Gov Accountability

COVID-19, economic recovery, and cities as the new battleground for liberty

Whats next2

Greg Brooks

As in Washington and the statehouse, so too in city hall: Few things are more dangerous than an elected official eager merely to “do something.”

As cities and states chart a course for recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent response, the call for local leaders to do something will almost certainly lead to policies that, while meaning well, could make matters worse.

At Better Cities Project, we see a chance—maybe a once-in-a-generation chance—to help hundreds of American cities quickly implement market-oriented, low-regulation policies for fast economic turnaround. And that’s why we developed Getting Back To Work: An Economic Recovery Playbook for America’s Cities.

Working with public-policy experts from Atlas Network, we’ve tried to create something new with this project—not a dry policy paper, but a compelling, plain-English guide to dozens of practical “one vote and it’s done,” reforms to help jump-start local economies.

The innovation isn’t just the policy ideas; it’s that we’re bringing those ideas to the cities.

Why cities matter

Nearly 65 million people live in America’s 100 largest cities; include communities of 100,000 or more and you’re talking about nearly a third of the country.

These city-dwelling Americans often have different priorities—and use different rhetoric to describe them—than traditional liberty-movement audiences. But if anything, the burden they face from heavy-handed local and regional government is even more severe than traditional statehouse or federal battles.

From education and taxation to property rights, the right to earn a living and other topics, the potential for prosperity is regularly attacked—either by antagonistic elected officials or the army of self-interested cronies, special interests and rent seekers that benefit from the status quo.

And that’s during normal times. The COVID-19 outbreak and recent protests revealed locally what many of us have seen nationally: A lurch toward top-down, inflexible and rights-eroding approaches in the name of doing something.

It’s better than doing nothing, right? Wrong.

Doing something is wrong if it tramples fundamental rights. Doing something is wrong if it lines the pockets of the connected while average citizens still struggle and basic services are underfunded. Doing something is wrong when it means spending wildly today and sticking tomorrow’s (potentially fewer) residents with the bill. And doing something is morally repugnant when it creates policies that keep people locked in a cycle of poverty, unable to freely pursue their best path to prosperity.

Too many of our cities don’t work for their own people. Too many have been captured by insiders and special interests. Too many squander their residents’ tax dollars on vanity projects and corporate welfare. And too many cities fail to provide even basic education and opportunity for their children.

Cities are engines of economic growth, culture and wealth—what economist Ed Glasser called mankind’s greatest invention. But on virtually every front in the modern American liberty movement, they’re also ground zero.

We can help.

Without the skeptical view of government provided by those in the freedom movement, cities have doubled down on big government, intrusive regulations and cronyism. America’s city dwellers deserve innovative, effective and market-oriented policy solutions, even if they don’t come through Washington or the statehouse.

We ignore cities at our peril

When Grover Norquist published “Leave Us Alone,” he articulated a movement among voters who wanted, ‘to be free to own a gun, homeschool their children, pray, invest their money, and control their own destiny.’ These trends of escaping big government and seeking greater autonomy have led many in the center-right to cede the battlefield of urban governance.

That needs to change. It’s more than old battles of taxation and government efficiency; from basic civil rights issues of safety and speech to economic innovations like ridesharing and short-term rentals, urban political systems are badly in need of liberty-centric, free-market solutions.

If the modern conservative/libertarian “Leave Us Alone” coalition doesn’t engage—if our cities are left to themselves—no suburban or rural libertarian utopia is far away enough to avoid the consequences.

We—the current torchbearers of hundreds of years of free-market thought and action—have something to offer cities. More to the point, the millions of our fellow citizens who live under city governance are worthy of our attention, ideas and effort.

Getting Back To Work is a start. There’s much more to do.

Better Cities Project is a grant recipient of Atlas Network's COVID-19 Partner Response Fund. Greg Brooks is an alumnus of Atlas Network's Executive Accelerator.