“We get what we deserve” is a common phrase that describes everything that happens to us, from the behavior of our children, to the money we make, to the political leaders we elect. The concept comes from Luke, writing in the New Testament, “…for we receive the due reward of our deeds.” That phrase – not the Biblical one, but that which has become common usage – should have special meaning for the 76% of New York City residents who did not bother to go to the polls last November 4th. Recent polls suggest that even the few that did go to the polls may be having second thoughts.
The press declared Bill de Blasio’s victory a “landslide,” in that he won about 72% of the votes cast. The new Mayor took it as a mandate, just as did his fellow populist Democrat in the White House in 2008. The fact is, though, turnout in New York City was a record low, the lowest since “mid-20th Century,” according to the New York Times. His Republican opponent was the competent, but uninspiring Joseph Lhota. A 24% turnout meant that only 17% of New York’s eligible voters actually cast their ballots for him, hardly a mandate; though an early endorsement from President Obama made him comfortable in saying, “I won!”
The problem with ideologues, as we have learned from President Obama, is that their “hope and change” prevents then from focusing on practical problems. In their desire to see things as they wish them to be, they ignore the world as it is. People who walk with their heads in the clouds cannot avoid stepping into puddles. In his first few weeks, Mr. de Blasio has stepped into a lot of puddles. Early on, his SUV was seen speeding and failing to stop at two stop signs, when there was no emergency. A day or so later a NY Post photographer caught him jaywalking across a Brooklyn street. Neither offense was unduly serious, except that just days before he had proposed traffic safety initiatives. His attitude was typically elitist: ‘do as I say, not as I do.’
A promise of his campaign was universal pre-K and expanded afterschool programs. The plan was to pay for it by slapping an extra tax on all New Yorkers making more than $500,000 a year. It was described as a way to address income inequality, which has become the scourge of progressive Leftists. It was never explained why having three-year olds begin school a year earlier will eliminate income inequality. While pre-K polls well, raising taxes does not, especially in other parts of the state where taxpayers would be paying for something they are not receiving. As much as anything, pre-K is simply a means of adding to the roles of teachers’ unions.
The portrayal of the Mayor shoveling snow off the stoop of his Brooklyn townhouse was not a spontaneous reaction. It had been preplanned and showed up on his schedule: “7:00 – 7:20AM: snow shoveling front of residence with Dante de Blasio,” according to a copy of his schedule obtained by the Post under a Freedom of Information Act request. Following the January 20th blizzard, which covered New York with six inches of snow, the Upper East Side (between 59th and 79th Streets) went unplowed for several days, creating cries of class warfare. On February 12, following a widely anticipated storm that dumped between six and ten inches of snow, the mayor made the executive decision to keep the schools open. While Mr. de Blasio blamed his lack of preparedness on the National Weather Service, it was a storm that had been anticipated by everyone except the Mayor and School Chancellor Carmen Fariña.
Other peculiarities, such as eating pizza with a fork – a no-no for any New Yorker – and saying he wants to shut down horse-drawn carriage rides through Central Park are not critical enough to warrant anything other than wonder that a “man of the people” could be so out of touch with the people.
On the other hand, his attempt to muzzle charter schools indicates a man at odds with the very concept of freedom of choice and what it means in terms of education to the poor and minorities in our society. It shows an ideologue divide in the Democrat Party, with one side consisting of former New York City councilmember Eva Moskowitz, now the force behind the Success Academy network of schools, and Governor Cuomo, and with Bill de Blasio and teachers’ unions on the other. The City’s public schools have about 1.2 million students, with 94% in 1,700 traditional schools, and 70,000 students in 183 Charter schools. Another 840 private and religious schools serve about 210,000 students. There are 50,000 children on wait-lists for Charter schools in New York. Seats are assigned by lottery. Very wealthy families obviously have a choice as to where to send their children. But, given the cost of private schools, anyone making less than a six-figure income does not.
