“Big City” Libertarianism

The Libertarian Party (LP) is the third largest political party in the United States, with a membership that’s twice as large as the Green Party and twenty times as large as the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). Unlike the Greens and DSA, which draw a significant support from urban areas, the LP is significantly more popular in suburban and rural areas. Some believe this distribution of support is inevitable, as city residents rely on government more than rural their counterparts—but, it isn’t. The Libertarian party can reframe its values for urban populations, and develop an urban agenda rooted in social tolerance, good governance and urban empowerment. This will allow it to emerge as the most viable alternative to the two-party duopoly gripping municipal, urban politics around the country today.

Social Tolerance

Many people think that libertarian culture and the culture of our nation’s biggest cities are at odds because libertarianism is so often framed as a philosophy rooted in “rugged self-reliance” and urbanites are anything but “self-reliant” since they rely on large-scale, networked, complex supply chains to sustain themselves. In reality, libertarian philosophy is much more focused on people’s ability to self-organize  complex systems to meet their own needs through the “market” than it is on the notions of “self-sufficiency”. The same market forces that libertarians are so interested in understanding and utilizing are also the forces that make modern, urban life possible. As such, “Big City” Libertarianism should sideline aesthetics and notions of self-reliance and instead focus on how market forces and technological innovation can be best utilized to benefit all city residents.

Libertarians also need to interpret urban experiences from a libertarian lens to show urban residents that they share have libertarian tendencies and values. The core principle of libertarianism is that individuals should be free to do as they please as long as they don’t harm others. Sometimes this is called the “non-aggression principle”. Other times it’s referred to as just plain old “tolerance and acceptance.” Residents of big cities like New York, Los Angeles, Dallas, and Miami know that if their neighbors didn’t have tolerance for (and even love of) diverse lifestyles, races, genders, ethnicities, cultures, philosophies, religions, etc, their cities simply couldn’t function. While Democrats attempt to talk the talk of “social progressivism”, the Libertarian Party has walked the walk: nominating the first female Vice-Presidential candidate in the 1970s, supporting gay rights in the 1980, fighting to end the drug war in the 1990s and opposing the war in Iraq in the 2000s. Big City Libertarians should highlight the progressive history of the Libertarian Party and not be afraid to denounce regressive cultural elements in the party’s past and present.

To win hearts and minds in our nation’s cities, Big City Libertarians should focus their energies on issues where urban “progressives” are more aligned with the Libertarian Party than they are the Democratic Party. The “Drug War” and the resulting mass incarceration and police militarization it has spawned presents such an opportunity.

The drug war has fallen out of favor among intelligentsia concerned with public health because of an increasingly broad body of research showing that the Portuguese and Northern European approach of decriminalization and risk reduction is producing superior outcomes in every way: less drug use, less crime and less healthcare costs. The drug war is also falling out of favor among the young and “social justice progressives” because they recognize it as a method of social control – oppressing the most vulnerable and marginalized populations throughout the US. The numbers are staggering: black men are incarcerated at rates over 5x that of whites, even though they use drugs in comparable quantities. While many Democrats now support some type of marijuana decriminalization, almost all still support the drug war’s prohibitionist approach to “controlled substances.” Big City Libertarians should lead on issues of mass incarceration and police militarization, and offer something no political party has yet — a powerful solution: Ending the Drug War.

Good Governance

New York City, like many large cities throughout the US, is dominated by the Democratic Party. That means political bosses and party elite pick our politicians, and voters have little power to challenge the status quo. That’s one reason why NYC’s voter participation rate in local elections is under 25%. New Yorkers want more political options, but they certainly aren’t coming from the Republicans who maintains a hierarchical party infrastructure that benefits from maintaining the status quo. Many politically active urban residents have invested significant time in the project of reforming the Democratic Party, but their success has been minimal and frustration is high. Big City Libertarians should present themselves as the anti-corruption, good-government party.

By organizing local Libertarian Party chapters around values of openness, transparency, participatory governance, and by utilizing appropriate technologies to run themselves faster, better and cheaper than the competition, local LP chapters can become more effective effective political operations while also training their members in the same type of technology-enabled reform that we can pitch to voters as a solution to corrupt local politicians and lethargic, bloated bureaucracies.

