They are adorned with audacious titles: Cool Cities, Smart
Growth, Economic Growth Authority, Development Corporation, 21st Century Jobs
Fund, New Urbanism, etc. etc., ad nauseum. Highly paid "experts" are hired to
work up the details. Hollywood actors may even be hired for expensive ads to
sell the program, or at least to make the taxpayers think their elected leaders
are on top of things. Ribbon cuttings are scheduled for the projects chosen for
public subsidy (usually with interesting names such as "AutoWorld"). Press
releases flow like water, announcing a few "new" jobs here and a plant opening
What am I talking about? The trappings of government planning —
especially the kind where the object of the planning is other people. That means
It’s a growth industry to be sure. The one thing that’s certain about it all is
that government will be bigger after all is said and done, even when the
planners fall short or fail, which they almost always do. That’s one important
lesson among many from an important new book by researcher and Cato Institute
scholar Randal O’Toole, "The Best-Laid Plans: How Government Planning Harms Your
Quality of Life, Your Pocketbook, and Your Future."
O’Toole provides abundant evidence, case studies and examples
from the United States and abroad, but if he had chosen to focus on Michigan
alone, he would have found a cornucopia to demonstrate his points. Since Kim
Sigler was governor 60 years ago, state government has piled one plan on top of
another to "diversify" the economy, "stimulate" growth, attract this or that
industry, or achieve some other grand design. Michigan law books contain nearly
58 separate statutes that have "economic development" purposes, replete with
overlapping or duplicative policies that are scattered across state government.
The Legislature almost never examines what’s in the books because that’s just
not as attention-getting as piling on the next program.
In recent years, the centerpiece of such efforts in Michigan has
been the Michigan Economic Development Corp. With the country’s highest outbound
migration and unemployment rates, many Michiganians are wondering if the MEDC
has been asleep at the switch.
Actually, one learns from O’Toole that although such planners
are rarely sleeping, we would likely be better off if they were. Like so many
other presumptuous agencies, the MEDC is less about ED (economic development)
than it is about PR and self-promotion. As its agencies hold news conferences to
pat themselves on the back, state government largely ignores the fundamentals of
real growth. Last fall it even slapped a beleaguered state economy with a
whopping tax hike.
Think of a state as a gigantic bad restaurant hemorrhaging
customers. On the one hand, it can offer discounts or subsidies to a handful of
customers if only they’ll stay and eat bad food at a high price. A better option
would be to improve the menu and the service and cut the prices for everybody.
Planners prefer the former approach because it empowers
dole out favors to a few. But if that actually worked, Michigan’s sour economy
is hardly evidence of it. O’Toole documents the jeopardy to our national forests
from Forest Service planners; the exasperating traffic congestion motorists
suffer because of urban planners; the displacement of inner-city families by
housing planners; the threat to the environment from eco-planners; and a host of
other errors writ large. "The bitter irony," he writes, ". . . is that many if
not most of the problems the planners propose to solve were caused not by the
free marketplace, but by past generations of planners and government
It’s never enough, however, to simply find blame. One must offer
solutions. O’Toole does precisely that, calling not only for repeal of many
federal, state and local planning laws but also suggesting specific reforms that
can fix stubborn problems without the heavy hand of mandates, edicts and
bureaucracy. Privatization of services previously provided inefficiently by
government is one such reform that many local governments and school districts
have found to be a good economic development tool. Just as his earlier book,
"The Vanishing Automobile and Other Urban Myths," has influenced decisions in
important places, "The Best-Laid Plans" will likely prompt a rethinking of
seldom-questioned planning myths across the country.
A copy of O’Toole’s book should be part of the severance package
for MEDC planners.
State and local officials
across Michigan can secure a copy of "The Best-Laid Plans" from the Mackinac
Center for Public Policy for a special, discounted price of $15 postpaid. Limit
one per person. Send check to Mackinac Center for Public Policy, P. O. Box 568,
Midland, Mich., 48640.
Lawrence W. Reed is president of
the Mackinac Center for Public Policy