In my last post, I argued that the Seventeenth Amendment should be repealed. Once upon a time, Americans from across the political spectrum could agree on at least one principle of good governance: federalism, or more generally, localized decision-making.
To put a fine point on it:
- Your state knows its own values and interests better than the national government does.
- Your county knows its own values and interests better than the state government does.
- Your city knows its own values and interests better than the county government does.
- Your neighborhood knows its own values and interests better than the city government does.
- Your household knows its own values and interests better than the neighborhood does.
- And you arguably know your own particular values and interests better than other members of your household do.
Depending on who’s won lately, the people in power at higher levels of organization may approximately reflect your values and interests, but the further away they get, the less likely this is to be the case. Simply put, the more people you have to represent, and the further they are away from you, the harder it is to faithfully represent them all.
Even if your Congressman is a tremendously intelligent and virtuous man, what he doesn’t know about his constituents’ beliefs and circumstances could fill libraries.
So as a general rule, it makes sense that we should want matters to be decided at the most local level possible. If you have a personal problem, you have the greatest incentive to fix the problem, your values will determine what trade-offs you’re comfortable with, and the matter probably shouldn’t leave your household — or at worst, your peer groups. If it doesn’t naturally spill over into other people’s lives, they don’t want you to make it their problem.
Largely because so much power has accrued at higher levels of government, people increasingly turn to the impersonal and ignorant forces of those higher levels to handle their problems. Today, the federal government has so much power, reaching down to the most local possible decisions, that people focus an inordinate amount of their attention and aspirations on who controls it and what they do with it. Everyone’s fate is determined by whose collective hand controls the Biggest Lever.
I cannot stress enough how dangerous a development this is. Let’s leave aside, for the moment, how centralized control and planning tend to double down on mistakes rather than correct them. They have much more insidious effects.
Making everything a national issue has poisoned the national debate. It is a significant cause of the Culture War (see Roe v Wade, or Defense of Marriage Act). It has contributed to making politics personal, and it’s why so many people have become emotionally invested in the person of the President. Think about how much more common it has become for both parties to use the language and imagery of dictators to describe the president — usually when we disagree with him.
Bottom line: it is difficult to tolerate your neighbor’s difference of opinion if his opinion controls your life. It has become too difficult to mind one’s own business.
Let that marinate for a minute, and I’ll move on to my suggestion for one solution.
It seems to me that the simplest solution, about which a viable coalition could agree, would be tiered federalism.
For the same reason that repealing the Seventeenth Amendment would be healthy for federalism, giving states the independence needed to experiment with their own policies and govern their people according to their own values and interests, I would suggest a similar mechanism for lower levels of government.
Take California state senators, who are popularly elected just as members of the state assembly are (I don’t know about other states). That means there aren’t state-level representatives who are predisposed to protecting local decision-making.
This is a problem when there are intra-state splits just as acrimonious as the splits between states or regions. A casual look at the political map shows a faultline of suburbs between “blue” urban and “red” rural voters. Why not be as ardent about intra-state federalism?
If the higher chamber of every state legislature was appointed by more local levels of government (say, county governments), they would have a built-in interest in protecting the independence of each county to make its own decisions. Let the red counties have their own cultural policies and low taxes if they want ’em, and let the blue urbanized counties keep their money rather than subsidizing the rural areas.
And then, why not have similar checks in the county governments, perhaps appointed by city governments? And cities with checks from neighborhood councils? Each level of government could handle issues that naturally affect their own size jurisdiction without spilling over much into others, and only allow bigger jurisdictions in when they can’t handle a problem themselves.
It is a monstrous waste to have so many people trying to figure out the vagaries of national politics, when the information that should come most naturally and cheaply to them is knowledge of their immediate surroundings and neighbors, and when their personal influence on national politics is so much weaker than it could be in neighborhood or other local matters.
We have our priorities exactly backwards, because our government is upside-down.