19 property-tax increases in the next 25 years, doubling its former rate. Each hike, via what economists call tax capitalization, reduced property values. It was legal looting, but property owners — capitalists — didn’t like it any better than the illegal kind of plundering, and they fled. Baltimore’s land area is 81 square miles, but within its borders, you are never more than a few miles from a more favorable investment climate.

Chase the capital — and capitalists — away, and laborers suffer diminished opportunity, productivity, and income.

Naturally, then, many of those left behind are angry. Call it “rage against the absent machine.” Contrary to the teachings of Comrade Marx, capital and labor are not adversaries, but partners in production. Chase the capital — and capitalists — away, and laborers suffer diminished opportunity, productivity, and income. Poverty, crime, and social disorder flourish. The key force here is not racism — which explains little of the wide variation in cities’ fortunes over time — but a misguided devotion to Robin Hood–ism at the local level.

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What is worse is that several generations of Baltimore’s leaders, though well aware that prior policies caused catastrophic capital flight, have embraced a palliative that is neither effective nor equitable. Indeed, they have chosen a course that reinforces complaints of the city’s poorer residents that “the system” works mainly for the rich.

It is now routine for officials to dole out special tax breaks and subsidies to well-heeled and well-connected developers to offset the city’s punishing tax rate and to attract private investment. It is also woefully inadequate to the city’s needs. This is not only because these projects often affect just a few acres along the waterfront and largely ignore the areas where we now see “unrest,” but because an investment environment that depends on the favor of whoever sits in City Hall can never lead to an organic and sustained urban renewal.

SLIDESHOW: Baltimore Riots

To thrive, Baltimore needs to put aside the Robin Hood model of urban governance and embrace a new one: conscientious protection of its residents’ property rights. It must radically reform its tax policy; it must end its reliance on grandiose redevelopment projects that seize land through eminent domain; it must reclaim its public spaces for the use and enjoyment of the law-abiding.

The good news is that the city’s recent turmoil and tension provide ample reason for its leaders to question their devotion to old formulas — or for new political blood to challenge them. Nobody in Baltimore is happy right now. Perhaps that discontent will lead us toward the right path.


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