Heroic Buffalo

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Buffalo Is the Front Line in America’s War Against Big Government

by James Ostrowski by James Ostrowski

The wheels of the gods grind slowly, but they grind exceedingly fine.

~old English proverb

With only seeming irony, the revolt against big government in America has started in Buffalo, New York, traditionally one of big government strongest outposts along with New York City. Why Buffalo? Because it has probably the biggest and most oppressive government of any locale in the country except for New York City. New York City, as the capital of the planet, can absorb lots of shocks that a smaller town like Buffalo cannot. As I explained in my new book:

The discussion that follows pertains specifically to Buffalo but is based on analytical tools of general applicability. The analysis therefore could likely be applied to other urban political machines, particularly those in the Northeast "Rust Belt." The Northeast political scene does differ from other locales because, as Mancur Olson has suggested, the older a regime, the more corrupt it will be. New York State has existed in its present form for well over 200 years. Buffalo has existed for over 170 years. The special interests have had all that time to get their clutches onto the mechanisms of power and advantage. In contrast, the regimes in the post-bellum South and in the West are newer and therefore the interest groups have had less time to do their dirty work. In that sense, this analysis of Buffalo politics offers these newer polities a preview of coming attractions.

Recently, citizens in Greater Buffalo spontaneously rose up and formed a powerful populist movement that defeated a proposed sales tax increase.

The national media has taken note, including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, The New York Sun and CNN’s Lou Dobbs. Lou got the story wrong. He blamed Buffalo’s decline on free trade and China. The truth is, he’s got cause and effect reversed. China didn’t cause Buffalo’s decline but Buffalo’s lack of competitiveness due to big government has opened markets to Chinese companies that are more efficient.

The main significance of foreign competition — a better term than "free trade" because we don’t have free trade — is that it forces localities like Buffalo to get their acts together or face oblivion. In that sense, foreign trade and competition not only benefit the consumers in Buffalo struggling to survive in an over-taxed economy, but are spontaneously allied with them in their war against the political class. The Sun’s story was much better but you’ll have to pay to see it. Darn those greedy capitalists always trying to sell you something.

The local politicians had threatened residents with a "red budget" which would have gutted much of county government if the sales tax was not increased by an additional one percent to a ghastly 9.25 percent, to pay for the ever-increasing costs of Lyndon Johnson’s campaign promise, known in Orwellian-speak as "Medicaid." If LBJ had told the truth, he would have called it Health Care Union-aid.

Anyway, the voters called the politicians’ bluff and said, okay, slash away. They outsmarted the politicians because they knew that the dreaded red budget was their only way to send a message to the politicians in Buffalo, Albany, and Washington that the party’s over. You could say the parties are over: same thing. "There isn’t a dime’s worth of difference" between them.

The politicians pulled out the Bill Clinton handbook and threatened, seriatim, to eliminate the most popular and visible county functions: libraries, parks, and snowplowing. Did the residents choke like Newt Gingrich? No, they weren’t fazed. Bring it on, they said. So the politicians are scrambling in embarrassingly chaotic fashion to cut $100 million and hundreds of jobs from the budget. The populists haven’t flinched yet; rather, they responded by crossing the barricades to go sledding at beautiful Chestnut Ridge Park. Go ahead, arrest us; make our day!

Although this revolt so far has only defeated a rise in the sales tax, all agree that it’s just the beginning and we will seek out many more programs and positions and salaries and pensions and benefits to cut.

We are forming a think tank, Free Buffalo, to propose just such cuts and to bring power back from distant capitals and return it to the people and to the person! Free Buffalo’s first policy paper will be about Medicaid, the disastrous program that has swallowed up ever more millions each year and caused county governments to collapse around the State of New York. Here’s an excerpt:

"Like all government interventions into the free market, Medicaid causes distortions and inefficiencies and the waste of resources, ultimately creating a state of affairs less satisfactory that the one it replaced, and one not predicted, anticipated or advertised by its proponents."

A populist coalition is coming together with Primary Challenge recruiting private sector newcomers to kick the incumbents out of power in November. A popular website, Speakupwny.com has served as a base of operations for the revolt and organized a successful online petition against the tax increase.


The local media, responding to market incentives, has joined the movement and in some cases, like Tom Bauerle, has led it. Even the formerly limousine liberal Buffalo News is changing with the times, reviewing my book (which criticizes the News) and publishing my op-ed piece announcing Free Buffalo. WBEN radio (including Bauerle and broadcast legend Sandy Beach) and Channel 2 have been outstanding.

Normally, the laws of rational ignorance and rational apathy explain why the victims of big government do little to change things. Yet, there are certain historical moments like this one in Buffalo when sheer anger and frustration serve to suspend the operation of these logical principles.

I hinted at such a development in my book, Political Class Dismissed, in the essay, "What’s Wrong With Buffalo: A Rothbardian Analysis," published in May:

As noted earlier, while the growth of government gradually damages the economy, the remaining market element continues to produce enough wealth to avert that level of desperation needed to drive radical change. Is there any escape from this treadmill? Is Buffalo’s only hope for change that we first endure a Great Leap Forward into full socialism with its resulting poverty, starvation, and despair? Wouldn’t it be easier to read about Stalin and Mao and Pol Pot than to live under them? Talk about political bosses! Leaving aside that unlikely and unpleasant scenario, unless the people of Buffalo and Erie County wake up, they and their children and their grandchildren will face death-by-a-thousand-cuts economic torture at the hands of the ruthless local political machine for decades to come.

Let me close on a positive note. Though Buffalo, once a world-class economy, has fallen behind, the world has been slow to grasp the true cause of prosperity — individual liberty. Other cities, regions and countries have moved ahead of Buffalo merely because they are slightly less unfree than we are. Neither history nor geography nor present economic conditions place a limit on our future. If we can stop the political class from siphoning off our wealth, economic and human capital will flow in so fast that the only problems will be what to do with all that wealth and all those talented people.

Ironically, it is the radical nature of my vision that gives Buffalo a chance to leap ahead of the competition. Sloughing off the failed but comfortable status quo will take courage and daring, rare commodities in human affairs. That is why philosopher Brand Blanshard called courage the "best loved virtue." We admire courage, Blandshard wrote:

[B]ecause it is the antidote to the emotion that is at once the deepest, the most universal, and the most disagreeable known to man, the emotion of fear.

Presently, Buffalo is mired in mediocrity, stagnation and fear. There is fear of change, fear of new ideas, and fear of freedom, which is, in the end, fear of life itself. This fear is continually exploited by the ruling elite, which tells us: everything is fine; everything is under (our) control. Sell us your political souls and we’ll take care of you. But the last 40 years say otherwise: the political elite take care of themselves; to hell with everyone else.

The power elite controls the present. They have built a seemingly invincible Berlin Wall around our freedom. The future, however, will belong to those who have the courage and daring to choose individual freedom and the free market. The future will belong to those who have the insight, the foresight and the courage to say: "Political class: dismissed!"

We Buffalonians have begun to dismiss the political class. Tom Bauerle, referring to the County Executive, said it best: "Mr. Giambra, tear down that wall!"

February 25, 2005

James Ostrowski is an attorney in Buffalo, New York and author of Political Class Dismissed: Essays Against Politics, Including "What’s Wrong With Buffalo." See his website at http://jimostrowski.com.

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