Implications of having a single city government

Hans Hoppe writes in “On Cooperation, Tribe, City, and State”:

“First, almost by definition it follows that with the establishment of a city government interracial, tribal, ethnic, and clannish-familial tensions will increase because the monopolist, whoever he is, must be of one ethnic background rather than another; hence, his being the monopolist will be considered by the citizens of other ethnic backgrounds as an insulting setback, i.e., as an act of arbitrary discrimination against the people of another race, tribe, or clan. The delicate balance of peaceful interracial, interethnic, and interfamilial cooperation, achieved through an intricate system of spatial and functional integration (association) and separation (segregation), will be upset. Second, this insight leads directly to the answer as to how a single judge can possibly outmaneuver all others. In brief, to overcome the resistance by competing judges, an aspiring monopolist must shore up added support in public opinion. In an ethnically mixed milieu this typically means playing the ‘race card.’ The prospective monopolist must raise the racial, tribal, or clannish
consciousness among citizens of his own race, tribe, clan, etc., and promise, in return for their support, to be more than an impartial judge in matters relating to one’s own race, tribe, or clan (that is, exactly what
citizens of other ethnic backgrounds are afraid of, i.e., of being treated
with less than impartiality).”

This is a description of how an illegitimate government monopoly can arise “organically” in a city. It contrasts with the top-down imposition of city government by a state government that I outlined in my last post. However, the racial tensions fit the current situation in Baltimore perfectly; racial and class antagonisms have certainly taken hold of the government, however that government came to be originally.

Charter of no authority: Why the Baltimore City government is not legitimate

Lysander Spooner famously demolished the notion that the US Constitution was a legally binding contract on US citizens in his classic essay “No Treason“. The argument is basically this: the Constitution is only a binding contract on those who personally signed it. Those people, the delegates of the states to the original Constitutional Convention, were just a small minority of Americans at the time, so we have to ask on what grounds the document was held to bind all the other citizens of the several states. Not only that, we have to ask on what legal grounds the document binds all subsequent generations of Americans, none of whom have ever signed it or been given the option to refuse its authority.

What about the government of Maryland or of Baltimore City? Do these command the legitimacy that the US government lacks? By no means. Here is a brief summary of how the current state constitution was drafted and ratified:

“The Constitution of 1867 was drafted by a convention which met at the state capital, Annapolis, between May 8 and August 17, 1867. It was submitted to the adult non-black male citizens of the state for ratification on September 18 and was approved by a vote of 27,152 to 23,036. It took effect on October 5, 1867.”

So the constitution can at best be said to have bound those 27,152 adult non-black males who voted for it in 1867. It did not bind the 23,036 adult non-black males who voted against it and it did not bind any of those excluded from that narrow category, i.e. blacks, women and children. And since no subsequent generation has ever been asked to re-ratify the entire constitution (as opposed to individual amendments), it binds no one after the last of the original Yes voters died. At best it only binds those who have explicitly sworn to uphold it, such as those who have taken public office.

What about the city? Throughout the US, the authority of local governments is held to derive from their respective states. Baltimore is no different. The city government was created by Article X of the 1867 Maryland constitution. As far as I can tell, Baltimore residents were not even asked to ratify the provisions of the state constitution that pertained to the city; their form of government was simply handed down from Annapolis and the only popular ratification was the one held for the state constitution itself. Certainly subsequent amendments to the city charter have been subject to local popular votes, but only by the sufferance of the state. And even the amendments are only by right binding on those who actually voted Yes and only for the duration of the lives of those who voted Yes.

So it seems the city government is an emperor with no clothes.  Baltimore residents should learn about this history and recognize that those who rule over them even locally have no moral basis to that authority.

thinking about libertarian rhetoric and strategy

Hi followers,

A profound apology for being away for so long. Our family had to move house suddenly and then I started a new job and then some family members got either very sick or died and it’s been hard to find time or energy to focus on this blog. So let’s try to get this started again.

I’ve been reading and thinking a lot about libertarian strategy and rhetoric recently. I’ve come to see that this is a particular challenge for libertarians in a big city like Baltimore, where so many people are dependent on government in one way or another. The temptation to write off the general population as naive about the government or even as worthless parasites is very strong, but it’s a temptation that must be resisted.

