Market solutions best for Wichita

As appearing in the Sunday Wichita Eagle.

Market solutions best for Wichita

By Bob Weeks

In his “State of the City” address for 2012, Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer spoke on several topics that deserve discussion. As an example, several times he criticized those who act on “partisan agendas.” Partisan refers to following a party line, usually with a negative connotation.

But the city council, even though it has four Republican members, almost always votes uniformly with Brewer (a Democrat). The only exception is Republican Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita). The other Republican members routinely vote in concert with the Democrats and liberals on the council.

Also, consider the many members of the business community who appeal to the city for subsidies and increased government intervention: Many of these are Republicans — conservative Republicans, many have personally told me.

This describes a lack of partisanship. Those such as myself who frequently oppose the mayor and his policies are more accurately characterized not as acting along party lines, but as acting on their belief in economic freedom, free markets, and limited government.

The mayor said that the city’s efforts had created “almost 1000 jobs.” That’s just over one-half of one percent of Wichita’s labor force, a miniscule number that is dwarfed by the normal ebb and flow of other economic activity.

Still, the mayor’s plan, in his words, is “We will incentivize new jobs.” But this active investor policy has produced only a small number of jobs, year after year. While the mayor repeatedly said that the city has been “courageous,” in reality, Wichita does about the same as other cities.

Professor Art Hall of Kansas University School of Business makes a convincing case that Kansas needs to abandon its active investor approach to economic development, where government decides which companies will receive special treatment through various forms of subsidy. This is the approach of Wichita, and according to the mayor’s vision, this plan is to be stepped up.

Hall cites research indicating that local officials believe they can influence local economies far more than evidence indicates. He also believes that we can break out of the bidding wars for large employers by employing a strategy of economic dynamism. Government would concentrate on the basics, building a platform where all businesses have a chance to thrive, instead of betting on just a few anointed winners as we presently do. This would truly distinguish Kansas and Wichita.

The mayor criticized those who “provide simplistic answers to very complicated challenges.” He may be referring to those like myself who, like Hall, advocate for free market solutions. We are criticized for not having a plan for government to implement, but that’s precisely the point. Relying on economic freedom, free markets, and limited government for jobs and prosperity means trusting in free people, the energy of decentralized innovation, and spontaneous order. A government plan for economic development is the opposite of these principles.

We need business and political leaders in Wichita and Kansas who can see beyond the simplistic imagery of a groundbreaking ceremony and who can assess the effect of our failing economic development policies. Unfortunately, we don’t have many of these — and Mayor Brewer leads in the wrong direction, preferring crony capitalism and corporate welfare instead.


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