Urban Decay, Austerity, and the Rule of Law
57 Pages Posted: 11 Mar 2013 Last revised: 4 Apr 2014
Date Written: March 5, 2014
Detroit has failed and its infrastructure is crumbling. But Detroit is not an isolated case. It is a paradigmatic example of increasing urban decay across the Unites States. While commentators have warned that the declining state of the country’s infrastructure threatens US prosperity, there is a bigger issue at stake. Decaying urban environments jeopardize the rule of law, undermining the very foundation of the social contract.
This Article shows that the strength of the rule of law in a given country can be predicted by that government’s ability (or inability) to provide public services — particularly, a livable urban environment. When urban decay sets in, individuals are led to believe that the government, and thus citizens as a collective, have abandoned their commitments to following the basic rules governing the social contract. This, in turn, reduces the incentives of individuals to engage in lawful behavior. As a result, the rule of law is, like the city itself, left in shambles. In support of this theoretical account, we provide empirical evidence that urban decay weakens the rule of law.
As a normative matter, we claim that austerity policies aimed at incentivizing municipal fiscal accountability have produced the government’s failure to provide adequate urban infrastructure. Hence, there is a normative case for selective centralized support of local goods and services that can better balance the dual goal of preserving the rule of law and encouraging municipal fiscal accountability.
Keywords: social contract, rule of law, urban infrastructure, austerity
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