Keeping people dependent is an important aspect of our ruling elite’s strategy and we have to recognize a distinction between a net tax recipient who is socially powerless, like most poor welfare beneficiaries, and those who actually control the levers of power, i.e. the upper echelons of government and those of the upper socioeconomic classes whose wealth and power depend on access to government privilege. And it is not a trivial task to establish who constitutes this elite and thus who should be the target of our attack.

I just finished reading Social Class and State Power, a collection of essays in the classical liberal tradition of class analysis (which predated and inspired that of Marx). The basic takeaway is that the enemy is not just the government and not just the rich but an unholy alliance between the two. Libertarians put slightly more focus on the government, since that constitutes the organized use of violence, but the ability of the wealthy to use the government for its own ends cannot be ignored. I highly recommend this book to all libertarians serious about building a broad coalition to bring down the elite that oppresses us.

Ben Carson and the war on zoning

I’ve broken my promise to post once a week because a lot suddenly fell on my plate over the past couple of weeks, leaving me little time to keep with the news and write commentary. One project I hope to complete soon and publish here is a review of Antero Pietila’s “Not in My Neighborhood” about the history of residential segregation in Baltimore. But for now I will talk a bit about a major factor behind residential segregation: zoning.

Carson has proposed tying federal funds under the 1968 Fair Housing Act to easing of zoning regulations. The original intent was to forbid discrimination in housing on grounds of race. In 2015, the Obama administration changed this policy by a rule called Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH). Under the new rule, federal funds would be conditional on taking active measures to integrate neighborhoods. Carson has been trying to dismantle these rules. Instead, HUD will dispense federal funds in accordance with local measures to ease up restrictions on multi-family housing.

Less welfare, more housing

Many media commenters portray this move as a desire to reinforce segregation, but in fact Carson is rightly pointed to stringent zoning as responsible for restricting supply of new housing and driving up rents. What’s telling is the reaction of critics. They ignore his attack on discriminatory zoning or claim that local authorities still need to work on desegregation. There is a deep-seated bias against accepting that government is to blame for social problems. Wouldn’t it be better if all government had to do was step out of the way?

I am not the only one to notice that zoning can be used to keep neighborhoods segregated. The economics is in fact very straightforward. If you impose stringent rules on what kinds of housing can be built in an area, that reduces the overall amount of land available for that kind of housing. It necessarily follows that the price of housing will be greater than what it otherwise would be. It isn’t hard to see how that can create a problem for poor people trying to buy or rent property.

Who owns the streets?

When I was reading about the drug war for my last post, one of the articles talked about a pastor in a poor neighborhood in Baltimore calling out drug dealers openly dealing drugs down the street from his church. The context was that such open defiance of the law would not have been tolerated before Freddie Gray. Since the mass protests against the police following his death, the fuzz have held back. But to me the interesting question is what tolerating drugs means for the residents of a neighborhood. Must they tolerate any kind of activity in their own streets?

Are the streets owned or unowned?

A doctrinaire libertarian answer is that drug-dealing is a peaceful activity and law enforcement has no business interfering. But a more sophisticated response recognizes that no one has the right to deal drugs on a certain property against the will of the property owner. So, the sophisticated libertarian not only has to point out that drug dealing is itself a voluntary exchange but must also establish that the owners of the space where the drug dealing occurs do not object to the activity (or that the space is unowned and hence no one has any grounds to object to any peaceful activity that takes place there).

The sense I got from the pastor was that he felt in some sense that the street belonged to them. If he was correct, then he would have the right to forbid drug dealing there. Is that feeling justified? This depends on our theory of ownership of public spaces like streets. A lot of people accept the notion that the government owns those spaces and can make the rules. The legitimacy of the government  supposedly rests on majority rule. Indeed, there is a longstanding debate in libertarianism over who exactly “owns” public, i.e. government-run, spaces. I want to illustrate the problem with this in a more straightforward fashion.