Urban Empowerment

With Trump as president, many city residents have awoke to the fact that there are many layers of government – and these various layers don’t always agree or collaborate with each other. They’re realizing that they’d much prefer a structure where the federal government has less power and municipal governments have a lot more. This emerging “municipalism” is entirely consistent with libertarianism for two reasons. First, it localizes power and decreases the number of people each politician represents, making politicians and government more accountable. Second, it reduces the size and scope of the federal government, which is something every Libertarian supports.

By advocating at the national level for more local control of tax revenue, Libertarians can be inclusive of their rural and suburban bases, while maintaining a flexibility that allows them to advance in urban politics. Local control shouldn’t simply mean more policies are determined at local levels (although this is obviously a part of it), but should result in restructuring the tax system to shift the destination of tax revenue from the Federal government to state and local government.

Let’s call this “flipping the pyramid.”

Currently, the federal government gets most of the tax money, then states and lastly cities. This status quo should be flipped on its head so that the federal government receive the least amount of tax revenue, allowing states and local governments to gain significantly more. Now, many rural and suburban localities don’t want or need big local governments, and voters in those places can direct their governments not to raise taxes – leaving them with a significantly lower tax burden than city residents.

For example, a New York City resident who currently pays 20% to the Feds, 10% to the State and 5% to local government (for a total of 35%), would instead give 5% to the Feds, 10% to the State and 20% to the city (total remains 35%). This restructuring would allow New Yorkers to achieve more local control, sustain or even increase the level of services they receive, while still paying the same total amount in taxes. Meanwhile, a resident of Grafton, New Hampshire, who is currently paying 20% to the Feds, 7.5% to the State and 2.5% to their county (30% total) could then be paying 5% to the federal government, 5% to the state and 5% locally (15% total) – resulting in a massive tax break for them. So, for the New York City resident, the Libertarian plan might not lead to a tax decrease, but instead lead to a drastically better funded city government, while to the rural Grafton resident, the Libertarian plan does lead to a massive tax break. Big City Libertarians and small-government Libertarians can collaborate deeply on “flipping the pyramid” at the national level, and then both achieve their separate goals at the local level in their own communities.

The “regional differentiation” that will naturally arise when localities have more power to determine their overall tax rate is something we should all embrace. Instead of imposing our ideals on everyone in the country through the federal government, we should view people’s residency as a political choice. If people chose to live in a city or state with high taxes, they’re voluntarily accepting the high taxes. If they don’t want to pay those taxes, then they can move to a place with lower ones. This act of voting with one’s feet is the oldest manifestation of democracy, and the idea that people should actually get up and move from places that don’t share their values to places that do should be embraced, encouraged, supported and maybe even subsidized.

While that might sound drastic or raise the specter of places becoming truly inhospitable to certain types of people in ways that they currently are not, we should recognize that (a) this process is already well underway for middle and upper class people who can afford to move, and (b) our nation’s structural resistance to regional differentiation has led to over a decade of Congressional gridlock and a vicious culture war that put a reality-TV show host into the presidency.

This doesn’t mean that the federal government should stop performing critical functions such as upholding the civil and human rights of US citizens, investigating corruption of state and local officials, regulating interstate commerce, helping with disaster relief and more. Rather, it means that the we must begin in earnest a visioning process that redraws the appropriate scope of local, city, regional, state and federal powers. While working to implement this new vision, we should also be investing our time and resources into upgrading the capacities of local layers of government so they’ll be able to absorb new responsibilities and effectively allocate more resources. Anyone involved with local politics knows that it can be just as corrupt, and even more so, than national politics. That’s why our strategy must also include a movement to transform local governments into open, transparent and participatory institutions that good people want to join and lead.

With over 135 million Americans living in metropolitan areas of over a million people, the Libertarian Party has everything to gain by creating a space for “Big City” Libertarianism to flourish.

Imagining SimNYCity

I was eight years old when I first encountered a computer game called “SimCity.” The general premise of the game was that you were the mayor of a virtual city, and you would use game money to create a place for communities of “Sims” to live. First you set up basic infrastructure like roads, pipes, and zoning and soon after, the “Sims” would arrive to build buildings and pay taxes. As tax revenue flowed in, you would use it to make citywide improvements by establishing public infrastructure like schools, hospitals and parks. The more robust your city’s services, the more Sims would want to live there, and the more taxes revenue would roll in. As the game progressed and your city grew, your decisions as mayor became increasingly complex. However, an easy-to-use interface simplified the tasks and made the whole experience a lot of fun.

