All tyranny is local

The brutalism of local government. (Boston City Hall image from Wikipedia)

Earlier this month, The New Republic’s Franklin Foer ran a long piece on what he argues is the biggest threat to civil liberties in America: local government.

This is a flagrantly un-American sentiment. Folk wisdom conforms to what former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell said in the 2010 Republican response to the State of the Union speech: “As our Founders clearly stated, and we Governors understand, government closest to the people governs best.”


And in my home region of New England, town meeting is sacred. Because I live in a city, I don’t enjoy this form of pure, unfiltered government by the people, but my town-dwelling sister keeps me entertained with stories about how it’s possible for a small group of residents, outnumbered and outshouted by opponents, can ultimately prevail at Town Meeting by sticking around until most people have gotten exhausted and gone home.

One reason for a more jaded look at local government is Ferguson, Missouri, where the excesses of the town and county police departments came under a microscope this summer. Foer writes that Ferguson revealed a misplaced fear: “Libertarians worry about the threat of local tyrants, too, but only abstractly. In practice, they remain so fixated on the perils of Washington that they rigidly insist on devolving power down to states, cities, and towns — the very places where their nightmares are springing to life.”

A few days after Foer’s piece, New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait had a similar response: “Big Small Government is all around us. We simply haven’t trained our minds to notice it.”

Chait lists several gripes with local and state government, beginning with Ferguson’s “predatory” attitude toward its own citizens (“court fines account for a fifth of the city’s revenue") and moving on to land-use regulations that quash affordable housing, occupational licensing laws, and taxicab regulations. (That last one in particular is fuelling dreams of a new libertarian-Republican voting bloc in urban areas. See anti-tax activist Grover Norquist’s “How Uber Can Help the GOP Gain Control of the Cities.”)

Foer has his own pet issue:

If there’s a signature policy of this age of unimpeded state and local government, it’s civil-asset forfeiture. The program sounds benign enough: Authorities can unilaterally confiscate cash or property that it considers illegally begotten; many states then place the proceeds straight into its own coffers to fund further crime-fighting. But the reality of the policy is aggressive and arbitrary. […] Even if local governments wanted to roll back this legalized Boss Hoggism, they couldn’t. Police depend far too heavily on the revenue it generates.

These forfeiture laws are becoming international news. Last week, the CBC website ran a piece warning Canadians about the practice: “if you’re on an American roadway with a full wallet, in the eyes of thousands of cash-hungry cops you’re a rolling ATM.” (Will Russia compare our laws unfavorably with honest, straight-up bribery?)

Foer doesn’t see any relief from overreaching state and local government in sight:

Thirty-seven states now have unified governments, the most since the early ’50s. And in many of these places, there’s not even a remote chance that the ruling party will be deposed in the foreseeable future. The rise of one-party government has been accompanied by the evisceration of the local press and the near-extinction of metro-desk muckrakers (14,000 newsroom jobs have vanished in the last six years), crippling the other force most likely to call attention to official misdeeds. […]

[At the same time,] most Americans care much more passionately about national politics than they do about the governments closer to their homes. They may harbor somewhat warmer feelings toward states and localities, but those sentiments are grounded in apathy. Most Americans can name their president. But according to a survey conducted by Georgetown University’s Dan Hopkins, only 35 percent can identify their mayor.

But any attempt to strengthen oversight over local government—or to impose more uniformity in their laws—will have to overcome the widespread view that America would benefit from transferring more power to states and cities. Writing in response to the gridlock and polarization in Washington (but before Ferguson hit the news), Bloomberg View columnist Megan McArdle wrote:

If we’re going to have a more partisan geography — and it does seem as if we are — then what we also need is more federalism. Push as many decisions as possible down to the local level — not whether Colorado can pollute rivers that run through California, but decisions about taxes, social spending, health care and regulation.

McArdle conceded that Americans are not likely to be content with effecting change only in their own states. (“Once you’ve got a good, strong, group consensus on health-care spending or abortion, then allowing those cretins over there to force their horrible views on the people of their benighted states seems completely intolerable.”) And that may be the biggest challenge for devolutionists: All it takes is one Ferguson to make people wonder whether local government is as nimble and responsive as it’s cracked up to be.

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Joseph J Dunn
4 years 6 months ago
In his autobiography, Lincoln Steffens (renowned muckraker of the late 1800s-early 1900s, who shared office space with Ida Minerva Tarbell of Standard Oil fame) summarized his observations over a long career: "No one class is at fault, nor any breed, nor any particular interest or group or party. The misgovernment of the American people is misgovernment by the American people." In that respect, Ferguson Missouri is probably not significantly different from any other American town or city. Rev. Al Sharpton spoke of this to an audience in Ferguson, but what he said might apply in many places: "You all have to start voting and showing up; 12 percent turnout is an insult to your children." He referred to the fact that just 12 percent of Ferguson's eligible voters actually cast ballots in the April, 2013 municipal election. Registration is not the problem, nor access to the polls, as participation by both African-Americans and whites was much larger five months earlier in the November 2012 elections. Although the Constitution allows us to choose new Representatives every two years, turnout at "mid-term"elections (middle of the President's term) is notoriously low across the country. Then we spend the next two years lamenting the situation in Washington. I think Lincoln Steffens and Al Sharpton have it right, and they confirm the observation of Mr. Sullivan's sister, that ordinary people who gather their facts, organize, and persist in their efforts, can improve conditions in our towns, states and country.


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