enhancing city life

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P R A E S I D I U M

A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

15.4 (Fall 2015)

 

The Polis vs. Progress

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A Return to the Castle: Enhancing City Life by Restricting Population
John R. Harris

Having delivered my son to the campus where he has lately transferred his college credits, my wife and I were invited to a parents’ meeting that turned out to have been ill planned.  The number of attendees was nearly twice that of available chairs in the room.  As I sweated out the hour (all too literally) and marveled at the heat generated by sedentary bodies, I recalled my own institution’s state-sponsored paranoia in such matters.  The “fire marshal” (a faceless abstraction whom I nonetheless always picture in a red helmet with a long brim bending over the neck) would never let us get away with packing a space like this, bless his oilskinned heart.

For some reason, that thought clung to me throughout the afternoon and the following day, when we abandoned my boy one more time to seek his adulthood among strangers and fought our way through Denver traffic.  I mused upon all the spaces that have mandatory, and perfectly sensible, occupation limits.  A dormitory has only so many chambers, and each of these accommodates only so many recumbent bodies.  A college campus has only so many teachers and classrooms: when the maximum is reached, further applicants must be shifted to a waiting list or go elsewhere.  Restaurants are the same way.  You can’t seat customers on the floor or in the parking lot.  They can line up out the door and await a table, or they can drive off in search of another watering hole.

This is all common sense.  No one, even in our insanity-friendly era (when “fairness”, for instance, seems to license robbing Peter to finance Paul’s deadbeat lifestyle), would think to demand that a school accept enrollees beyond its teaching capacity or a restaurant admit customers beyond its feeding capacity.  You go to school in order to learn, and to a restaurant in order to eat; why sabotage the transaction’s purpose by clogging its arteries?

You get on a road to travel.  Why, then, do we allow cities to grow so large that travel through them becomes impossible at certain times of day?  Dallas, Fort Worth, El Paso, Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Kansas City, Phoenix, Denver… I have seen them all within the past half-year, and they are visions of hell by mid-morning or mid-afternoon.  Why do we allow the room to grow so full that its occupants suffocate?

The crisis is much more than an inconvenience.  Traffic congestion fuels pollution.  It leads to costly, sometimes fatal accidents.  It causes tempers to flare and induces violent crimes on occasion.  It elevates blood pressure and damages long-term health.  It promotes a creeping existential despair that can make even a prosperous citizen yearn for retirement.

Why do we not, instead, distribute stickers or “passes” to as many vehicles as the city can effectively handle?  The steadily employed and owners of residences or businesses would automatically be accommodated; so would those who had graduated from a local high school or could otherwise demonstrate historical roots in the community. Others would receive their pass on a first-come, first-served basis.  Waiting lists would be created.  A specified number of visitors could be given one-day passes for a fee—or perhaps rental vehicles with passes could be made available.  Mass transit would enjoy enough patronage by this point that it could be operated smoothly and profitably through private enterprise rather than royally funded and incompetently run through the public sector.

The above provisions having been made (and the preceding paragraph is only the crudest of sketches, I realize), cars without passes would be impounded instantly.  As they awaited transport (for a horrible backlog would be sure to develop), they would sit locked and parked safely along the roadside.  The wait’s extreme protraction and tedium would be one way of discouraging violators—perhaps a more efficient way than the fine payable to recover their vehicle.

Naturally, the question of interstate traffic would present special problems.  What to do with cars that are just passing through?  What if they need to exit for fuel or a bite to eat?  Greedy municipal governments, frankly, have created this layer of the nightmare.  Eager to grab federal dollars and also to draw long-distance travelers within the Siren-song of local entrepreneurs, they have often insisted on routing the interstate system directly through their peaceful burrows.  Inevitably, commuters would start to use the same highways on their twice-a-day pilgrimage between work and home.  In a tragic irony typical of any chase after short-term gain, the interstate highway’s bisection of the city actually enhanced suburban sprawl, making commutes more numerous and lengthy; for as traffic within the city destroyed peaceful settings and surrounded village-like harmony with “fast-food alleys” and shopping malls, the more well-to-do quite understandably wanted to live farther away from it all.

Now, none of this can be directly addressed by a system of distributing passes: the weeds have rooted too deeply for just a little spadework to clear them.  Yet my proposal might induce further stages of cleaning out the garden.  I think the enforcement of pass-purchases could certainly be suspended on and around interstate highways; and though such a modification would not solve rush-hour headaches, it would begin to mitigate them.  Semi-resident “gypsies” looking for a bit of work for a month or two—fortune-seekers with no particular plan in mind—would be removed from the daily mix of commuters and interstate travelers.  The reduction would be significant.  Since such vagrant hordes are also proportionally well represented in the criminal class, life in the city would become safer and more pleasant with their removal.

It would not be at all antagonistic to observe that the previous paragraph’s formula targets illegal immigrants.  Indeed, it does: my proposal is a way for municipalities to strain out certain unwholesome elements that higher echelons of government ignore (despite legal and electoral mandates to take action).  In most of the large cities I named above, the influx of illegal immigrants, especially from Mexico, has been the major—and almost the exclusive—cause of extreme traffic congestion.  If we have a “moral obligation” to receive intruders so massively into our streets, then I suppose we must have the same obligation to let them occupy a spare chair at our table in the restaurant, or the spare bed in our hotel room, or the spare floor-space in our children’s classrooms (which can all be shifted outdoors to appease the fire marshal).  If one of these “obligations” is real, then all are so; if none of the latter three is real, then why is the first?

