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Creating Responsible and Responsive Communities
through a Smorgasbord of Local Governments

by Steve Dumolt


The most effective and responsive form of government is that whose functionality exists in the closest proximity to those people to whom it should actually be responsible. A bottom-up scenario with most of the operations and taxation at the local levels would provide the greatest degree of flexibility, utility, and accountability. Only those operations that are truly nation- or state-wide would be carried out at higher levels.  While the type of government at the federal and state levels is designated by the U.S. Constitution to be of a republican form, at the local level it may be whatever the people in the community / county / region desire. Taxation, services, representation, intrusiveness, individual responsibility, and collectivization could be conducted in a manner established by those who would have to live with them. In other words, government "of the people, by the people, and for the people" starts locally and becomes further removed from its constituents as required to address broader needs.

 
OUR FEDERAL GOVERNMENT IS LARGELY UNACCOUNTABLE TO ITS CONSTITUENTS

In the America of today the federal government is largely unaccountable and unresponsive to the needs of the country as a whole, as well as the needs of the individual citizen, yet it maintains the lion's share of political power. Just over half the government money spent in this country is federal. (Federal spending: 52.4%, State: 22.4 %, Local 25.1%; FY 2015) Most of that money is not spent to support the goals stated in the Preamble to the U.S.Constitution, including providing for the common defense and promoting the general welfare, but is rather used for payments to individuals and programs that operate at the state and/or local levels. How these funds are spent is determined by the 435 members of the House of Representatives and the 100 members of the Senate. By necessity and practicality, most federal programs and "solutions" are one-size-fits-all and usually do not solve or even adequately address the problems at hand. Trying to tailor federal programs to serve the needs of individual localities would result in an impossibly complex and wasteful hodgepodge.

The lack of federal accountability stems from more than one source: First and foremost, many local and often very personal options for individuals -- like healthcare choices -- are determined at the national level. When I vote I may vote only for one Representative and two Senators from my designated district/state. I have no influence over who gets elected from other states and districts even though their actions often dictate to me as an individual. This effectively creates an unconstrained democracy -- where the majority rules the minority -- while maintaining the facade of representative government. Any nationally-based legislation that pertains to individuals ignores the concept of government "of the people, by the people, and for the people" for the very reason that the other 434 Representatives and 98 Senators, whose vote affects my personal life just as much as the three I can vote for, are insulated from any influence from me by way of the ballot box. There is no effective recourse for me as an individual citizen. An assembly of legislators who are individually accountable only to a very small percentage of the citizenry provides an ideal opportunity for waste and corruption to take residence, resulting in an inefficient, inflexible, and unresponsive government. Much of the spending is in the form of "entitlements" or pork-barrel spending and is designed to influence votes of the individuals and groups receiving the largess. An additional complication lies in the reality that once the President and members of Congress leave office they are not held responsible for laws enacted while they are in office. Technically, it would be the job of subsequent Congresses/Presidents to reverse to reverse the actions of their predecessors, but in reality that rarely happens. The inertia of the leviathan we refer to as the federal government is just too great. Another source related to the lack of federal accountability is the fact that an increasing number of regulations do not follow the legislative process ordained by the U.S. Constitution but, rather, are created through arbitrary Presidential orders or established by unelected individuals in agencies such as the Internal Revenue Service or Environmental Protection Agency.

It is hard to imagine a more stupid or more dangerous way of making decisions than by putting those decisions in the hands of people who pay no price for being wrong.
   -- Thomas Sowell

This lack of accountability is a fundamental flaw in our system of government. Because the power of the federal government is becoming a greater and greater determinant of individual lives, the state of my own life, health, and personal well-being is being dictated by people I don't have the opportunity to vote for. Our top-heavy system of a dominant national government demonstrates a variation and extension of James Otis' concept of "taxation without representation". Conversely, if federal government dealt only with truly national aspects, the congressional vote of a representative or senator from a faraway state would have less influence on the immediate lives of the citizens to whom they are not accountable.

Unfortunately, the voting power of the individual has been decreasing since the first days of the republic. In 1789, a member of the House of Representatives represented about 30,000 constituents; today that number is over 700,000. The influence of any individual's vote in the next Congressional election will be less than 1/20th of what it was when George Washington was President of the United States.

Another example of the decline of individual influence is the concept of "winner takes all". This is put into practice by virtually every state during Presidential elections as well as both major parties during many Presidential primaries and caucuses. The winner of the vote is awarded either all of the delegates at stake or a number far out of proportion to the actual percentages involved. The influence of those who voted for the "losers" is effectively negated.

A variation of the winner takes all process occurs every year when the federal budget is debated and passed by Congress. In recent years the appropriations for federal spending have been passed as a single bill. If the President doesn't approve of even a small portion of it, he threatens to veto the entire bill, thereby "shutting down the government" until he gets his way.

