Overweight and Wide Awake in Boston

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What follows are some disparate thoughts on a maiden visit to Boston, for the occasion of an economics conference.

Chambers of commerce, take note: The initial impression of most any city visited for the first time is given by the man who drives you from the airport to the hotel. In my experience, he’s an immigrant who loves his job and his adopted city, even when job and city are in New England, where the temperature is 70 degrees lower that it is in the land he left.

It probably compensates these men that New Englanders seem every bit as friendly as Southerners. This was a pleasant surprise, but it shouldn’t have been. Markets place politeness and respect in the individual’s self interest, and Boston, which is surely the capital of modern American liberalism, still has a private sector that perseveres in spite of the Bostonian embrace of various levels of government. If the American South is friendlier than the North (as the stereotype says), it is only because the public sector has not yet made as strong of a foothold in that region, allowing bourgeois values (like politeness and respect) to persist.

But not everything that persists is a good thing. For instance, whenever I am in a northern city, I am struck by the homeless men who dot the downtown. It’s not that such men aren’t found in cities in the South, but they are less widespread, suggesting that this problem is dealt with better in places below the Mason-Dixon Line. In Boston, homelessness is in-your-face, and those who devote their lives to alleviating it are true saints. This includes the soup kitchen workers, shelter providers, counselors, social workers — and even (and perhaps especially) free market economists who better understand the relationship between homelessness and rent controls, housing ordinances, and tax rates, as well as the deleterious effects of policies that destroy family bonds. Ludwig von Mises wrote that there cannot be too much of a correct theory. Homelessness is but one example of the destructive effects of policies based on incorrect ones.

I saw some homeless men warming up in the upscale Copley Square Mall, where — wonder of wonders — a Catholic church rubs shoulders with Saks Fifth Avenue and Sharper Image. (The mall was connected to my hotel.) Its priests, members of the Oblates of the Virgin Mary, offer Mass and provide sacraments to shoppers and visitors. What struck me was how well the church fit in with otherwise materialistic surroundings, symbolizing the natural relationship between faith and markets.

But what have become natural to Massachusetts are taxes, which are so high that if Sam Adams were still alive he would have long since moved to Alabama or some other place where government officials are kept in check (at least in relative terms). So a ninety cent cup of coffee back home costs a dollar forty here, and the hotels charge for services that would be comped elsewhere — because people, not firms, pay taxes. The results of such massive and coerced wealth transfers are that (i) corrupt local officials are often in the news because of the predictably corrupting influence of all that money, (ii) there are higher prices for almost everything, and as a result (iii) the poor suffer. Interestingly, one of the local papers I read editorialized whether Massachusetts would lose congressional districts following the next census, noting that it dodged a bullet by not losing any following the last one. But guess what? Congressional districts go where the people go, and the people generally go to places where they are less pilfered.

Finally, downtown Boston seems to have been invaded, not only by Starbucks (which was expected), but by Dunkin’ Donuts (which wasn’t). Is it the destiny of Bostonians to be overweight but wide awake?

Much of Beantown is charming, the remnants of an earlier, less-planned era, and well worth the visit.

January 10 , 2006

Chris Westley [send him mail] teaches economics at Jacksonville State University, Alabama.

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