The Civil Society Solution
September 16, 2011
Back in the 1980s, in a community bordering Detroit, there was a large Baptist church — the main auditorium seated 5,000 people — that refused to allow blacks to join. It wasn’t until 1987 that it got around to changing this policy.
The name of the church is not important; what is important is remembering that race relations in metro Detroit were ugly not all that long ago. Bigotry was deep and stubborn. Say what you will about the city, its political leadership and its racial resentments. It’s not like there wasn’t provocation.
A lot of foolish things have been done to both promote and forestall racial integration, and a lot of hurt feelings remain all around. But at this point, it should be obvious to people of good will that the primary task for Detroit and the surrounding metropolitan area is the reintegration of Detroit into the local, regional and global economy.
Detroit’s astonishing decline is well documented. The effect of the city’s deterioration on the suburbs should be clear as well. The city’s shameful condition discourages talented people from moving there, and the city’s thousands of unemployed and nearly unemployable young people represent a waste of ability and a burden on government social agencies. The loss of homes, businesses and infrastructure as Detroit is abandoned adds to the burden.
The political leadership of Detroit has much to answer for: the entrenched corruption of the Young administration, the extravagant corruption of the Kilpatrick years, the miserable failure of the Detroit Public Schools. There is little evidence of demand for root-and-branch reform among Detroit’s voters. The appeal of despair is strong. Is it possible that this is what Detroiters really want?
The people of Michigan are prone to treating every problem as primarily political in nature and looking first for political solutions. It can be tempting to treat culture as a product of laws. Actually it’s more likely the opposite — change the culture of alienation, and the politics will come around.
If the people of metro Detroit can find a way to cooperate, the city can be rebuilt. It will take decades, but we could start tomorrow and see progress within a few years.
Regardless, Detroit cannot be rebuilt based on an oppositional culture of grievances, no matter how justified those grievances might be. Detroit’s only hope is reconciliation with larger American society. And if material conditions in the city are to improve, the restoration of ordinary commerce — buying and selling and hiring and working — will be indispensable.
Economics and geography being what they are, the city will first have to strengthen commercial ties with the people and companies in the suburbs. And therein lies the challenge.
Up to now, the region tried a wide range of government-led, top-down solutions. None has worked. We cannot rely on government-run welfare, because bureaucracy is prone to indifference. Governmental redistribution of wealth leads to resentments; the taxes needed to pay for it are always too high for taxpayers, and the benefits are always too stingy for the beneficiaries.
Nor is there much hope in central planning. Detroit prided itself on its planning during the late ’50s and early ’60s. Since then, not one grand urban renewal plan has worked as intended. And the political establishment is a stubborn obstacle; in 2003 the mayor and the DPS scuttled a proposal from philanthropist Bob Thompson to use $200 million of his own money to create 15 charter schools that would have given Detroit children a chance at a quality education.
No, if the divisions of metro Detroit are to be overcome, it will not be the product of a government program; it will be the product of people choosing on their own to reach out. We need to find a way around the city’s poisonous politics. Churches, extended families, private charities— these are the building blocks of the civil society that free people have always relied on to provide support for the suffering and opportunities for the striving.
The rebuilding of Detroit will start when families, charities and churches step forward and reclaim the role that state and local governments have taken from them. Thousands of young men and women in the city lack access to a decent school system. Private scholarships and financial aid can provide them with quality, low-cost private educations. Partnerships between churches and nonprofits that cross municipal borders can do a far better job of providing aid and job training to families in need.
It is essential that as much of this help as possible be done on a person-to-person basis. Government cannot be the mediator, and even established charities must resist the temptation to centralize things. If the alienation is to be broken down, Detroiters need to see that they have more friends than enemies in larger American society. The more personal contact there is between residents of the city and the suburbs, the better.
As the people of metro Detroit strengthen their civil-society muscles, state and local government can withdraw into its proper role of providing security and infrastructure. As the burdens of overgrown governments grow lighter, not just in the city but throughout the region, new businesses can take root and new jobs can be created.
Most of the private institutions we need already exist. Now we need them to take the lead. If Detroit has a hope, it is in the rediscovery of commerce and charity. It is this virtuous cycle of generosity, freedom and economic growth that will rebuild the city and revive the entire region.