What Government Destroys, Economic Freedom Can Rebuild

Back in the late ’60s South Bronx in New York looked like a war zone, with ruins after burned-out apartment buildings, a population living under appalling conditions, rampant crime and widespread despair. The left was hard at work at the time in New York, expanding government incursions into the private sector in every which way possible. The devastation  of South Bronx was one example of their accomplishments.

One of the left’s long-time weapons against a working housing market has been rent control, something the Swedish economist Assar Lindbeck  noted in his 1971 book on the political economy of the left. Lindbeck understood what had led to the decline, decay and destruction of the once-thriving South Bronx neighborhood, and summarized his analysis by noting that rent control can do almost as much harm to a city as the hydrogen bomb.

Lindbeck took a lot of flak for this, but his analysis still stands. Rent control is but one of an arsenal of weapons that statist politicians use as they advance their agenda: the welfare state. As can be seen in virtually every big city in America, the welfare state has formidable destructive powers. It turns off people’s economic and social instincts, it destroys entrepreneurial incentives and rewards sloth and indolence. As the following story from the Baltimore Sun shows, the end result can be no way less destructive than war and tyranny. But the story also offers hope – and once again proves that where the welfare state has created nothing but poverty, crime and lost hope, the private sector can bring back pride and prosperity:

Earl Johnson’s boots crunch broken glass from liquor bottles as he walks down an alley in East Baltimore’s Oliver neighborhood. He is just blocks from the site of the firebombing of a family who called the police on area drug dealers and were killed for it and just yards from some of the most memorable scenes of urban decay in “The Wire.” At his side are Rich Blake, 32, a Marine Corps veteran, and Jeremy Johnson, 34, a Navy veteran, who like Earl — who is no relation — are on a different kind of mission. They’ve come to this neighborhood once synonymous with the worst of Baltimore to help it become something better. They call this mission “Operation Oliver.” … They point to progress — refurbished homes, a painted playground — and to vacant houses and trash-filled alleys that still need work. “A lot of the conditions from places we’re deployed to, Iraq and Afghanistan, are not that much different from the conditions here in Oliver,” says Blake, executive director of The 6th Branch, one of several nonprofits involved in Operation Oliver.

Well in line with the observation Assar Lindbeck made 40 years ago.

Operation Oliver, which began in July, is a one-year commitment to the neighborhood, the veterans say. It involves cleaning up alleys, but also rehabbing homes, helping residents find jobs, painting murals, organizing volunteers and notifying police about illegal dumping sites and drug dealing. To say the idea has caught on would be an understatement. Word of the yearlong, intensive service project has spread throughout Maryland — and nationally.

Everything is based on either volunteer efforts or, as with the home rehabilitation, privately funded.

The impact is noticeable. Close to 50 homes are being rehabbed through Earl Johnson’s organization, the One Green Home at a Time Foundation, another of the partners. Five tons of trash have been hauled away, an area that was once a site of prostitution is now a playground, an organic garden is planned for a weed-filled lot and the veterans take residents on weekly job-hunting trips.

God bless Earl Johnson and the other veterans for their commitment, which comes at a price for them:

The veterans’ massive effort hasn’t come without push-back. Earl Johnson, 30, who moved into the neighborhood in July, says he’s been threatened and his wife considered leaving him. The veterans’ approach — hands on, no community meetings — has made established leaders bristle. Nina Harper, executive director of the Oliver Community Association, says she supports the veterans’ work but is critical of what she sees as a lack of communication. “I can’t stop anybody from doing what they want,” she says. “I wish they would work with the community association.”

The Oliver Community Association does not appear to have a working website, and allegedly is a very small operation consisting of 1-4 people. Given that is has been up and running since 1993 it is fair to assume that the men behind Operation Oliver thought it would not be worth the while to work with them. Competition between private entrepreneurs always works, even when it comes to volunteering and something as relatively intangible as “community development”.

This story from Baltimore, one of America’s most run-down cities, is encouraging. Even more encouraging is that Operation Oliver is not the only one of its kind in the country. Another recent example is the revitalization of Cleveland’s rundown East Side.

What government destroys, economic freedom can rebuild.