That was 1994, and at the time, I assumed that one day, my neighbors and I would all have a hand in understanding and shaping New York City through tools and interfaces like SimCity’s. As the internet was getting increasingly popular, my confidence in that idea strengthened. How difficult could it possibly be for the biggest city in the world’s richest country to create “Sim NYCity”? Well, it’s been over two decades and it still doesn’t exist. I’m getting tired of waiting.

Thanks to the tireless work of open source software developers and open government advocates, the development of a SimNYCity system has never been easier. Let me explain a few of the features that would make such a system such a valuable contribution to civic life.

Interactive Community Maps

The centerpiece of the system is a map similar to Google Maps or the City’s Planning Lab’s new Community District Profiles website. It would have highly curated data layers that display education, health, police, fire and mass transit indicators (in SimCity parlance: data maps), as well as useful demographic information of residents. Anyone could click a few layers on and off to see which neighborhoods have access to which services, and which don’t. Users could select which facilities they’d like to see added to an area, and then receive a projection of how the addition of such a facility would impact access in the neighborhood. Of course, accurate projections would be difficult to create, but basic estimates wouldn’t be, and more importantly, the existence of such a tool would whet the public’s appetite for more information and involvement in planning processes.

Citizen-Driven Budgets

Offering opinions on the budget could be as easy as pulling a few sliders.

Managing the budget was one of the most important jobs of the mayor in SimCity. The tool for doing this was similar to a mortgage calculator. Income and expenses were presented with about 10 line items each, and you could pull the slider in one direction or another to change funding allocations and see how those allocation impact the entire city’s budget.

We should offer a similar tool to New Yorkers. We can synthesize the NYC budget from thousands of line items into a dozen or so, enabling anyone to quickly see how money flows in and out of NYC’s government. Then we can invite them to create their budget by pulling sliders. As they do, the city’s budget projections change. So, if someone would like to increase the education budget they would toggle education to the right. Then they might adjust income by increasing taxes to balance the budget. Bonds could be included into the mix too by showing a list of public bond offers and requests. This type of tool would allow New Yorkers to create the budgetary mixes they want to see, and they can share it with others. We could also generate statistics about all the different budgets New Yorkers create to develop insights about how the city’s budget could more accurately reflect the values of the city’s residents.

Decision-Making Moments

City advisers could send out messages to New Yorkers and ask for their direct feedback.

When time sensitive decisions were needed in Sim City, a popup would appear with a message from an adviser asking the mayor for a decision. “SimNYCity” could work similar by providing citizens with more opportunities to indicate their preferences on key civic issues. For example, when a controversial zoning change is being proposed, an alert from the Commissioner of City Planning could be sent to SimNYCity users saying something like: “Residents are wondering what you plan to do with the Bedford Armory. Here’s some information about the various interest groups. Do you think the current proposals should move forward or should it be rewritten?” Users could then say how they feel. This type of feedback could provide useful information for city leaders that they could incorporate into their decision-making processes. A similar workflow could be used for legislative and administrative decision-making.

Moving Beyond the Vote

Imagine if all the active and proposed city ordinances were laid out in a simple list.

Our current democratic processes are, unfortunately, failing New York City. Less than 25% of eligible New Yorkers voted in the last election cycle. In this cycle, over 95% of incumbents won their primaries and it appears that over 95% of general election races will be uncompetitive. This means that a very small group of (almost entirely Democratic) party insiders are the people determining who will serve in New York City government. That isn’t very democratic, and it’s the main reason so few New Yorkers show up to the polls.

We don’t have to wait for deep reforms to our city’s democratic process before we start experimenting with new and innovative ways to provide participatory democratic experiences to New Yorkers. We can offer citizens methods for engagement right now – and if these methods turn out to be popular, then we can organize the public to pressure existing politicians into incorporating these methods into their decision-making processes. If politicians don’t want to use popular new processes, then we should vote new people into office who will.