The problem with majority rule

Let’s say the federal government drops drug prohibition tomorrow and Maryland follows by legalizing all drugs. The state’s decision has the backing of a majority of the state’s voters. However, a majority of the city still want drugs illegal, yet the state preempts any local legislation against drugs. Why should the majority of the smaller unit be cast aside for the majority of the larger unit? Why can’t each city and county decide what to ban and what to allow?

Now let’s move down another level. Let’s say the city wants to ban drugs, but some neighborhoods want to legalize them. It is conceivable that the illegal drug trade and drug usage affects different neighborhoods in different ways. It might make sense to ban drugs in one neighborhood but allow them in another, yet the centralization of city government does not allow this.

I hope this illustrates the problem of “majority rule”. Even if you accept the premise that the majority has the right of rule, you still have to define the unit. The majority of what? If there are different ways to divide up the population to get different majorities, what makes one division more legitimate than another? Why should the same rules govern neighborhoods as different as Sandtown-Winchester and Roland Park just because they happen to be in the same larger political unit?

Let local residents regulate their own streets

Which bring us back to the pastor’s church and their feelings about drug dealers doing their business in his neighborhood. Ultimately, those streets and other public spaces need to be handed over to the people who live and walk them every day and not be run by politicians from elsewhere that have no direct stake in the maintenance of those spaces. And while I don’t think any government has the right to forbid people from engaging in any peaceful exchange, including drugs, I do in fact acknowledge the desires of community members to regulate the use of spaces they use in common. I also happen to think that, when it comes to public property, the effective owners are those who habitually use it, i.e. the neighboring residents. So I say put it up to the vote of the people living on that block and leave everyone else out of it!

More on police brutality in Baltimore

Following from my last post, I’ve been doing some more research into developments in the drug war in Baltimore and in particular how that relates to police brutality. Is police brutality carrying on the same as before Freddie Gray’s death, or is it getting better or worse? And is the war on drugs carrying on as before or getting more or less intense? I had posited a connection between the two the last time but I think this needs more discussion.

Is police brutality such a big issue?

It turns out that there is no clear data about police brutality and whether it is getting worse or better. This does not surprise me since violent crime in general is underreported (except for homicides), so reports of police violence must be similarly prone to error. What about the drug war? A Sun article back in 2016 reported that drug arrests in general had gone down. Since the homicide rate was going up at the same time, some, like former acting commissioner Anthony Barksdale, argued that retreating in the fight against drugs led directly to increased violence.

Similar arguments have been made by others, like Heather MacDonald. At some level it makes sense. Given that the illegal drug trade is so violent, clearing the streets of drug dealers may well clear them of the most violent elements in the neighborhood, and it may be easier police work to stop and search people in the street and lock them up for possession than to painstakingly examine crime scenes and track down witnesses to nail those who committed actual violence.

But there’s a chicken-and-egg problem here. Why is the drug trade so violent? Almost certainly because of prohibition! Prohibition itself raises the costs of the drugs, which makes it more lucrative. And since doing business involves evading and sometimes violently confronting the law, it attracts more violent and unscrupulous types. We saw the same thing during alcohol prohibition in the 1920s.

End violence by ending the war on drugs

So there’s reason to think that a retreat in the war on drugs will help reduce violence. What explains the correlation between more homicides and fewer arrests in the last couple of years in Baltimore? Well, at the same time, there was the whole Freddie Gray affair, with the protests and riots, it seems that police decided to stay out of people’s way. This can explain the fewer drug-related arrests, but can also explain fewer arrests for crimes involving people and property. While arresting people specifically for peaceful behavior like buying and selling has a questionable relationship to violent crime, there is some (though not clinching) evidence that turning a blind eye to small property crimes can encourage more serious violence. The aftermath of the Freddie Gray riots unfortunately led not only to lenience in drug prohibition but also lenience in the defense of basic property rights.

This does not mean the police can simply go back to their brutal ways before Freddie Gray. It was that pervasive brutality (or the perception thereof) that sparked the riots to begin with. How to fix relations between police and community, or whether that’s even possible, must be the subject of a later post.

