CRF Blog

The Short, Unhappy Life of a Libertarian Paradise

by Bill Hayes

In The Short, Unhappy Life of a Libertarian Paradise for Politico, Caleb Hannan reports on what happened when Colorado Springs elected a mayor who promised to run the city like a business.

For a city, like the country at large, that was hurting economically, Steve Bach seemed like a man with an answer. What he promised sounded radically simple: Wasteful government is the root of the pain, and if you just run government like the best businesses, the pain will go away. Easy. Because he had never held office and because he actually had been a successful entrepreneur, people were inclined to believe he really could reinvent the way a city was governed.

The city’s experiment was fascinating because it offered a chance to observe some of the most extreme conservative principles in action in a real-world laboratory. Producers from “60 Minutes” flew out to talk with the town’s leaders. The New York Times found a woman in a dark trailer park pawning her flat screen TV to buy a shotgun for protection. “This American Life” did a segment portraying Springs citizens as the ultimate anti-tax zealots, willing to pay $125 in a new “Adopt a Streetlight” program to illuminate their own neighborhoods, but not willing to spend the same to do so for the entire city. “I’ll take care of mine” was the gist of what one council member heard from a resident when she confronted him with this fact.

That’s where Colorado Springs was frozen in the consciousness of the country—a city determined to redefine the role of government, led by a sharp-elbowed businessman who didn’t care whom he offended along the way (not unlike a certain president). But it has been five years since “This American Life” packed up its mics. A lot has changed in that time, not least of which is that the local economy, which nearly drowned the city like a concrete block tied around its balance sheet, is buoyant once again. Sales tax revenue has made the books plump with surplus. Enough to turn those famous streetlights back on. Seven years after the experiment began, the verdict is in — and it’s not at all what its architects planned.

One of the lessons: There’s a real cost to saving money. [more]