Charter schools, as mentioned, are public schools. Most operate in the City’s poorest sections. In New York City, they receive approximately $13,500 per student versus the roughly $19,000 per student received by traditional public schools. (The $19,000 does not include the huge liabilities the residents of New York are obligated for under union contracts.) Most Charters are not unionized, giving principals more discretion in terms of promoting good teachers and firing bad ones. They can keep the children in school for longer hours, as union work rules don’t apply to the teachers. Most receive some private support. And most have been very successful. Middle School children in Success Academy of Harlem, one of the schools Mr. de Blasio wanted to close, scored in the top 1% on city-wide test in overall achievement. Fifth graders in the school ranked first in New York State in math, placing them ahead of children in Rye, Bronxville and Scarsdale. Ninety-seven percent of the children at Harlem’s Success Academy are minorities and 80% qualify for lunch assistance. And the closing of this school is something supported by the Mayor, teacher’s unions and Hazel Dukes, the head of the state NAACP! Their attitude is incomprehensible. What would be worse for these children than denying them a quality education?
Public schools, especially in the poorer sections of urban areas, have been failing our children for years. Charter schools and voucher programs are a way of introducing competition into this otherwise monopolistic arena. Parents understand, which is why Charter schools have become so popular. Obviously, not all succeed. But, unlike regular public schools the effect of a free market is that Charters are allowed to fail when they don’t perform. Unions, which began with honorable motivations, have become sinecures for bad teachers, as well as good ones. Additionally, administration costs at public schools have sky-rocketed, another consequence of union influence.
In limiting “stop and frisk’, Mr. de Blasio has compromised security. There is no question that a police force untethered can be dangerous to the rights of individuals. It must be guarded against. But a principal role of government is to keep its people safe – that means law-abiding citizens, not criminals. So, like all agencies whose duty it is to keep us safe, they must balance the need for security against infringing on personal rights. The latest edition of al Qaeda’s English-language on-line magazine, “Inspire,” makes obvious that the War on Terror persists. The magazine urges its readers to attack the United States with car bombs. It includes photos of New York’s Times Square area. Those who take arms against the United States are not criminals to be treated in accord with criminal justice laws; they are enemy combatants and should be treated as such.
Because of the nature of man, there is always the risk of losing liberty. The threat can take many forms. The war against Nazism and Fascism seventy years ago conditioned people to expect that that peril would always come from the Right. But totalitarianism does not distinguish between the Right and Left. Western intellectuals, in the 1930s and 1940s chose to deny, or look the other way, even as evidence of Stalin’s slave labor camps and mass killings became increasingly too obvious to ignore. It was inconvenient to many on the Left at that time who believed in the innate fairness of Soviet Communism. We must not fall victim to such siren calls. We must be vigilant of despotism from whatever direction it might appear.
The best line of defense against threats of autocracy, no matter from whence it comes, is education. An informed citizenry is critical to the perpetuation of a democracy such as ours. It requires participation and the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s actions. Its strength is its people. It is fragile in that a populist may subvert it in the name of helping the oppressed. There is no form of government that is perfect. There never will be. But the government that has worked best throughout history is the one that operates under the rule of law, that protects property rights and defends the rights of the individual, and one that promotes equality of opportunity. Embedded in its essence is the belief that no one person or small claque of elites can make better decisions than people acting individually – in their own interest, as Adam Smith said – and markets operating freely.
The Mayor, like our President, is representative of a culture that believes people are incapable of deciding what is in their best interest. From the perspective of the elite, the people require leaders who are better educated and more intelligent. It is a supercilious attitude born of arrogance that creates dependency on the part of the governed. It is, in my opinion, the single biggest risk to democracy. The Left sees the future as it is portrayed in “The Life of Julia,” which is cradle-to-grave care for women. They see it in the “pajama boy,” the ad that urged the young to sign up for the Affordable Care Act. Like “Julia,” it, too, promotes and idealizes the concept of the young growing dependent on a benign government. It may seem comforting today, but is frightening for anyone who has read history.
There are those who claim that Mr. de Blasio means well, that he is interested in the poor and minorities and that the trappings of power mean nothing to him. But power is seductive and most people cannot avoid its potion-like effects. The Mayor’s attitude thus far indicates he has drunk the Kool-Aid. That he has stumbled is an indication that the people of New York are suspicious of a man who puts ideology ahead of the practical necessities for running America’s greatest city. The people of New York may have got what they deserved, but Bill de Blasio’s debacle is good for them, even as it is not for him.
The views expressed on austriancenter.com are not necessarily those of the Austrian Economics Center.
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