The case of the city of Detroit isn’t much of a murder mystery. Various suspects have been fingered in its demise: The global economy. The fall of the auto industry. The decline of manufacturing generally. But it’s simpler than that. Detroit died of its own hand.
The city undertook a controlled experiment in what happens if you are governed by a toxic combination of Great Society big spenders, race hustlers, crooks, public-sector unions, and ineffectual reformers. It spent and misgoverned itself into the ground. It tried to defy the axiom of the late economist Herb Stein that “if something cannot go on forever, it will stop.” Detroit’s bout of self-destruction lasted for a few decades, and now may finally stop only when there is little left to destroy.
The city was at the pioneering edge of urban liberalism and discovered that all the social spending in the world doesn’t deliver order, family stability, education, economic dynamism, or effective governance. In the hands of Detroit’s rotten political class, it proved inimical to all of those things.
The city’s downfall started long before anyone imagined that the Big Three would ever be anything but overwhelmingly dominant. Hardly anyone had heard of Toyota in 1967, when riots ripped the city and a long crime wave began that made it unlivable. According to Henry Payne of the Detroit News, the murder rate climbed from 13 per 100,000 residents in 1966 to 51 per 100,000 by 1976.
It was the city’s dysfunction that made it unappealing to the auto companies rather than the diminished state of the auto companies that made the city dysfunctional. The city’s mayor for 20 years, Coleman Young, was an ethically challenged black nationalist who hated the suburbs. Under Young, journalist Zev Chafets writes, Detroit had “all the trappings of a third-world city — the showcase projects, an…