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Chicago's Headwinds

Interview with William Voegeli at City Journal

Photo by Sawyer Bengtson / Unsplash

San Francisco seems to be in the midst of perhaps a partial reconsideration of criminal-justice policy. Do you see any prospects for Chicago voters similarly seeing the light as the public safety situation continues to deteriorate?

One might hope that San Francisco’s recall of district attorney Chesa Boudin marks the beginning of a trend that will see other cities return to vigorous policing and prosecution. And it may—but it hasn’t yet. A similar effort to recall Los Angeles County district attorney George Gascon recently failed to make the November 2022 ballot due to an insufficiency of valid signatures on petitions. Boudin-like prosecutors have won election and reelection in Chicago and Philadelphia; New Yorkers are all too familiar with Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg’s reckless ideas about law enforcement.

Basketball coach Bobby Knight used to disdain talk about the “will to win.” What mattered, he said, was the will to do what winning demands. Voters in America’s cities face the same question: everybody wants safer streets. But do people want the government to do what is necessary to restore the level of public safety that prevailed ten or 20 years ago? This is far from clear. As I said in my recent Claremont Review of Books article, the question about urban public safety is overwhelmingly one that will be debated and settled within the Democratic Party. Democratic voters dominate urban politics, and city voters dominate the Democratic Party. Each city will be as safe as its voters demand, and its prosecutors and police as vigorous as its voters permit. This is especially true, I argued, because people who want more public safety than their neighbors do will often wind up moving to more law-abiding and law-enforcing jurisdictions. This pattern of geographic sorting means that the voters left behind in big cities are self-selected for tolerating crime and disdaining police.

Economically, do you think it’s possible for Chicago to draw lessons, for example, from Columbus, Ohio and the midwestern manufacturing renaissance?

The general lessons of successful cities—strive to make your city an attractive place to live and do business, one where the benefits of living exceed the costs of living—are not esoteric. Cities’ failures to adhere to these basics are like dieters’ failures to lose weight: it’s easy to know the right course of action but hard to commit to the discipline it requires. As for more specific policies, even if a philosopher-king could choose and implement public policies free from political pressures, it would be hard for Chicago to emulate the successes enjoyed by other cities, all of which have different economic situations. But when policymaking is constrained by voters, as it always is, the challenge of restoring or sustaining economic vitality is much greater. This November, for example, Illinois voters may well pass an initiative that makes union membership a fundamental right under the state constitution. It would, in effect, make it impossible for Illinois to pass a right-to-work law, a constraint on unionization that the adjacent and economically healthier states of Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, and Wisconsin have enacted.

Read the rest at City Journal