David R. Henderson  

Reflections on Freedom in New York

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I'm stuck in New York after my early a.m. flight out was cancelled. Because the hotel I was in had no rooms available for tonight, I had to find another hotel. Fortunately, the Holiday Inn Express three short blocks away was available. The hotel I was in let me extend by an hour and the Holiday Inn Express let me check in early and so I didn't have to wait to get to my room. When I asked the beautiful young woman at the counter, from the Dominican Republic, about the Chinese restaurant next door, she gave me the takeout menu of a Chinese restaurant that she recommended instead, one that has "free" delivery.

I'm feeling sick and headachy and so I went to a local drug store for some meds. There was a long line but there were three cash registers operating and I was through in about two minutes.

Because I persuaded United to fly me to San Diego instead of back to Monterey (I would have got back to Monterey too late to catch my flight to San Diego for a Liberty Fund conference), I'm short on clothing. So I bought a nice dress shirt on sale at a store on Fifth Ave. The man behind the counter, who was friendly and helpful, was dark-skinned and had an accent. I asked him if he was from Iran. He is. When he saw that it was just my curiosity at work and not some kind of negative judgment on my part, he warmed up more. When I asked him his name, it sounded complicated, and I spelled it correctly the first time, he was pleased.

Why do I tell these stories? Because, when I think of New York city abstractly, I think of a city that doesn't work. Taxes are high, there are too many crowds, people are pushy and unfriendly, etc. Then, when I actually experience New York, I see how well it works. People are trying to give me what I want, at a fairly low price. The immigrants I run into--and there have been many over the last two days--don't seem to have come here for welfare but for opportunity to get wealthier. And people are friendly.

Why are people friendly? Partly because I love people and I'm friendly to them. But also partly because they are paid to be friendly; they do better by being friendly to customers. As I laid out in The Joy of Freedom: An Economist's Odyssey, markets create virtue. Part of virtue is simple friendliness and helpfulness.

I remember talking with my friend, the late Roy Childs, on a 1988 visit to New York, about how well New York works, even with all the big government institutions around. The metaphor he came up with is that government is not a cancer; it's more like a leech. It sucks blood but there's still a lot of blood left.


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COMMENTS (17 to date)
N. writes:

Thank you for that little valentine to NYC. I've often wondered why, considering my own libertarian bent, I live here and love living here. There are enough paeans to the city that I'm not going to launch into another one, but I do want to say that when the city works well, it works very, very well. "You want it, we got it; we don't got it, you don't need it!" is an adage I've found exceptionally accurate over the years.

But when the city works poorly, it works very, very poorly. Defend yourself during a mugging and you are likely to fall victim to NYC's incredibly strict no weapons policy. Imagine getting fined and/or jail time for defending yourself from a thief!

NYC is simultaneously the most free and least free place I've ever been. I expect I will be raising a family here in the not too distant future... we'll see how well that works out.

David R. Henderson writes:

You're welcome, N. I like that adage. Can you defend yourself legally with a taser?
BTW, the restaurant, China Moon, delivered within 20 minutes of my ordering and the sweet and sour soup (which is like penicillin for me when I have a cold) was the best I've had in a couple of years.

Fascinating. Don't you love snow?

David R. Henderson writes:

David L. Kendall,
Yes, but I wish I had worn my hiking boots instead of my sneakers.

Pandaemoni writes:

It is illegal to possess a taser in New York State.

From the New York Penal Law:

Article 265. Definitions

15-a. "Electronic dart gun" means any device designed primarily as a weapon, the purpose of which is to momentarily stun, knock out or paralyze a person by passing an electrical shock to such person by means of a dart or projectile.

15-c. "Electronic stun gun" means any device designed primarily as a weapon, the purpose of which is to stun, cause mental disorientation, knock out or paralyze a person by passing a high voltage electrical shock to such person.

Article 265.01 Criminal possession of a weapon in the fourth degree. A person is guilty of criminal possession of a weapon in the fourth degree when:

(1) He possesses any ... electronic dart gun [or] electronic stun gun, ....

