George Will argues that Detriot was killed by democracy.

Detroit, which boomed during World War II when industrial America was “the arsenal of democracy,” died of democracy. Today, among the exculpatory alibis invoked to deflect blame from the political class and the docile voters who empowered it, is the myth that Detroit is simply a victim of “de-industrialization.” In 1950, however, Detroit and Chicago were comparable — except Detroit was probably wealthier, as measured by per capita income. Chicago, too, lost manufacturing jobs, to the American South, to south of the border, to South Korea and elsewhere. But Chicago discerned the future and diversified. It is grimly ironic that Chicago’s iconic street is Michigan Avenue.

Detroit’s population, which is 62 percent smaller than in 1950, has contracted less than the United Auto Workers membership, which once was 1.5 million and now is around 390,000. Auto industry executives, who often were invertebrate mediocrities, continually bought labor peace by mortgaging their companies’ futures in surrenders to union demands. Then city officials gave their employees — who have 47 unions, including one for crossing guards — pay scales comparable to those of autoworkers. Thus did private-sector decadence drive public-sector dysfunction — government negotiating with government-employees’ unions that are government organized as an interest group to lobby itself to do what it wants to do: Grow.

Democratic forms alone are insufficient. Majority rule–apart from stable governing institutions and a moral consensus that tempers, moderates, and directs individual and corporate action–is a recipe for disorder and collapse. An extreme example: a couple nights ago we watched The Oxbow Incident with Henry Fonda. The language of democracy is present. Majority rule is respected. Injustice is the outcome.

The goal of any democratic society must be to cultivate and preserve the pre-democratic mores and structures upon which democracy depends. Once they are gone, the story of Detriot will be, with minor variations, the story of us all. Given the entitlement crisis ahead, perhaps the story has already been written.

Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture


  1. According to Edmund Burke, manners (in the old sense of public morality/customs) were more important than laws. Much has been made of the truism that politics is downstream from culture – and culture is much more than popular culture. It is derived from the idea of a worshiping community. Culture is about what is valued, what comes first.

    Detroit certainly has suffered from a corrupt one-party rule and rent seeking clients – but more than anything it suffered from a breakdown of manners – the same type of breakdown that is present to some degree all over American society – regardless of political party or economic base.

  2. On a good day, George Will makes sense. He was one of the very few, when housing prices tanked, to ask the salient question, “For a newlywed couple looking for their first house, do you think the current market is a PROBLEM?” That was one of George Will’s good days.

    This is not one of George Will’s good days. Chicago was never a one-industry town the way Detroit was. Detroit was a rather minor border town until the auto industry centered there. A rather small proportion of the population, even in 1950, could claim grand-parents and great-grand-parents born in Detroit, or even in Michigan. The Reuther brothers were born in West Virginia. In the long run, we may be better off with the auto industry scattered across the country. More diversity and all that, but it sure hurt the huge auto bubble that was Detroit.

    Chicago had been building itself up since well before the Civil War. It had a number of industries to lose, and it lost a good deal of all of them, but over a longer span of time, and in response to different pressures: meatpacking, steel, and a variety of manufacturing for a variety of different markets. Also, it was a trans-shipping point for a much wider area than Detroit. So there’s really not much comparison.

    The Big Three used to have management with spines of steel. They got their butts well and roundly kicked by the United Auto Workers, and well deserved it. Although they may have appeared supine afterward, they fought tooth and nail against the one innovation Walter Reuther proposed that would have changed the whole nature of unionism in the American economy: He proposed that during the life of the contract, the price of a car should not be increased. They somehow found the spine to shoot that one down.

    We all know the plutocrat propaganda line on unions: ‘when they drive wages up it drives prices up and then it makes everything more expensive for everybody.’ Well, yeah, or it could come out of profits. It could be reallocating how much of the net revenue goes to labor and how much of the net revenue goes to capital. Reuther’s proposal wouldn’t have choked off ALL profit. It just would have been LESS profit. The “wage price cycle” is a self-fulfilling prophecy engendered by the unwillingness of capital to actually take a smaller cut.

    Today, the George Wills of the world are crying foul that the public sector unions deliver higher pay and better benefits than comparable work in the private sector. But by the same token, what is wrong with public sector workers being paid AS MUCH AS workers in the private sector? There is a logical disconnect in the argument here. Are taxpayers entitled to have civil service employees work for LESS, as a kind of extra tax on doing the work of the public? You know what happens when such logic is applied to police officers… it encourages bribe-taking and other corruption to make up the difference.

    Detroit was killed by capitalism. Now its quite possible that some form of distributism would have been a better alternative than an oligopolistic industry with a union movement that remained in an advanced position when most of the CIO tide receded. But so long as the masters of capital aren’t willing to share the benefits, its rather difficult to inspire the wage labor employees to share the risks.

  3. “Detroit was killed by capitalism?” Okay, but it was also created by capitalism. And now that the city’s economic prosperity has gone the way of all flesh, the remaining workers and government employees are finally, totally free of those damned Robber Barons and can go about building new industries and civil structures of their own, unfettered by the Financial Shackles of the Evil Capitalist Vultures. I’m sure we all look forward to seeing that new egalitarian utopia arise from the Ashes of Capitalism, any day now.

    The comparison between Detroit and Chicago seems odd because it rests on some bizarre presumption that Chicago is doing A-OK. Maybe it is in comparison to Detroit, but that is saying approximately nothing at this point. Over the past 4th of July weekend there were 47 separate shootings in Chicago, eleven homicides, and Representative Monique Davis actually suggested that Gov. Pat Quinn mobilize the National Guard to stabilize the city’s violence. Again, one wishes the city of Detroit the best of luck in re-ascending such heights of civic achievement.

    For that matter, may God have mercy on us all.

  4. You might even say… Detroit was built to fail by capitalism. That is, it was a looooooong bubble, but it was a bubble. Hey everybody, come work in our booming factories! People flood in from all over the place. OK y’all, we’re moving production to Guatemala, seeya suckers! The city can decide what to do with our abandoned derelict production facilities and finance the job because WE’RE OUTTA HERE! The only reason the Evil Capitalist Vultures are the ones with money to invest is because they suck every dime they can out of the process for themselves. Now I will be the first to admit, it does not come naturally to an industrial working class to save and invest money. It comes naturally to spend it all and let the good times roll. And that will kill any enterprise. Building something like Mondgragon takes a tremendous amount of education and acculturation, but it obviously can be done. (Russell Arben Fox and John Medaille, where are you? We need to get this off the “workers of the world vs. the Job Givers track.)

  5. To assert that Detroit was “killed by capitalism” is to utterly ignore the corruption and self-serving idiocy that has ministered the once grand city to its abject state. As we well know, corruption, but more importantly, idiocy have no political affiliation.

  6. As America’s defacto conservative-in-chief, George Will accepts as a moral imperative the duty of casting his critical gaze upon the political landscape in search of fertile ground upon which to lay his Template of Capitalism. Through such a narrow lens an elephant can appear to be a mountain, and Detroit might look very much like Chicago. Too much democracy? Seriously? I would suggest to Mr. Will that to avoid such sweeping generalizations he should instead fold up his template and apply Occam’s Razor: the simplest explanation is usually the correct one. In the case of Detroit, I would look to corruption and mismanagement, two conditions that operate irrespective of party or ideology. Mr. Will’s assessment does, however, illustrate the conservative’s distaste for Democracy, which he at times seems to view as an irksome speed bump on the free market highway.

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