Editorial: Big Intentions Aren’t Enough

The fiasco that has become Obamacare should remind all of us, particularly the mayor-elect of New York, of the perils of big ideas and good intentions.

None of it matters if you don’t know how to get things done.

Bill de Blasio has been nothing if not honest about his ideology and policy preferences. The incoming mayor told an audience of real estate developers recently that he is not a “free marketeer.” Rather, he said, he believes “in the heavy hand of government.”

It has been some time since New York heard such sentiments from any politician of standing. Over the last quarter-century, even stalwart Democrats have sought to soften the role of government in New York. Mario Cuomo argued in the 1980s that the formula for New York was all the government it needed but, he added emphatically, only the government it needed.

Mr. de Blasio, it would seem, is not so concerned about keeping a lid on government. To his credit, he is not trying to persuade the business community or the real estate industry that he doesn’t really mean what he said on the campaign trail. As he told the developers the other day, “Everything you heard about me is true.”

One of the things we’ve heard about Mr. de Blasio is that he wants to make New York more affordable, and that, of course, means building homes that middle-class people can afford to buy or rent. This page shares that desire. But here’s the question: Can the mayor-elect figure out a way to make affordable housing work?

If he believes the “heavy hand of government” will simply dictate a solution to the affordable-housing shortage, he is heading for a blunder of Obamacare proportions.

The ongoing fiasco of Obamacare demonstrates the point that skeptics of government’s heavy hand have been making for some time. Few people in government, and even fewer in politics, know how things work in the real world. And when you don’t know how to make things work, all the good intentions and soaring promises are but a prelude to bitterness, disappointment and even-deeper cynicism among voters.

In his speech to the real estate community and in other public statements, Mr. de Blasio has made it clear that he doesn’t hold the city’s business leaders in particularly high esteem. Frankly, having worked in politics all of his life, Mr. de Blasio may not fully appreciate the skill, creativity and risks involved in building successful businesses and industries. As he indicated, he is more likely to side with government than the free market in matters economic.

Not many people are prepared to argue that New York ought to become the sort of place that Ayn Rand, or Rand Paul, would admire. There is no free market in New York City, as any business owner or landlord will affirm. So the choice is not, as Mr. de Blasio seems to believe, between a free market and aggressive government intervention. The issue is how best to mix and match the best of both points of view.

For more than a generation, since the election of Ed Koch in 1977, New York has sought to achieve a better balance between job-killing government regulation and the creativity of the marketplace. Those who remember the dreary years before Koch’s election know that New York’s taxes and regulations bled the city of job creators as well as its middle class. The result was a catastrophic brush with bankruptcy.

Since the Koch years, city government has, in fits and starts, shown a greater appreciation for those who know how to get things done. Michael Bloomberg’s election as mayor in 2001 was the culmination of this new era of partnership between policymakers and private enterprise.

History will show that the city got it right after its near-death experience in the 1970s and that the mixture of marketplace incentives and wiser public policy helped the city emerge from a series of recessions and the unprecedented catastrophe of 9/11 stronger, safer and supremely confident.

Few of Mr. de Blasio’s critics believe that he yearns to return the city to the days of soaring crime rates, unsustainable welfare caseloads and depressed housing prices. But it is fair to wonder if he appreciates just how much he has alienated and even frightened the men and women who know how to get things done in this city.

These are the kinds of people who were most certainly not consulting about the implementation of Obamacare. These are the kinds of people whose expertise and real-world knowledge often are treated with contempt by those who see government as the source of all that is true and wonderful.

But if Mr. de Blasio really wants to make New York more affordable, he had better learn to appreciate the expertise of people who build housing for a living—and, yes, for a profit as well.

They know how to get things done. And if you want to see how things look when they are handled by amateurs, log onto to the Obamacare website.

That is, if it’s working.