I do not claim that illegal immigrants are unwholesome people per se.  I claim that people who uproot themselves from their native environment to drift without any specific purpose or destination are unsettling, by definition, to stable areas of population.  The more restless and footloose of Appalachian pioneers certainly unsettled Cherokee villages.  Syrian refugees, though highly sympathetic figures, are destroying once-stable communities in their vicinity. Hoboes were unwelcome during the Depression because clothes seemed to disappear from clothes-lines in the towns where they passed.  To this day, the Irish know that things go missing when tinkers wander through.  Mexico should keep her Mexicans.  She needs them to stay home, where their ancestors were raised; she needs for their voices to demand the reform of corrupt local and national governments. Instead, she sends them north to plunder her rich neighbor and wire their earnings back (to the delight of arch-crook billionaire Carlos Slim, who charges extortionate rates on all such communications networks—a plunder delivered into his lap by well-bribed officials).

But the kind of person also discouraged by my system is the legal American citizen who just wants to “try her luck” in Austin, or Santa Fe, or Memphis… the “big city”.  Such homeless waifs often leave behind sad experiences only to hurl themselves into disastrous ones.  Urban drug addiction and prostitution are largely sustained by recruits of this order.  There are no “sanctuary cities” for them.  On the contrary, any city that doesn’t filter its incoming population is an abyss of despair.  Is sleamhain iad na leacacha an bhaile mhór, goes the Irish proverb: “Slick are the stones of the big city.”  Just because a person is bored to death in Mudville doesn’t mean that giving him a bus ticket to Chicago is an act of charity.  Without far more supervision than that single act implies, the “gift” is indeed very close to criminal fraud.

I hasten to add that very wealthy “refugees” from horribly congested northern cities (which have no room to expand, and which have increasingly waged war on the successful with punitive taxation policies) would have to take a number and stand in line along with everyone else. The responsibility for turning Austin, Denver, Santa Fe, Phoenix, and other major southwestern cities into pullulating termite mounds indeed rests with these transplants from socialist-inclined regions of the country as much as with ruthless developers. When such silver-spooned émigrés express their “gated-community generosity” in referenda, they turn their adoptive homes into the forementioned sanctuary cities, lobby for illegal-resident driver’s licenses, oppose identity checks at the polls, and so forth. The same sort of self-righteous hypocrite votes to deprive public schools of armed security guards while sending his own child to an elite campus safely removed from high-crime areas. Any program which would slow the unwarranted and unwelcome impact of such snobs on local politics would justify its existence on that ground alone, to my mind.

It should also go without saying that the program I have outlined is “exclusionist” only with regard to cars. The objective is to thin out traffic, not to target certain segments of the populace for banishment. Anyone who can survive in the city without automotive transportation, or who can borrow a friend’s vehicle as needed, is welcome to come on in and settle down. Given our cultural addiction to the private ownership of cars, however, merely restricting this single resource will have the practical effect of shuttling thousands and thousands of human beings to other locations.

Back to the city under a restricted-growth policy… local businesses would of course be forced to draw their employees from the community’s resources rather than to import cheaper workers from the outside.  If the costs of employing locally proved too high, then businesses would raise their prices, and the entire city’s cost of living would escalate.  In response, employed residents would be brought to realize that their wages had perhaps risen unrealistically high, and a healthy appreciation of economic reality would set in.  Daily life in this restricted community, in short, would be an education of the very practical and highly useful sort that Americans appear no longer to receive in school. The need for and operation of unions would be questioned. The absurdity of a minimum wage would become transparent.  The opportunities for business start-ups would proliferate.  The possibility of a mega-corporation’s moving in and driving small competitors under would be vastly reduced (since already employed labor would have to be lured away: no throng of drudging recruits could be smuggled through the gates).  Ambitious mavericks would be free to crank up their operations beyond the city limits, and then to restrict their evolving communities or not, as the local population chose; but within the walls of the restricted municipality, the rules that bestowed meaningful freedom upon inhabitants would not tolerate infraction.

The walls I mention are invisible, yet the resulting space is not at all unlike a medieval walled city—a castle.  People need walls (conceptual ones much more than solid ones) to live, prosper, and be happy.  They should be able to know and trust their neighbors.  They should be able to occupy a house more than two or three years.  They should be able to get from A to B without severe risk of life and limb.  They should be able to breath reasonably clean air and drink reasonably clean water. Politically progressive solutions jeopardize all of these aspects of the civilized life as much as any nineteenth-century robber baron’s slave village of factory workers. They do so in the name of “diversity”—a lever that overthrows the mainstream cultural traditions and extended-family structure that leftist social engineers so loathe, but also topples the environmental rhythms and colorful mom-and-pop shops that they claim to adore.

Since the “diversity” crowd has gained a throttle-hold upon national politics and (to a great extent) the federal court system, the duty falls to more regional levels of government to raise walls, close gates, and declare limits.  Unless and until we are required to allow vagrants free entry into our kitchens and a free go at our refrigerators, our property rights and basic need of health and safety appear to have enough purchase upon common sense that population restrictions could be enacted.  Why wait for states to do the heavy lifting?  Why not begin at the nuclear level of government?

John Harris is founder and president of The Center for Literate Values.  He has taught English and the classical languages at several colleges throughout the southeastern United States.

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