One political position that’s perfectly positioned to bring more participatory tools and techniques into the heart of New York City’s government is the Public Advocate. This city-wide elected official is supposed to be the “direct link between the electorate and city government, effectively acting as an ombudsman, or “watchdog,” for New Yorkers.

That’s why I’m running for NYC Public Advocate as someone who will “put process before politics” and explore innovative ways to incorporate the public’s opinions into city decision-making. I’m convinced that, if we can make local politics more engaging and fun, then more New Yorkers will educate themselves about the city, participate in important civic conversations and demand a more direct democracy for New York City.

OpEd: Disaster Preparedness Requires a 211 System; New York City Still Doesn’t Have One

This piece was originally published on Gotham Gazette on October 3, 2017

Over the last few weeks, New Yorkers have watched with great anxiety as Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico, among many other places, were pummeled by massive hurricanes. Whenever we see storm destruction, memories of Sandy re-enter our consciousness; as does the question: Is New York City significantly better prepared for the next big one? My answer is “No.”

As a technology professional in disaster management, I’m constantly on the lookout for better ways to use software tools and information management practices to improve a city’s resilience. With new technologies coming out all the time, there are many pathways for improvement, and selecting the right place to focus preparedness efforts is never easy. In New York City’s case, however, it’s pretty simple: one of the most impactful things we could do, and certainly the lowest hanging fruit, is to build a canonical directory of all the health, human, and social services available in New York City so people know where to go to get the services they need before, during, and after a disaster.

The directory system I’m proposing is often called a “211 system.” In almost every major U.S. city and in over 90% of counties, if you call 2-1-1, you’re connected to a directory assistance representative that can refer you to the health and social services that meet your needs. If you call 2-1-1 in New York City, you’re connected to our 311 system — which is good at providing basic information about government services, but isn’t able to refer you to the vast majority of nonprofit services available in the city.

211 systems are essential infrastructure for any coherent social safety net. Indeed, without them we don’t even know what the social safety net looks like! These systems enable people to find a huge array of help for a broad collection of things, including: housing, employment, food, children’s services, domestic violence counseling, and so much more.

Without a 211, social workers are left to solve this information problem on their own. Many create their own lists on paper and in Word documents that they share with each other. Some organizations maintain resource directories for certain kinds of people or neighborhoods. Well-funded institutions even pay for-profit companies to find this information and provide it to their clientele.

Our lack of a real 211 system is a hindrance to every nonprofit and government service provider, and an embarrassment to every politician who claims to care about New Yorkers in need. If they really cared, wouldn’t they make sure it was possible for every New Yorker to actually find the services they’re entitled to receive?

Prosperous and powerful New Yorkers tend to be unaware that the city lacks a 211 system because they rarely, if ever, use nonprofit social services. But when a disaster like Sandy happens, many people who never before needed access to nonprofit services suddenly do. Because of this dynamic, 211 systems serve extremely important functions during disaster recovery by providing a canonical sources of information about services for survivors. They also tend to become the centers that convene and facilitate collaboration between government agencies, nonprofits and community groups.

211 systems in New Jersey and Long Island played this role after Sandy, and by most accounts their recoveries went much smoother than New York City’s. In New York City, no local entity took responsibility for organizing all the nonprofit service information, which led to a massive coordination crisis. Things got so bad that some intrepid FEMA staff created a 211-style services directory themselves, even though it was so far outside their traditional responsibilities that they had to pretend that other organizations had created it out of fear of political backlash. To this day, no one in city government or the nonprofit establishment has taken responsibility for these coordination failures. Nor has any agency or organization taken responsibility for ensuring that it never happens again.

While incremental improvements in disaster management and recovery processes have certainly been adopted over the last five years, one of the most important Sandy lessons is that New York City desperately needs a fully-funded and well-functioning 211 system. Until we have one, New York City cannot claim to be following even the most basic best practices in disaster preparedness.


Devin Balkind is a candidate for New York City Public Advocate. He is also the President of the Sahana Software Foundation, a nonprofit organization that produces the world’s most popular open source software platform for disaster management. On Twitter @DevinBalkind.

This piece was originally published on Gotham Gazette on October 3, 2017

Photo: After Sandy (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor’s Office)