The fact that most of the governmental power in this country resides at the federal level has made individual states, individual counties, individual communities -- and even individual people themselves -- largely irrelevant and invisible.
Unless approved by the federal government, state and local options are severely restricted and individual options are rarely possible. Unconstrained democracy has been described as: "Two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner". The people who are elected (or appointed) to federal positions have the power to dictate to populations that have no power to elect them or remove them from their positions. The safeguard of checks-and-balances effectively disappears.

It would not be a stretch to say that one of the greatest evils in the history of the world -- and a source of ever-continuing misery -- is the mandate some people feel they have to impose arbitrary ideas and behaviors on others. One of the ironies of this state of affairs is that the "winners" often exempt themselves from the constraints imposed by their own edicts.


The principle that the majority have a right to rule the minority, practically resolves all government into a mere contest between two bodies of men, as to which of them shall be masters, and which of them slaves...
   -- Lysander Spooner

In other words, the United States is developing into a new type of dictatorship. Classically, there are four types of dictatorships. They are not completely independent of each other but may be roughly defined as follows:
These four types of dictatorships have existed in one form or another throughout most of human history. There is a fifth type of dictatorship described in the previous paragraphs has emerged since the widespread practice of "self-government" was established, which may be called a Democratic dictatorship -- the result of an unconstrained democracy. It has been referred to as the "tyranny of the majority". This majority may be a majority of the voting population trying to get - or keep - what they see as their piece of the pie or it may be a majority of elected Representatives and Senators robotically following the direction of their party leaders. The elected Representatives and Senators (and Presidents!) act as they want and the majority of the voting population, to its detriment, don't seem to be interested in challenging those actions. They seem to prefer to clinging to an insecure status quo rather than face up to the consequences of their choices. In effect, the facade of democracy is used to establish "legitimacy" but, in reality, it takes democracy to its extreme conclusion and completely negates the function of representative government.

INVERSION OF THE GOVERNMENT HIERARCHY

An alternative framework  for our system of government would be for the current hierarchy to be inverted. Instead of most of the power and functionality residing at the national level, it would make more sense for those truly local functions to reside closest to those people to whom they would be most accountable, while truly state and national functionality would reside at those levels.

The federal and the state governments are designated by the U.S. Constitution to be of a republican form, but at the more local levels it should be possible for the people to have any type of government or social structure they wanted. Everyone would be citizens of the United States and residents of their respective states, and the country would function as a republic at these levels of government, but on a more local level many different political/social systems would be possible.
 
There are large and active factions in the U.S. today that have almost diametrically opposed views with respect to the appropriate functions of government and society. They appear to be of two general types, those who think society functions better when people are controlled and those who don't. It is not possible for these views to prevail simultaneously at the national level, nor does it appear possible for either of factions to subjugate themselves to the views of the other.

While maintaining the framework of a constitutional republic at the federal and state levels, people living in different areas will be free to choose the form of government most suitable for their local preferences and situations. The beauty of this is that variations in desires for taxation, services, representation, government intrusiveness, individual responsibility, and collectivization may be accommodated at the local level without imposing it on people who wish to live under a different system. Possible forms of governance, in addition to a standard representative government, could be unconstrained democracy, absolute dictatorship, predetermined religious or social communal framework, or just about anything else the local population desired.

Under this system federal and state governments would be much smaller than at present and would carry out only those functions for which they are uniquely suited. Most taxation, spending, and government functionality would be concentrated at the local level, thereby increasing the accountability relative to that of the less responsive federal and state governments. Federal patronage and pork-barrel spending would be significantly curtailed. Any local spending or regulation would be subject to greater scrutiny and, hopefully, greater accountability. The occurrence of one-size-fits-all  "solutions" would be local. The effects of these solutions would be more applicable to smaller, more homogeneous groups of people in the local community. U.S. Senators and Representatives would have minimal influence on day-to-day lives of individual citizens who don't live in their states/districts. The greatest influence on day-to-day lives of individuals would be contained within the local community. Any programs involving payments to individuals at the local level would reinforce the link between rights and responsibilities, a concept that usually fails miserably at the national level.

Disputes between local entities could be dealt with at the county level and progress to the state and federal levels as circumstances require. It may be beneficial to restructure local political boundaries to ensure that one district cannot force its system on people passing through. Federal and state governments would function largely to coordinate and/or standardize the activities between - not within - the local entities. The functions remaining in the hands of the federal government would be truly national, like national defense and air traffic control.

WHY A BOTTOM-UP STRUCTURE WOULD BE BETTER

The system I am describing is one where the governmental structure is bottom-up rather than top-down. If a group of people wanted a far-reaching type of government that would have a significant influence on their day-to-day lives, they could do that at the local level. On the other hand, if a very hands-off level of governance was desired that could be set up as well. Virtually any form of governance could exist locally.

