THE Environmental Protection Agency is the most enthusiastic supporter of "unfunded mandates," regulations Washington creates and then asks cities to pay for. [EPA] forced cities to pay $3.6 billion just to comply with the Clean Water Act. According to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, unfunded mandates will cost cities $54 billion between 1994 and 1998 -- money that will have to be collected from taxpayers or diverted from more useful purposes.
The federal government plays its part in ensuring urban degradation. Ideally the best way to reduce crime in central cities is to encourage job-creating enterprises, but the failure of Jack Kemp's efforts during the Bush administration shows Washington isn't any good at pushing people to become enterprising and entrepreneurial. However, the federal government can fight crime in the ghetto by reducing or eliminating barriers to entrepreneurship such as mandatory benefit packages, punitive Social Security taxes and the Davis-Bacon Act. Repealing mandatory minimum sentencing for non-violent offenders and decriminalizing drugs would also free up space in jails for hardened criminals -- violent muggers, armed robbers, murderers and rapists -- who deserve to spend a long time in jail.
Mayors cannot blame all their problems on Washington, however. The failure of the urban renewal programs of the 1960s is a sober reminder that neighborhoods can be destroyed but not created. Pharaonic politicians can spend billions on stadiums, "festival marketplaces" and amusements, but inevitably those ventures will turn into white elephants when sports teams lose or the people's appetite for tschotskes is glutted. The quirky, eccentric, charming aspects of urban life are best preserved by allowing them to grow organically, through lower taxes and less regulation, not by egotistical politicians eager to turn their city into a casino or a mall.
-- Martin Morse Wooster, in the November issue of Reason magazine.