Smelling Rats in Baltimore
By Christopher Westley
I visited Baltimore once, about 10 years ago, for an academic conference. While I remember its colonial-era architecture, the historic cathedral that once housed the great Cardinal Gibbons, and fun, chowder-laden conversations with local and visiting economists in brew pubs—the image that remains in my mind is that of the rats. These mangy pack animals seemed to populate every garbage dumpster that I passed at night heading to and from my hotel, and it made me think about the many millions of renovation monies that flowed into Baltimore in the post-Great Society years, much of it coerced, and how such spending is all for naught if the city weakens property rights institutions in the process.
People tend to take care of property when property rights are strong, and when they’re not, well, we see graffiti, litter, broken windows, and often, rats. If you disagree, then ask yourself: How many of these problems afflict your own house or business? I left Baltimore not terribly optimistic about its future and wondered how famous I might become if I was able to construct a “rat index” that gauged rat populations of inner cities that would serve as a proxy for property rights (or their lack).
Needless to say, this is not a project I pursued.
But now that Baltimore has become synonymous with police barricades, pepper spray, curfews, and looting—a sort of Ferguson East—I am reminded again of H.L. Mencken’s hometown. The course of events there have all been predictable and increasingly common. An outrageous and unnecessary death to a man in police custody followed by the descent of professional race-baiters, protests leading to riots and more confrontations with the police, looting of businesses that had nothing to do with the actual events spurring the protests, and calls for increased consciousness of problems in America dealing with race, as if this is a root of the problem.
Few people, mostly the economists, will note the role of deteriorating property rights institutions in Baltimore, even though the evidence is omnipresent. Consider this excerpt from Petula Dvorak’s article in the Washington Post:
If you want to understand the violence engulfing this city, you have to start here, on the street where Gray was taken into police custody. It is a blighted, joyless place of boarded-up buildings: Abandoned. Abandoned. Abandoned. Occupied. Abandoned. Occupied (I think). The sidewalks of Sandtown-Winchester are strewn with trash, and the signs on a tiny strip of scraggly grass deliver a dispiriting warning: “No Pets Allowed. No Ball Playing.”
“Blighted and joyless” pretty much explains the areas of any American city in which property rights violations have gone so far as to cause the productive to leave for less onerous tax and regulatory jurisdictions. In this respect, Baltimore’s Sandtown is no different from Washington Heights (Chicago), Joyland (Atlanta), Metcalfe Park (Milwaukee), or Islandview (Detroit). Would it be too much to ask for a Washington Post reporter to inquire whether decades of rent controls in Baltimore and elsewhere might have brought about outcomes such as these? Owners don’t abandon buildings because they want to, but they often do because price restrictions make them unprofitable to utilize in un-abandoned forms. Failure to bring up these basic economic points, which even socialists recognize, feeds into the false Hobbesian narrative that these outcomes simply reflect a state of nature and justify even further coercive interventions by government.
These interventions sow social division between those who are favored by it and those who are not. In this light, it’s worth asking about whether the many millions of dollars poured into Baltimore over the years in the name of urban renewal have had any positive effect on the city at all. Reporter Dvorak touches on this point too when she discusses the city’s Inner Harbor, which was “hailed in 1984 by the American Institute of Architects as ‘one of the supreme achievements of large-scale urban design in U.S. history.’” Baltimore is also home to the National Aquarium and the Maryland Science Center, as well as the famous Camden Yards, home to the Baltimore Orioles. Weren’t projects such as these supposed to bring Baltimore to a better place by now?
Not when they don’t counter property right destruction resulting from previous interventions in inner cities, often done in in pursuit of “urban renewal.” It feeds into a deadly cycle in which government interventions breed division and, in the extreme, violence, which then serve to justify more interventions. Chances are, if this process has not played itself out in your city, then it is likely property rights and the social harmony they engender are relatively more secure there, for the time being.
Not surprisingly, Murray Rothbard identified the crux of the problem in the 1970s:
Urban planning has controlled and regulated the cities. Zoning laws have ringed housing and land use with innumerable restrictions. Property taxes have crippled urban development and forced abandonment of houses. Building codes have restricted housing construction and made it more costly. Urban renewal has provided massive subsidies to real estate developers, forced the bulldozing of apartments and rental stores, lowered the supply of housing, and intensified racial discrimination. Extensive government loans have generated overbuilding in the suburbs. Rent controls have created apartment shortages and reduced the supply of residential housing.
In 2015, Baltimore is Exhibit A. Is there any wonder one still smells rats there?