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Feature 06.21.2021 5 minutes

The Municipal Deep State

Beck & Stone Progressive Governance

Blue-city rule puts government managers between elected officials and the rank and file.

Seth Barron’s new book, The Last Days of New York, is in many ways a study of public administration, and one which teaches several lessons relevant beyond the New York City context. How do progressives govern? In New York City, progressives don’t need to pretend they respect conservative opinion. If “rule will show the man,” unchecked rule must be doubly revealing.

At present, disorder is progressives’ most vexing governance challenge. This is illustrated just as plainly by the Jazmine Headley incident Barron describes as the street crisis in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood. The Jazmine Headley incident centered around a “victimless crime.” Those are some of the hardest crimes to fight. When public safety authorities concern themselves with “victimless” crimes, that seems to violate John Stuart Mill’s “harm principle”: why should behavior that directly harms no one be a punishable offense?

We apply less scrutiny to beneficiary-less acts of charity than we do victimless crimes. Consider recycling: No one in particular benefits when a plastic bottle is placed in a recycling tub instead of a trash can, and maybe no one benefits at all. People do it because they thereby will into existence the world they want to live in. Most of us do not want to live in a world where people shoot heroin in public parks and sprawl over sidewalks and the floors of public buildings. We could survive in a world like that, but not thrive. Our quality of life would be low. Another term for “victimless crime” is “quality of life offense.” Informal norms should be the front line of defense against public disorder, but when those break down, it’s incumbent on public authorities to step in.

In this passage and others, Barron explains how New York City keeps losing battle after battle against public disorder. But it has not yet lost the war, for the “defund” movement has stalled. One reason for this inability to gain traction is the municipal workforce’s demographic profile. One group frequently victimized by victimless crimes are those who work in public places. Who do people think cities employ as security guards at welfare centers—the Koch brothers and their scions? Government jobs are the backbone of the black working class: school departments, hospitals, the social services and also police departments. Since the George Floyd incident and subsequent unrest, many black Americans spoke up in defense of cops based on the fact that someone in their family was a cop. Affluent white liberals who don’t personally know any cops will look at these matters much differently. Government jobs become more attractive in proportion to the lack of good private sector jobs available to adults with modest levels of educational attainment. Were jobs in steel factories more abundant, we might see fewer black people working for police departments, but that won’t happen anytime soon. Deindustrialization places a ceiling on support for Black Lives Matter.

Public policies that leave public disorder unchecked hurt working-class Americans. “Restorative justice” initiatives prevent teachers from suspending disruptive students for fear of creating a “school to prison pipeline.” Restrictions on civil commitment force transit workers to supervise subway cars full of deranged street people. Efforts to stop police from dismantling homeless encampments risk leaving sanitation workers to go it alone. Progressives loathe the idea of setting the underclass against the working class when what those two groups should be doing is uniting against privileged elites, but expressions of abstract political commitment are different from the day-to-day obligations of governance. Running a government routinely entails taking sides between the security guard making $40,000 a year and the welfare mother having a bad day.

We have security guards at welfare centers to protect the integrity of the welfare state, which has rules governing eligibility for means-tested benefits. We could simply distribute child care vouchers and welfare checks to everyone who claimed they needed them, but that would create risk of fraud, which is bad for the welfare state’s reputation. Welfare fraud comes up fairly often in journalistic accounts of low-income culture. Progressives are not conscience-stricken by the idea of welfare fraud, because they figure only desperate people try to “get over.” But as a question of real-world political tactics, anyone serious about trying to expand the welfare state must care about its reputation. Verifying eligibility for means-tested benefits sometimes takes time. Waiting to obtain benefits can be tense.

Barron usefully draws our attention to what he calls New York City’s “municipal deep state.” We think of the federal deep state as having arisen based on progressives’ belief that their agenda is too important to hinge on electoral outcomes. Extra-constitutional means must be developed when constitutional means are unavailing. Though New York City progressives have no trouble winning elections, there’s still a deep state, a cohort of government managers in between the rank and file and elected officials. One important function they serve is to provide a progressive conscience for when electeds are at risk of going wobbly. New York’s deep state actors amplify, for Democratic politicians, the reputational consequences of departing from progressive norms. Probably, that’s also a function that the D.C.-based deep state performs. Is there a similarly assertive group that serves as the conservative conscience for Republican politicians?

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