A fatal flaw of most societal/governmental structures is the insistence of forcing everyone to live under the same system. The strength of the framework described here is that local populations would have the choice of what type of social or political system they wanted to live under, resulting in a government that was truly "of the people, by the people, and for the people". They would not have a government imposed on them, nor would they impose one on others.

Individual benefits and their corresponding responsibilities are more easily determined on a smaller scale. The closer the operation of government is to the people to whom it is responsible the less opportunity there is for graft, "pork", "tax breaks", and other government-induced inequities. People who are truly disadvantaged and need assistance will have a better chance of escaping their current multi-generational cycle of dependency and getting the effective help they need to improve their situation, while the grifters and leeches will be more easily weeded out.

Historically, there have always been wide variations in local living styles in America, including religious and communal. People could "vote with their feet" by moving to places more conducive to their own preferences. If, over a period of time, a particular place changed character then those who wished a different environment could pursue an appropriate transition to a different locality. Nobody could be forced to move to or from, or be forced to stay in, a particular place without due process. This process would have the effect of encouraging local governments to provide efficient, effective, and responsive government or face a loss of residents to other communities.
Another advantage of a strong local government is that it could revive the concept of the city-state, which might alleviate the inequities resulting from residents of one locality using the services of a neighboring one without compensation. This situation is often encountered where a central city is surrounded by suburbs.

Our national social culture is not as uniform as it was in the mid-20th Century. This makes it more and more difficult to establish any kind of lasting unity or consensus. More and more we are finding our social and political niches. More and more these niches need to be accommodated within society. The type of bottom-up structure described here would make that possible. This type of governance would establish general limits for human behavior and then allow people to operate freely within them.

When this "smorgasbord" array of local governments is compared to other possible forms, one fact is obvious. It is the only one in which a governing segment of the populace, whether a majority or minority, does not engage in the fool's errand of attempting to force its way of thinking and acting on everyone else.
Arbitrary regulations that favor some groups at the expense of others only serve to introduce instabilities into society. Often these will appear to lie dormant and continue to smolder for a time but will eventually explode. Obviously, there are certain standards that must be adhered to by everyone, including prohibitions on actions against other people like murder, rape, and robbery. Most other activities currently forbidden or compulsory under the law, however, could be regulated in one local environment but completely optional in others. This form of political/social structure, by allowing individuals and groups to live as they see fit and not have a framework imposed on them by others, has a much greater chance to survive for the long haul and quite likely is the only formula that can work in a large population composed of many disparate views.

This heterogeneous set of political and social options introduces a system of checks and balances. The option to "vote with one's feet" creates a mechanism of self-correction. People would gravitate toward the environments they prefer and avoid those they don't. This is not possible in an authoritarian national system where the rules are arbitrarily set at the top levels of government. There will always be discontent. Attempts at suppression will only increase it. The key is to allow social and political alternatives to address and alleviate it.

WHY IT CANNOT BE IMPLEMENTED NOW

Of course, it is far too late in the life cycle of this country for any of this to actually be implemented.
Authoritarianism and forced collectivism are currently being promoted by narrow majorities (or even pluralities) of those who hope to benefit under these frameworks or through arbitrary government policies (not approved through the constitutionally mandated legislative / executive / judicial process or by the electorate).

The already-existing factions, and the national system itself, are far too entrenched for the system to be revamped to the extent described above. The number of people and  organizations who receive power and various types of remuneration from the nationally-based government are not going to give up the power, control, and benefits they have gotten accustomed to over the past century and a half. This includes both elected and appointed officials as well as many ordinary citizens.

An additional complication is that the implementation of the bottom-up structure might actually prove to be detrimental for some systems. The establishment of multiple political/social arrangements existing side-by-side would provide a basis for direct comparison. Some would flourish, others would not. Those who would not want their preferred system to be subjected to competition would be likely to oppose this arrangement.

When plunder becomes a way of life for a group of men in a society, over the course of time they create for themselves a legal system that authorizes it and a moral code that glorifies it.
   -- Frédéric Bastiat

One if the biggest flaws of the republic as designed by the framers of the Constitution is that sooner or later a few people figure out how to "game" the system. This usually takes the form of laws or regulations that favor particular groups or industries. From there it grows until a majority of "gamers" can use the electoral system to take power and wealth from a minority of "producers". Once this happens, it becomes more and more difficult for the system to function effectively. In the country today, 40-50% of households do not pay federal income taxes. Almost 50% receive a government salary or other substantial benefits. There is no incentive for those receiving the largess to change the status quo by taking themselves off the payroll, and every incentive for even more people to try to get on the gravy train. There is nothing the situation can do but continue to decay.
 
If the type of bottom-up framework described in this document is ever to be implemented, it will have to wait for the next "re-birth of freedom".

SUMMARY


Steve may be reached at:

Last Update: 25 December 2016