Hyena writes:

I think this is extremely well said.

rational skeptic writes:

A small question from a Long Islander: Does New York really work or is it really just in a slow motion decline? I know many hedge funds that are going to Conn. The MTA is continually making cuts that hurt everyone and fare increases that generally go to higher salaries instead of improvements. Property taxes have gone up 73% in the last decade but they still can't figure out how to balance a budget. I firmly believe (as an Austrian I think it can't be proven) that without the bailout of the financial system NYC and NYS would look much different... New York has the highest taxes in the country and some pretty nasty pension shortfalls coming. When that does happen the productive people can simply move to a lower tax state. So I keep coming back to the part of the me that knows that what can't go on forever, won't. I would say I'm short New York, long New Yorkers...

Tim Worstall writes:
The metaphor he came up with is that government is not a cancer; it's more like a leech. It sucks blood but there's still a lot of blood left.

Or as an earlier economist put it, there's a lot of ruin in a nation.....

fundamentalist writes:

Nice post on NYC. I wonder how long it will take us to learn what Adam Smith tried to teach over 200 years ago? Free markets (free people) solve all problems except for the crimes.

fundamentalist writes:

PS, in the econ classes I teach I show the students pictures of the statues at the Dept of Commerce in Washington depicting a muscled men restraining large horses. The statues are titled "Man taming commerce", or something like that. I point out how silly that idea is by showing that trade/commerce/markets are us, not some alien force like a wild horse. Free markets are free people.

Krishnan writes:

Travelling to NY is still like travelling to a place where people from all over the world come to live, grow - NY works inspite of the strangling regulations and inane stupidity of government - One way to understand NYC is to travel almost anywhere outside the US - We appreciate how polite people are in general in the US (yes, even in NYC, Washington DC) and how open and welcoming are. There is an optimism around people in general that Government has not been able to kill - even as there are people who are furious as to how people, ordinary people without a legacy from birth or inherited wealth can do whatever they decide to do. The US remains the world's most unique experiment in human migration and has demonstrated to the world what can happen if we allow people to be free, allow them the freedom to do what they want - class, creed, ethnicity, color of skin - they are all irrelevant - merit is what counts. Oh yes, there are exceptions - we are not perfect, but we strive to be and are working towards that goal, perhaps slowly at times, but definitely so.

Stephen Smith writes:

There is one aspect in which New York City leads America in liberty: the freedom to build tall buildings without acres of parking (okay, so there's also Chicago). It might be difficult, and you may need to bribe a bunch of entrenched interests with "community amenities" like affordable (read: rent controlled) housing and schools and open space, but at the end of the day, at least some people manage. I can't say the same for supposedly business-friendly places like Texas.

The_Orlonater writes:

Stephen Smith,

I'm intrigued by your Texas example, can you expound on it a little?

Observer writes:

I grew up on a farm in Dakota, but I have lived in New York all my adult life. You are spot on.

The private sector of the City provides a tremendous economic good. The City government is a near-perfect Stationary Bandit: It knows exactly how much it can tax each resident to abstract for itself that economic good. (It also nicely illustrates another of Olson's observations: The logic of collective action.)

Senior City finance officials freely admit that City taxation is at the tipping point: It cannot be raised a penny. As is famously said about law firms and investment banks, the City's assets go home every night. Tax it even slightly more heavily and they won't be back in the morning.

Erich Schwarz writes:

I worked as a postdoctoral scientific researcher at Columbia University for four years in the late 1990s. Based on my experience then, both Mr. Henderson and his commenters are spot-on.

When, during my postdoc, people'd ask me what I thought about NYC, I'd always tell them that the cliche was 100% wrong. The cliche is that NYC is an efficient place with nasty, unfriendly people. My experience was that NYC was a tax-crazy, extremely crowded, technologically laggard, stunningly overpriced, procedurally inefficient, and infuriatingly misgoverned city ... with people who invariably gave me the best treatment they could given their circumstances, often going beyond any consideration and kindness I could have reasonably expected. New York's best strength is New Yorkers.

Nick Hodges writes:

Dr. Henderson --

Hey, great story. Great to find your blog!

Nick Hodges
NPS '95

Seth writes:

"People are trying to give me what I want..."

That's worth bold type.

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