Policy Analysis No. 165

The District of Columbia: America’s Worst Government?

By William A. Niskanen
November 18, 1991

Executive Summary

Washington the Capital is a symbol of democracy and America. Washington the city is a symbol of almost everything that sincere and thoughtful men know is wrong with democracy and America. Washington the Capital is the hope of world freedom. Washington the city is overcrowded, badly housed, expensive, crime-ridden, intolerant, with inadequate transportation, schools, and health facilities. It staggers under a dilapidated and hopeless governmental organization, and its problems are rapidly getting worse.

— Alden Stevens

Although written in 1941, those words are disturbingly descriptive of the Washington of 1991. Washington the capital is still the marble mecca of democracy. And in some ways it has improved over the past half century. Washington the city is now more cosmopolitan, more tolerant, and air-conditioned. Commercial development has greatly increased the property tax base. The District of Columbia, which provides the services of both a state and a city government, now has substantial home rule. The government of the nation’s capital, however, is probably the worst in the nation—maybe not as bad as the city government of Detroit but clearly worse than the government of any state. District expenditures per resident, excluding the cost of special federal services in Washington, are about twice the national average of state and local expenditures. Despite the high level of District spending, the performance of students in the public schools is lower than in any state, and the murder rate, infant mortality rate, and several other measures of social pathology are higher than in any state. A local satirical revue recently described the District Building (Washington’s city hall) as “the nation’s first work-free drug zone.” Such are the record and the reputation of the District of Columbia that Mayor Dixon recently inherited.

Sharon Pratt Dixon brings to her new position a record of personal integrity, good management, and an overwhelming election victory. That will not be enough. One should remember that Mayor Barry first came to office with a reputation for high energy and political entrepreneurship. Honesty, good management, and politics-as-usual will not be sufficient to resolve the major problems of the District of Columbia. This analysis summarizes the major dimensions of the cost of District government, social conditions in Washington, and the radical changes that may be necessary to improve those conditions.

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William A. Niskanen is chairman of the Cato Institute.