Free Markets, Free People


MYOB

In my last post, I argued that the Seventeenth Amendment should be repealed.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.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • LinkedIn
  • Tumblr
  • Digg
  • Reddit
  • email
  • Print
  • Google Bookmarks

16 Responses to MYOB

  • Excellent article, Bryan — I heartily agree.

  • But you are forgetting about economies of scale.
    (sarcasm)

  • Well said, Bryan.

  • According to you I know my own interests and priorities more than the state legislature does, but somehow it is better for me if the legislature appoints Senators rather than me.

    You also say that it makes sense to decide matters at the most local level possible. Well, I would think that I am a lot more local than my state legislator.

    I don’t know about your state, but I don’t particularly care for the decisions my state legislature makes, and I really doubt that I would like the Senators that they would appoint.

    • timactual,
      It seems to me that you aren’t responding to my full arguments in this post or my last one.  Tom Perkins took care of the other thread, so I’ll focus on this one.

      According to you I know my own interests and priorities more than the state legislature does, but somehow it is better for me if the legislature appoints Senators rather than me.
      You also say that it makes sense to decide matters at the most local level possible. Well, I would think that I am a lot more local than my state legislator.

      The idea here is that you already have a voice in the Congress — a much more accountable voice (much shorter terms, answers to fewer constituents) — but that with the direct election of senators, more local levels of government (which also represent you) do not have a voice in the national government protecting a measure of independence.  By directly electing senators (at each level of government), we undermine all the more local levels of governance.

      When I last voted for senatorial candidates from California, it was me and 8 million other people stretched from San Diego to Modoc — not a locally-made decision, just a directly-made one.

      I don’t know about your state, but I don’t particularly care for the decisions my state legislature makes, and I really doubt that I would like the Senators that they would appoint.

      Well, I recently left California, and I wasn’t terribly keen on my state legislature either.  A big part of the reason for that is that my state legislature butted in on local and personal matters that didn’t naturally spill over into their jurisdiction.

      Then again, I’m not a big fan of Boxer and Feinstein, either.

  • Having just read about the state of national politics during the early two decades of the twentieth century I am not sure I agree that the repeal of the Seventeenth Amendment will have the result you desire.  The Senators from states controlled by machine politics then generally were machine politicians or toadys to the machine.  Why is the situation we have now likely to improve with appointment of Senators by state legislatures when it wasn’t such a hot idea then?

  • I have long thought that the problem is one of consent: the larger the group becomes, the more difficult it is to achieve consent. If the consent of the governed is the basis of government, then how do you register your consent? How do you register your lack of consent? There has to be something between simply presuming content by the absence of revolution, and revolution itself. It seems to me that the only way to create a scalable government that truly does reflect the opinions of the governed is to have the people choose only the most local of officials, and have each level of officials choose those above them. (That is, for example, using Bryan’s levels, that people would choose their neighborhood representative, who would (in combination with other neighborhood reps) choose the city reps, who would (in combination with other city reps) choose the county reps, and so on through state and federal and even higher levels.

    There would be two necessary corollaries to this. The first would be that any given level of government could only regulate the level of government below it, rather than anyone anywhere under it. The second would be that any given level of government could only exercise those powers given it by the level below it, down to the local government only having the power vested in it by the people who actually elected it.

    For example, let’s assume that a simple majority is needed at any given level in order for a government to assume a power. So at the lowest level, one would assume that nearly every jurisdiction would allow their government to have the power of collective defense; for example, the power to organize a militia would almost certainly be granted by any given group to their neighborhood association. If more than half of the neighborhood associations granted the power of collective defense to their city, and more than half of the cities to the state, and so on, then the power would grow upwards as long as a majority of sub-governments at each level concurred.

    The situation might be very different with taxation. For example, it’s likely that some local governments would have the power to tax incomes, some property, some sales, some a combination. Thus the types of taxation that would be available to higher governments would be fairly limited. Assuming that there is not a consensus broadly at a lower level, it might only be possible for higher level governments to tax the level of government immediately below it, with each lower level government collecting its own revenue however its electors have empowered it to do so.

    If this were combined with a general prohibition on interfering with movement between jurisdictions, it would seem to be ideally conducive to individual freedom within a context of security.

    It seems to me that anything else would conduce to tyranny of some kind or another, eventually, or to anarchy.

  • I’ve often opined that no one should vote who doesn’t own property, but that has unintended consequences; I can imagine a mortgage bubble starting from that.  Anyway, too often people don’t know the issues, vote on personalities, regardless of the level of the election.  One thing is clear to me; that is in this modern world where DC could become molten in an instant, we need a method to appoint senators and representatives to continue representative government to maintain our freedoms, since holding elections under such circumstances would make the present Minnesota senate election look like child’s play.  And if a form of dictatorial rule filled the void after such an event, it just might be a little difficult to unseat said person.

