In a famous 2005 article in the Journal of Law, Economics, & Organization, Harvard scholars Edward Glaeser and Andrei Shleifer named the so-called “Curley Effect” after its prototype, James Michael Curley, who served four (non-consecutive) terms as mayor of Boston between 1914 and 1950. This phenomenon, the authors explain, is the strategy of “increasing the relative size of one’s political base through distortionary, wealth-reducing policies.” Forbes magazine puts it this way: “A politician or a political party can achieve long-term dominance by tipping the balance of votes in their direction through the implementation of policies that strangle and stifle economic growth. Counterintuitively, making a city poorer leads to political success for the engineers of that impoverishment.”
The Curley Effect typically occurs when Democratic political leaders adopt policies that redistribute wealth from the prosperous to the poor, causing the latter to become economically dependent upon their political patrons, and thus to become a permanently pro-Democrat voting bloc. At the same time, these redistributive policies cause the people harmed by them (i.e., those from whom wealth is extracted) to emigrate to other cities, states, and even countries, thereby further solidifying the political power of Curleyist practitioners.
Curleyists commonly try to gain popular support for their agendas by engaging in incendiary class-warfare rhetoric that demonizes wealthy people as exploiters of the poor. This serves to distract voters from the fact that redistributive left-wing policies may actually be responsible for the declining economic and social conditions around them.
Consequently, the beneficiaries of Curleyist redistributionism invariably become unable to perceive the connection between left-wing policies and their negative consequences. Instead, they view Democrats as the noble, last line of defense that stands between them and total destitution. As a result, their loyalty to Democrats persists, undiminished, regardless of how badly conditions may get — chiefly because they interpret the failures of leftist policies as evidence that those policies simply did not go far enough, probably as a result of conservative obstructionism. Thus do residents of Democrat-controlled centers of poverty and crime continue to elect Democrats to political office.
America’s poorest cities today provide a contemporary example of this syndrome. In 2010, the ten poorest U.S. cities with a population of 250,000 or more were: Detroit, Buffalo, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Miami, St. Louis, El Paso, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, and Newark. All of these cities had poverty rates between 24% and 32%, and none had elected a Republican mayor since the 1980s. In fact, 8 of the 10 cities had been led by Democrats for more than half a century.
Similarly, as of 2011 the ten most dangerous cities in America (in terms of violent crime) were Flint, Detroit, Saint Louis, New Haven, Memphis, Oakland, Little Rock, Baltimore, Rockford, and Stockton. All ten had been strongholds of Democratic mayors for many years.
Glaeser and Shleifer summarize their “Curley Effect” thesis as follows:
“It is generally thought in economics [that] [g]ood policies bring in resources and voters; bad ones keep them out. With the Curley effect, this result is reversed. When politicians seeking to stay in power use distortionary policies to force out their political opponents, [it] renders bad policies more, rather than less, attractive. The Curley effect, and more generally the economics of shaping the electorate, might thus shed light on a broad range of government policies that appear too bad to be true from alternative perspectives.”
The Curley Effect: The Economics of Shaping the Electorate
By Edward L. Glaeser and Andrei Shleifer
How Property Taxes and the “Curley Effect” Are Killing Baltimore
By Steve Hanke and Stephen Walters
August 26, 2011
President Obama’s Wealth Destroying Goal: Taking the “Curley Effect” Nationwide
By Mark Hendrickson
May 31, 2012