Half Past the Month: Indiana’s Elizabethan EcoDevo

May 12, 2012


Earlier this month a newspaper in my hometown ran one of those predictably boosterish “we can do it” articles on the local economy. This one, though, was so wrong-headed on such an important subject at such a critical moment that it requires a challenge.

The news was that economic help was on its way, that the latest in a seemingly inexhaustible string of civic leaders had regrouped to take yet another shot at reviving the downtown.

These men and women, widely respected for their varied skills and achievements, wasted no time rejecting a free-market approach, i.e., allowing the value of downtown property to fall or rise in order to find its best use. They, as their frustrated predecessors, held a vision for downtown so dear that it could not be left to the market.

This latest effort is organized around a private, nonprofit trust that would guide downtown development using a complex, quasi-official fiscal arrangement giving it leverage in certain property negotiations. The group controlling the trust is described in the newspaper as being “very astute, very high-powered.”

This is a breathtaking idea. All any Indiana city need do to revitalize is to gather powerful people in a room to leverage other people’s money in the interest of a grand vision.

But it’s been tried before — more than four centuries before. It resembles mercantilism, a policy that held sway when Shakespeare was writing and the last Tudor reigned, Queen Elizabeth I by name, a selfless capitalist monarch if there ever was one.

Her Highness, though, would be unfamiliar with Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations,” Friedrich Hayek’s “Fatal Conceit” or any of the writings in the now-classical economic schools that inspired creation of the New World. She would assume that wealth is created by authority, not by free markets and countless individual experiments, many of them decidedly lacking in astuteness and high-poweredness.

She might feel at home on our downtown trust’s board of directors.

A single councilman dared raise objections to the plan. He wondered whether the group over time might actually become counterproductive, pushing out the less civically correct investments. And he was concerned there would be a disincentive to invest in properties not conforming to the vision and therefore not vetted by the trust to emerge with a lower price. Moreover, he noted that property could pass from public ownership into the foggy legalism of our neo-mercantilist court. And if city-owned property were sold to the trust below market value, taxpayers could not be protected from the cash loss, not to mention the obvious invitation to corruption.

But let us imagine that all can be resolved by the teams of lawyers, architects, bankers and such taking an immediate and suspiciously keen interest in the project. The idea nonetheless runs counter to how Indiana, America and our struggling little downtown were built in the first place.

In one of his last letters, Benjamin Franklin suggests that the genius of America is that it’s a country where “a general, happy mediocrity” is meant to prevail. The idea also intrigued a modern historian, Paul Johnson:

“It is important for those who wish to understand American history to remember this point about ‘happy mediocrity.’  . . . America is a country specifically created by and for ordinary men and women, where the system of government was deliberately designed to interfere in their lives as little as possible. The fact that we hear so little about the mass of the population is itself a historical point of great importance, because it testified by its eloquent silence to the success of the republican experiment.”

My downtown’s leadership is not encouraged by silence. They want acclaim, and they will wait for prosperity no longer. They must interfere, then, with lives and property. But don’t worry, they will interfere only so much as the astute and high-powered deem necessary.

Sherry Slater. “Trust Has Plan to Fill Downtown Vacancies.” The Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, April 29, 2012.

Benjamin Franklin. “Information to Those Who Would Remove to America.” Writings, viii 603ff, 1784.

Paul Johnson. A History of the American People. Harper-Collins e-books, 2012.


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