Though the final episode of The Wire aired Sunday, anyone invested in the debate about how to fix American cities will operate in its shadow for the foreseeable future. Its audience is small. Its portrait of Baltimore is fictionalized. But it inspired a public conversation about ghetto-life that lasted five seasons. That’s remarkable considering that real ghetto murder victims and drug gangs seldom make national headlines at all.
Creator David Simon used The Wire to render his native city through its drug trade, its police department, its municipal bureaucracy, its blue collar workers, its politicians, its schools and its newspaper. All aspects are ailing, decay that Mr. Simon attributes in interviews to a familiar villain on the left. “Thematically, it’s about the very simple idea that, in this post-modern world of ours, human beings — all of us — are worth less,” he says. “We’re worth less every day, despite the fact that some of us are achieving more and more… It’s the triumph of capitalism.”
If you’ve never seen the show, and that sounds a bit tired and Marxist, don’t cut it from your Netflix cue. Just as All in the Family rings true to life whatever you think of Norman Lear, and The Cosby Show is still considered great by liberals who object to its namesake’s controversial quasi-conservatism, The Wire is a show that one can throw on after a politically mixed party, confident that Republicans, Democrats, and libertarians nursing nightcaps will all find scenes that seem to them to confirm their worldviews; art that expertly mirrors society reflects its disagreements too.
What’s bizarre, as the show comes to a close, is the preponderance of commentators who agree that The Wire is a searing attack on capitalism, for that analysis — echoed in Slate, the New Yorker and the Atlantic, among many other places — is plainly wrong. The Wire is brutal in its critiques, as any viewer knows. Its most thorough dissections, however, concern the least capitalistic institutions in Baltimore.
THIS IS IMPORTANT, for the public conversation about how to fix America’s cities is tied to The Wire more closely than any other cultural phenomenon. If consensus opinion solidifies around the wrong lessons, time and effort will be spent on the wrong reforms.
So let me briefly make the case that, insofar as the show reflects larger truths, its lessons are that urban institutions are broken for reasons other than capitalism; that politicians and bureaucracies are intrinsically flawed; and that redemption is most likely to come through nurturing self-reliance, and sometimes even free markets. In short, it isn’t that David Simon attempted to critique capitalism and failed — it’s that he hardly critiqued capitalism at all.
Season one introduces two main plot lines: the Barksdale drug gang and the Baltimore detectives trying to stop them. Dysfunction is the rule on the street and among police — the parallelism is much remarked upon by critics; neither plot line describes a capitalistic world. The Barksdale gang kills anyone who tries to compete on their corners, violence that tends to constrain the free market. Police Commissioner Irv Burrell and his deputy, William Rawls, run a department where productivity is punished. Only politicking brings promotion.
Season two’s stevedores are the closest the show comes to commenting on the global economy. The dockworkers are economic losers in a niche where technology is replacing their jobs. Simon effectively conveys society’s indifference to their plight — a congressman trying to build support for job retraining programs could do worse than showing those 12 episodes to doubters. It’s worth noting, however, that Union Boss Frank Sobotka doesn’t start smuggling contraband to make his mortgage payment — he’s raising bribes since cash is the only way state senators like the corrupt Clay Davis will back plans to dredge the harbor. Sobotka’s son and nephew are underemployed partly due to the dearth of ship traffic, but also because union rules allocate all available work based on seniority rather than talent or ambition.
Season three concerns a mayoral race for City Hall, though the plot line more relevant to this discussion centers on Bunny Colvin — a precinct commander, he initiates the show’s great free-market experiment, a zone where drugs are effectively legalized. The results aren’t pretty. Corner boys, hoppers, and addicts are all concentrated in one place. Overall, though, it’s an improvement: the murder rate falls, violent crime plummets citywide and public health workers are able to reach people with AIDS and heroin addicts. Around the same time Stringer Bell, who runs the Barksdale gang, is attempting to become a businessman — the drug trade would be better if it were more like regular businesses, without all the violence, he concludes.
It’s no wonder that the American Scene’s Peter Suderman called The Wire “a libertarian show made by a hardcore social democrat.” If free markets reducing violence are a critique of capitalism, one wonders what an endorsement would look like.
ACTUALLY, SEASON FOUR’S portrait of Baltimore city schools is more of what Suderman had in mind. The district is an ossified monopoly that lacks sufficient funds, can’t even maintain safety in classrooms and resists or actively undermines every promising reform effort, leaving pupils no alternative to a substandard education.
David Simon’s critique of institutions, whether schools or drug co-ops or unions or police departments, isn’t a hopeful one. He doesn’t seem to think that the right technocrat or better social science data can fix their flaws, as most liberals do. In his Baltimore, institutions are flawed because the humans that oversee and staff them, good people like Cedric Daniels and bad people like Clay Davis and everyone in between, are themselves flawed in inevitable human ways. Anytime an institution subsumes an individual — think the Barksdale organization and Dee, the police department and McNulty, the group home system and Randy — it corrupts or destroys him.
Surveying these bleak outcomes, American Scenester Reihan Salam wrote that Simon had “prepared an elaborate, moving brief for despair and (ultimately) indifference.” Season five suggests that Simon indeed believes that triumphs and redemption happen rarely, and almost never thanks to institutions.
But that shouldn’t evoke despair or indifference in conservatives or libertarians, for we believe that nurturing self-reliance among troubled city-dwellers is among the most important antidotes to urban dysfunction, just as it was for Cutty when he committed to trimming lawns, for Jimmy when he quit drinking and womanizing, and for Bubbles when he assumed responsibility for his past.
It is notable that a clergyman, a quasi-wife, and a support group sponsor afforded these characters the helping hands they needed. Were it not for Simon’s rhetoric one might suspect him of being a social conservative in addition to a keen and truthful reporter.
In fact, Simon insists that he is a liberal, that the rise of sociopath Marlow Stanfield reflects the logical progression of capitalism and that the Greek, the ruthless crimes boss who imports Baltimore’s drugs and kills without remorse, embodies pure capitalism. Here one begins to suspect that Simon doesn’t quite understand what that word — capitalism — means. By definition it refers to voluntary exchanges in a free market of competing non-monopolies, largely unencumbered by government regulations that limit supply or trigger black markets.
The Greek deals in coercive exchanges in a black market on which he has a near-monopoly that is enforced through violence. One could easily create a caricatured capitalist to stand in for the free market’s worst tendencies; but the Greek isn’t that character.
TO BE FAIR, Simon might argue that textbook capitalism, where everyone is free from coercion, is fantasy in the real world, where players are always jockeying for position and power, wielding it over adversaries when they can. The Wire exists within a capitalistic America, he might say, and just look at all the problems that plague our cities!
That problems exist in our country hardly proves, absent other arguments, that capitalism is their root cause. Elsewhere in interviews Simon is known to say, not unreasonably, that his show resembles a Greek tragedy in many ways, which makes it all the more perplexing that he imagines power-seeking, selfishness, corruption and exploitation as capitalistic vices. These human flaws have been with us since the Greeks, indeed before them, and long before the rise of global capitalism. No country is without ruthless players, corrupt officials and unfair outcomes, even today.
We should be grateful to Simon for his creation, whatever our disagreements. He has tried his hardest to render reality, and has succeeded in convincing us his Baltimore is real, even though we may disagree deeply about how to make sense of it. As this conversation continues, spurred over time by Americans who discover The Wire on DVD, conservatives and libertarians ought to continue insisting that capitalism isn’t the root of Baltimore’s problems, in fact or in David Simon’s fiction.