David Brooks, a center-right conservative who harbors suspicion about big government, wrote an encouraging piece in the NYT (7/20/18) about what he called localism. In the face of generalized unhappiness with the federal government, he wrote, it’s through local governments that real problems are addressed by real people who are known and can be held accountable. They can respond more quickly with greater flexibility and creativity than the massive federal bureaucracy with its tendency to impose one size fits all solutions on problems that manifest themselves in unique ways at the local level. It’s from there where he sees hope for America springing.
All true, but it shouldn’t be romanticized. Local communities are also strongholds of entrenched prejudice and power, the birth place of tea party politics. They’re where old ways rumble over the stillborn new, and where tolerance of systemic injustice is abetted by blindness to it. Local governments are also creatures of the state. Even with home rule exceptions, they can do only what the state permits them to do. Their ability to act quickly in imaginative new ways is limited.
Obviously local governments are not one or the other, but a complicated mix of both, deeply affected by tradition, historical circumstance, and demographic and economic change. They’re not hilltop fortifications immune as possible from the outside world’s influence. Transportation and communication systems broke down those walls a long time ago. Issues may be experienced in locally unique ways, but few have respect for city limits or county lines. Disease cannot be controlled in one place if it isn’t controlled in every place. Homelessness can’t be solved in one place if it isn’t solved in every place. The quality of air and water ignores government boundaries. In our area, trading relationships and agricultural prices in other countries have a direct, immediate impact on the local economy. Globalization is a reality. No amount of hot tempered frustration will make it go away.
It means that we need a strong, efficiently run federal government to study and provide needed information about the condition of the natural and economic environment, adopt policies requiring all units of government at every level to address them in ways coordinated to meet national standards, but allowing each to do it in ways appropriate for them. There’s no place in the contemporary world for a small, weak central government. Its ability to raise and invest enormous sums of money to meet enormous needs cannot be delegated to lesser units of government. Consider the part of the country where I live; local agriculture depends on water from the Snake and Columbia, inexpensive electricity generated by their dams, and river transportation to export terminals near the coast. Curiously, the small government, conservative minded voters in the region appear to have collective amnesia about their dependency on massive federal investments in infrastructure, their taxes and fees making an infinitely small contribution to the cost.
Given that, I agree with Brooks: emphasis on responsibility for addressing issues should be given to the lowest capable level of community, and that’s often municipal and county government. They need to be given helpful guidelines, adequate funding, held accountable for results, but not constrained by uniform methods imposed on everyone. Federal bureaucracies need to become more flexible, and their staffs must understand their more important role is customer service, not enforcement.
A change in corporate culture is obviously needed, but it’s not an executive branch problem only. Congress has a nasty habit of writing laws that tend toward micro management through language and legislative intent requiring the regulatory detailed inflexibility they rail against during campaigns. They take umbrage at what they created. It’s a wonder.
I know there’s a nostalgic desire among many for a small national government, with most governmental functions assumed by states and localities, and even those functions limited to the most basic. It evokes images of a renewed society of hard working individuals taking care of themselves, and meeting the needs of the poor through charity. Currier and Ives would live again. It’s a desire not without value, but it has no foundation in reality. There never was a time like that, nor can there be. Its value lies in encouraging an American character of individual responsibility, charitable generosity, and civic engagement. It’s a worthy value that need not be in conflict with the reality of what is required of our national government in the contemporary world.