Commentary

Chicago, Chicago, That Coddlin’ Town

Frank Sinatra sang praises to Chicago, “that toddlin’ town, the town that Billy Sunday couldn’t shut down.” But what the fiery fundamentalist couldn’t do, the nanny-state politicians may yet manage.

Chicago’s ruling classes have lately been making headlines with their various schemes for shaping up the citizens. The City Council has just banned foie gras, the liver of force-fed ducks and geese, in restaurants. They’ve also banned smoking in bars, restaurants, and nearly all public places, and now they’re debating whether to ban smoking on the beach.

Edward M. Burke, who has served on the Chicago City Council since 1969, is pushing for a ban on cooking oil that contains trans fats. He’s also proposing a dress code for cab drivers, forbidding them from wearing tank tops, shorts, and sandals while on the job. Burke’s policy would require cabbies to wear collared white shirts, badges (with the driver’s name and company logo), dress slacks, socks, and matching shoes. Since Burke is chairman of the Finance Committee, his proposals have a way of becoming law.

Moving from nanny-state harassment to serious economic mistakes, the City Council voted recently to require Chicago’s big-box retailers to pay employees a “living wage” of at least $10 an hour and $3 in benefits by 2010. The ordinance singles out large companies, imposing the requirement only on stores that occupy more than 90,000 square feet and are part of companies grossing more than $1 billion annually.

Now Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, a Chicago native, feels compelled to come up with crank schemes of his own. His latest is a “comprehensive, long-term energy plan” to help Illinois achieve “energy independence.” It sounds impressive, but like most comprehensive long-term government plans, it turns out to be a grab-bag of subsidies, tax breaks, regulations, and wishful thinking. Illinois taxpayers would have to cough up $1.2 billion to build ethanol and coal gasification plants and pipelines. Gas stations would be required to offer ethanol. And ethanol producers would contribute to the governor’s campaign.

In all these areas, Chicago politicians just don’t want to let people make their own decisions. Blagojevich doesn’t trust energy companies to invest in the most promising technologies. The council doesn’t think the people flocking to work at Wal-Mart and Target know what’s good for them. And most of the aldermen believe that people need to be protected from their own choices about smoking and eating. Fortunately, the city of Al Capone and the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre hasn’t tried to outlaw drinking again. Prohibition of foie gras and indoor smoking isn’t likely to lead to that kind of violence, but it might lead people to eat, drink, and smoke across the city boundaries.

Some Chicagoans are still willing to fight back. At the exclusive 676 Restaurant & Bar on August 21, the night before the foie gras ban went into effect, chef Robert Gadsby served an “Outlaw Dinner,” featuring foie gras, wild morels, absinthe, unpasteurized cheese, and hemp seeds, all of which have been banned at some time.

Mayor Richard M. Daley—who has himself appointed a city health commissioner who promises to issue the aldermen “personal health report cards”—says the council is going too far. “Is the City Council going to plan our menus?” he asks. “How far should government go?… If we start going in that direction, we’ll all be eating carrots and tofu.” He has also threatened to veto the steep hike in minimum wages for big stores.

And Wal-Mart and Target have both threatened to change their plans to build stores in Chicago if the minimum wage law stands. The city seems to need the jobs the chain stores could bring: The new Wal-Mart in Evergreen Park, a suburban peninsula surrounded on three sides by Chicago, received a record 25,000 applications for 325 positions, the highest for any one location in the retailer’s history.

Sinatra sang, “On State Street, that great street, I just want to say/They do things they don’t do on Broadway/They have the time, the time of their life.”

But now the toddlin’ town has become the coddlin’ town, where politicians think citizens need a government to protect them from themselves.

David Boaz is executive vice president of the Cato Institute and author of Libertarianism: A Primer.