Police corruption and the war on drugs

The latest police corruption scandal involves officer Spencer Moore, who was arrested last Tuesday in Baltimore County for drug trafficking. It’s ironic that, although there were several credible reports of Moore assaulting civilians, he ended up being arrested for engaging in a peaceful exchange of drugs. This focus on drug crimes above other crimes is ironically appropriate, given that this has been deliberate law enforcement policy since the 1990s.

As David Simon (the creator of the TV series “The Wire”) explained in a 2015 interview, the drug war arose from a widespread belief that clearing the streets of drugs would clear them of violence. This ignores the fact that drug prohibition itself is a leading cause of violence). Moreover, as Simon points out, the war on drugs severely damaged public trust in the police. Because of the drug war, investigating violent crime took a back seat to mass arrests of anyone who looked suspicious. It is unclear whether this helped reduce violent crime on the street, but it certainly led to more police brutality. This in turn set up the conditions for the Freddie Gray riots, loss of police confidence, and the recent upward spike in homicides.


So what do we do about this? Legalizing drugs would obviously solve the “problem” of cops breaking drug laws. Internal investigations of police corruption would then focus more on the cops who commit acts of brutality. But it’s worth noting that even de-escalating the war on drugs might go a long way towards solving the problem of police brutality. Simon suggests simple administrative remedies, such as not paying overtime for dealing with petty drug crimes. Certainly, the less often police try to arrest people, the fewer chances for abuse there will be. How this would affect violent crime more generally is another matter; solving that will probably require addressing several issues at once.

Libertarianism in the city, or more about why I’m blogging

Why am I starting this blog? Well, the first reason is that there doesn’t seem to be much of a libertarian voice in Baltimore City. I want people to know that libertarians have answers to the social and economic problems that exist here. I want people to know that the answer to social problems is not always more government action. On the contrary, often it is government that is the cause of problems. Prohibition of drugs and the violent gang warfare it generates is just one notorious example.

The second reason is to get myself to learn more about how libertarianism can inform urban policy. There is a definite sense that urbanism in general is alien to small-government libertarian values (see discussion here). Big cities even in conservative states appear to vote liberal, while limited-government voters seem to be restricted to the suburbs and small towns. I hope to show that this does not have to be the case. Cities in fact thrive under limited government.

Two good books on this are the classic “Death and Life of Great American Cities” by Jane Jacobs and the recent “Case for Market Urbanism” by Michael Lewyn. The former talks about how top-down city planning destroyed many thriving neighborhoods, while the second focuses on how suburban sprawl is the result of government intervention rather than market forces. It turns out that cities do not need to be planned form the top down. In fact, they grow organically from the bottom up. See also this discussion of the relationship between the non-libertarian Jacobs and libertarian thought.

The Baltimore Libertarian

Hello and welcome to the Baltimore Libertarian! I am a libertarian in Baltimore and came to realize there is not much of a libertarian voice in the city. So, in this blog, I will talk about local issues from a libertarian perspective. I talk a bit more about what libertarianism means in the About page.

I’ve decided to dedicate this site to H. L. Mencken, the Sage of Baltimore. The site icon that you see in the bookmarks bar is the picture of him you see below. He is a symbol of the link, however obscure today, between Baltimore and libertarianism. Mencken was in many ways a libertarian before that term came to be commonly used in its current meaning (though apparently in at least one place he called himself “an extreme libertarian”). He was skeptical of authority, loved liberty.

Libertarian economist Murray Rothbard wrote a very interesting piece not long after Mencken’s death about how ahead of his time Mencken was. For example, like many on the anti-FDR Old Right, Mencken opposed the New Deal. Unlike many of them, however, he opposed Prohibition and welcomed its repeal. He did not fit in the crude left-right categories of the 1920s and 1930s, just as libertarians do not fit in the left-right paradigm of today.

Photo of H. L. Mencken

Thanks especially to Tom Woods both for his free blogging starter kit that helped me get going and for just being an all-round inspiring voice for liberty. I will try to keep posts brief and focused on politically tractable solutions. I will also try to post at least once a week.

Thanks for reading the Baltimore Libertarian!