If we are looking for ultimate symbol of the residency rule,
consider the Berlin Wall.
That city’s leaders were convinced that if residents were
free to leave, many of them would choose to relocate elsewhere. They were
undoubtedly right, since the attractions of East Berlin – even with the free
health care and plentiful police presence – apparently did not appeal to many
of the city’s inhabitants.
Mass flight would have been embarrassing to the city’s
self-image and would undoubtedly have affected property values, such as they
were after the devastation of WWII. So
East Berlin decided to enact the world’s toughest residency rule: Stay Here Or
We Will Shoot You.
For decades, leaders of other failed institutions have
looked at the Wall with wistfulness. Allowing freedom of movement, after all, has
a nasty way of exposing failure. People have a way of voting with their feet against dysfunctional countries,
states, and cities.
But Walls keep people in, no matter what. Or so the theory
Here is where I need to apologize for even indirectly
comparing Milwaukee to East Berlin. But when Milwaukee’s Mayor Tom, Barrett
once again passionately defended his city’s residency rule, I frankly couldn’t
Milwaukee is alone among the nation’s big cities in forcing
its employees to live within the city limits as a condition of their
employment. (CORRECTION: the cities of Boston, Chicago, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia have residency rules. For schools, according to WRN, Milwaukee and Chicago are the only two cities in the country with a residency rule still in place.) In Wisconsin, only Milwaukee (city, county, schools) imposes such a sweeping restriction.
Yet, Barrett and other city leaders continue to insist that the residency rule
is a survival issue.
Barrett has gone so far as to say that if city employees
were free to live where they chose, Milwaukee would become Detroit. (Does the
mayor imagine that Detroit would be a sort of Shangri-la if only city workers
had been prevented from fleeing? But I digress.)
"I guarantee removing the residency rule will reduce
property values in the city of Milwaukee," Barrett said.
This is not, to put it mildly, an expression of confidence
in the attractiveness of his city.
Barrett seems to believe that the city’s own employees will
be so anxious to leave that they will sell their houses at a loss.
(Bonus question for
the mayor: What is it about your city that you think makes people want to escape it so badly?)
Here, the issue drifts into the realm of high irony when we
reflect on how liberals, like Barrett, describe themselves as "pro-choice," or "pro-workers’
But when it comes to residency rules, the left is decisively
anti-choice and anti-rights. The left’s soft
spot for coercion is well established – mandatory union membership, mandatory
health insurance --but virtually no worker in either the public or private sector
is treated the way Barrett insists we must treat his employees.
And their families.
This is what makes the residency rule especially invidious: it
reaches deeply into the private, non-work aspects of their family lives. By
dictating where they live, the rule does not merely affect employees, but also their
spouses, their children, and therefore their basic parenting decisions. No
other workers have to consult their employers about their choice of a
neighborhood, much less the schools their children must attend.
Barrett is not actually saying that Milwaukee has become an
East Berlin-like hellhole; but he is saying that unless we force people to stay
here, they will choose to live somewhere else. In other words, Barrett fears
freedom of choice and freedom of movement.
This strikes me as a bit of déjà vu: Without a Wall (residency
rule), they will flee. So we must prevent them.
But cities seldom prosper by building walls or by
clinging to archaic rules to shield themselves from change. The walls and the rules are, ultimately,
symbols of failure.
So Mr. Barrett, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity,
if you seek liberalization, open this gate.