At the base of the Appalachian Plateau, nestled among the hills and low ridges where Wills Creek runs into the Potomac River, is a town that time is in the process of forgetting.
I visited Cumberland only once, and only then for about 2 hours. I was driving home from a hiking trip, and I was hungry. I pulled off I-68, turned underneath the graffiti-stained overpass, parked my car, and started walking around.
It was a cemetery. Everywhere I looked I saw death. Dead businesses. Dead churches. Dead roads. Storefronts faded. Homeless people ambling around bus stops, dozing underneath an old theater awning. Dated fliers heralding downtown revitalization on a dirty kiosk. Newly built museums, tourist centers, and galleries standing ready to divert scant indifferent visitors. An old man sweeping a sidewalk no one’s using. Meanwhile, commuters spilling off the interstate and lining up at a McDonald’s drive-thru.
Next to concrete-reinforced Wills Creek, an abandoned rail yard. On the west bank, standing on either side of Washington Street, the First Presbyterian Church and Emmanuel Episcopal Church, a contrast in new and old. Both, however, stood silent, relics to the past, their flocks lost to the city or to unfaith. Behind the Episcopal Church, a real estate office, lights out.
I entered an empty, 1950s-style burger joint and ordered three hot dogs and a soda. I told the over-the-hill waitress I’m new to town. What happened here? I asked in so many words. She said in a funereal tone: We used to be called the Queen City, second only to Baltimore. Times got hard and stayed that way. People up and left.
She spoke with a native’s knowledge, as well as the pain of having witnessed the town’s slow death firsthand. I could think of nothing reassuring to say. I left her a fat tip and left.
Cumberland is not different from many small- to mid-sized Rust Belt cities. Cumberland’s population peaked at 40,000 in the 1940s, at the height of America’s post-war industrial prowess. Today it’s roughly half that.
The manufacturing jobs have gone. They weren’t just outsourced because government made medium and heavy industrial work more expensive. Minus government's heavy hand, the ghosting of these cities would have begun anyway. In a free market, change is inevitable. Goods and services once in high demand lose their value. Adaptation to the marketplace is essential to survival.
Adaptation can be, and often is, disruptive, unpredictable, and chaotic. Within communities, adaptation upsets the balance families require to support and raise children. Over time, we’re told, we profit from the system by a higher standard of living. That doesn’t come without a price. If you’re happy at what you do, if you enjoy the peace and balance your community provides, the free market will undermine you.
R.R. Reno, editor of First Things, makes an excellent point about how the vagaries of the free market demand the stability provided by big-government “social democracy,” or socialism. He writes:
The simple fact is that the goal of social democracy—stability in and through policies designed to create and protect middle-class life—has for a long time insulated most citizens in Western nations from economic reality...Dearborn, Michigan? Youngstown, Ohio? Decades of policies that are too multifaceted and interlocking to admit of analysis much less summary have been deployed by well-meaning politicians and economic experts to protect them from exactly the market signals that make hedge fund managers rich.
It’s worth considering, as President Obama suggested, whether the continuity of our lifestyle is worth sacrificing to our standard of living, whether walking into a bank and talking to a bank teller is really such an inconvenience that we need ATMs. Was the iPhone 4 really so deficient that millions of people had to get the iPhone 5 within days of its release?
I am not saying the government should answer this for us. We must answer it for ourselves.