August 14, 2002

SPEAKING OF EMAIL: When InstaPundit was new, I tried a feature called “From the Mailbag.” But that was stupid, since there was no mailbag — and “From the Mail Subdirectory on the Hard Drive” just didn’t have the same ring to it. But while I’m replying to email, I should note that I’ve gotten a number of emails from people who think Max Sawicky is wrong (see below) but that I shouldn’t have said the District of Columbia isn’t ready for self-government.

Well, whether I should have said it or not is somebody else’s problem. But it’s true. At least, the District isn’t ready to be a state, and it’s not clear that it’s even capable of being a self-governing city with any expectation of success. And this shouldn’t be a surprise because it’s inherent in the character of a federal district that serves as the seat of government.

The dysfunctional character of recent DC government is beyond dispute. City services are dreadful. (When I lived there, ambulances routinely took 12 hours to arrive — the joke was that if you had a heart attack you should call Domino’s. They’d have a guy there in 30 minutes, and you could ask him to drive you to the hospital.) The homicide clearance rate by the DC police is rotten, and even in a high-profile case like Chandra Levy’s they’re notably inept, as Josh Marshall has pointed out. (I once got a ticket for “driving through a flashing yellow light,” though, which necessitated an afternoon at the DMV before I pointed out to a judge that that wasn’t against the law. And the parking enforcement people had a tendency to ticket legally parked cars with out-of-state plates. I saw this myself.) City officials have gold-plated staffs and offices, but citizens — many of whom are poor and depend heavily on city services — go unserved, or badly served. Roads are potholed and crappy, but taxes are high. Things are somewhat better, I think, than when I lived there — and I lived in the heart of the District, just off of Logan Circle — under Marion Barry, but not all that much.

The statehood issue is a bit silly, and mostly pushed by people hoping to pick up a couple of Senate seats on the cheap. DC has a smaller population (by better than 100,000 people) than metropolitan Knoxville. There are probably a couple of existing states with smaller populations, but that’s not an argument for creating more unpopulous states. What’s more, the Constitution specificially makes the seat of the federal government a district that’s not a part of any state, for reasons of structure and federalism that make sense to me — and that, even if they didn’t, are in the Constitution.

More importantly — and this is why it doesn’t work well as a city, either — DC has a captive main industry and a huge transient population in proportion to its size. One check on lousy government is when business threatens to move away; that won’t happen here. The other is close attention by voters who feel they have a stake, and who have the political skills and interests to pay attention and make a difference. But a lot of the population that in most areas would be most active in civic affairs is transient — officeholders and staff and other people who won’t be there for a long time, and know it. And there’s no tax base. DC, even if it were a state, couldn’t constitutionally tax its main industry, the federal government, and would depend on in-lieu-of-taxes federal largesse, making its financial independence notional regardless.

I don’t think that these problems exist because people in DC are stupid. I think they’re the consequence of the way the place is set up. The voters (and people there do vote, though the Financial Control Board and other structures set up to clean up the financial mess — slightly — undercut that, but the problems certainly arose during a time when the voters were electing who they wanted) don’t pay the city’s bills. Bad government won’t leave voters unemployed, or forced to follow their employers elsewhere. DC is comparatively small and insular, and small and insular places are usually badly governed. The fact that the city government will get less scrutiny than it would most other places because the federal government sucks up most of the press attention doesn’t help either.

DC would be better run, I suspect, under the old Congressional system. It’s true that people would be denied the vote in municipal elections then, but judging by the miserable turnout rates in municipal elections generally, that’s not a right that Americans hold especially dear. And for those who do, the opportunity for residence in a bona fide state is just a couple of miles away.

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