Looking at the fiscal ruin of the city of Detroit, which declared bankruptcy last week after generations of depopulation and decay, your first impulse might be to blame the decline of the Motor City on the decline of the American automotive industry. George Will wouldn't entirely disagree with you, but he has other axes to grind. Detroit, he writes in his latest column, "died of democracy." What he means, of course, is that it died of demagoguery -- from politicians giving poor people too much stuff. What made the problem worse, Will argues, is that the auto industry did the same thing. He traces the city's doom back to the informal "Treaty of Detroit," in 1950, a moment often seen as a high-water mark in the nation's socioeconomic progress. Labor peace was achieved in an industry often torn by violent strikes, at the cost to employers of guaranteeing benefits and wage increases pegged to the cost of living. In Will's eyes, this was an act of cowardice by the employers. In his words, "Auto industry executives, who often were invertebrate mediocrities, continually bought labor peace by mortgaging their companies’ futures in surrenders to union demands."
In 1950, when the U.S. dominated not only the car industry but practically all industry, car makers were unlikely to view their concessions to the United Auto Workers as mortgaging their future. Neither management nor labor had much inkling that the dominance that allowed both to prosper would not last much longer. As the auto industry went, so did Detroit. Will recognizes a root cause of the city's collapse in a failure to diversify its industrial base. He compares the Motor City unfavorably to Chicago, a city that, despite its early identification with stockyards, was never identified as nearly completely with one manufacturing sector as Detroit was with cars. But how was this failure to diversify the workers' fault? Will doesn't really have to answer because he's happy to blame the dreaded "political class" as well. They, along with the city's private sector, presumably can be blamed for the failure to diversify, though had the city taken a leading role in such a process Will would most likely have cried bloody murder. But the politicians' real offense, in Will's opinion, was a monkey see, monkey do giveaway of benefits to unionized city employees. With the depopulation of the city and the dwindling of its tax base, the promises of a generation or two ago can't be fulfilled today -- hence the bankruptcy and a likely repudiation, however partial, of the city's obligations to its pensioners. If this be suffering, so be it, says Will; it will teach Detroit and the nation necessary lessons. "When there is no penalty for failure, failures proliferate," he pontificates. What form the penalty takes is probably of little concern; the important thing is that failure be punished, that losers suffer. Will seems especially eager to see Detroit suffer to prove some point about the "personal responsibility" of "the docile voters who empowered" the political class that ruined the city. Compared to their culpability, the effect of deindustrialization is a "myth." Will would likely argue that deindustrialization itself is an effect of working-class or political-class greed, rather than the most obvious cause of Detroit's failures to fulfill promises made in flush times. Working people demanded something they didn't deserve and got it, according to Will's history, so they deserve whatever they get now in their old age.
The columnist takes a moment to scoff at the statement made by Steven Rattner, who in appealing for federal assistance for Detroit argued that "America is just as much about aiding those less fortunate as it is about personal responsibility." In Will's reading, "human agency, human responsibility is denied" by such a statement. For him, apparently, it is all or nothing; "personal responsibility" seems to matter more than life itself. His moralizing over Detroit's failures reminds us that morality, most of the time, is just a system for deciding who deserves to die.