  • I agree with a need to return to federalism, but I also agree with timactual and don’t see how putting selection of US senators back in the hands of the legislatures would aid in this cause.  Honestly, I’m not sure how it could be done: we’ve gone so far down the road toward centralized government that I don’t know if anything short of a revolution would take us back.  The courts seem to regard the IX and X Amendments as dead letters, and they are the heart of federalism.

    More imporantly, as you point out, people have become accustomed to looking to Washington to solve their troubles.  How can you have federalism when people have no idea what it is anymore, much less faith that it is a good idea?

    • I’ve now responded to timactual.  Let me know what you think.

      As to your concerns, I’ll say this: it is easy for senators to ignore the Ninth and Tenth Amendments, to my perpetual chagrin, but it is much more difficult for them to trample on the independence of state governments if the agents of those governments appoint them.

      If the states preserve their independence from the national government, and take on their natural powers, we will look to our states rather than the federal government for problems that affect the whole state but don’t really spill over into a national problem.

      And if more local levels of the government preserve their independence from higher levels within the state, the same benefits accrue — look to city government for city-sized issues, and to county government for county-sized issues.  Full stop.

      This is part of the genius displayed by Madison in Federalist No. 51.  Though ultimately everyone is accountable to the people, the separation of powers is (at least in part) secured by different modes of appointment for different departments of government.  “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition” — checks and balances.

      It doesn’t require that people understand much of anything, or have faith in it.  It only requires that people in power be jealous of their own power.

      • You raise a good point.  It may be a bit harder for the senators to trample the IX and X Amendments when they know that their state legislatures might not be too happy with the unfunded federal mandates they voted for or any other bill that siphons money from their home state and sends it elsewhere.  It would be interesting to speculate how the Porkulus vote would have gone if there was no XVII Amendment.  Hmmm… Here in No. Carolina, the trash controls both houses of the General Assembly and our new governor is also a member of the trash party, so both our senators (one R, one d) presumably would have voted FOR Porkulus.

        I see that the situation in Maine is similar, so both the Maine Gals would presumably have voted for Porkulus, anyway.

        • Interesting observation.  In some states, voters are perfectly willing to trust one party with the state government, but when it comes to national issues, they go with the other.  It begs the question: would they vote for different state legislators if they knew the legislators would be appointing their US senator?

  • Yes, I actually do understand your full argument, and repetition is not going to convince me. State legislators have shown little if any interest in federalism, and I doubt that having the power to appoint Senators will develop any.  On the contrary, they have shown an obscene willingness to give up what little is left. And what makes you think that party loyalty will not trump any vestigial desire?

    I also fail to see how giving state legislators one more tool to satisfy their self interests would necessarily be beneficial to me, rather than just one more way for them to feather their own nests. What is good for the state government is not necessarily good for me, something that is proven every day and something that I would have thought a professed Libertarian would have as an article of faith.

    • It’s odd that you say state legislators have shown no interest in federalism when, lately, more than a dozen state legislatures been considering and passing explicitly federalist legislation declaring that the federal gov’t has gone too far, and warning them against going further.  Several governors have made some noise about not accepting federal stimulus money, and at least one (Jindal) has gotten specific about what he won’t accept.

      But it’s true that in many states, they still have not drawn a line.  Part of the reason for that is that they’ve had no mechanism for preserving or expanding their power.  So what’s the point of protesting when Congress borrows the money (which Congress can do more effectively than states) and passes out the goodies with all those strings attached?  Why go to the trouble of raising your own taxes and making your own custom programs, when the people of your state are going to have to pay for the federal program anyway?

      And what makes you think that party loyalty will not trump any vestigial desire?

      Even if it does — even if it’s common — how is that any worse than our current situation?  Meanwhile, at least there will be another incentive in play, even if it doesn’t always predominate.  And I think protecting one’s turf is generally (if not always) a powerful and common motivation in government.

      I also fail to see how giving state legislators one more tool to satisfy their self interests would necessarily be beneficial to me, rather than just one more way for them to feather their own nests. What is good for the state government is not necessarily good for me, something that is proven every day and something that I would have thought a professed Libertarian would have as an article of faith.

      First, I’m not a professed Libertarian.  I’m a libertarian, or more accurately a neolibertarian, and I don’t take these things on faith.  I think critically about them.

      Second, what’s good for US Senate isn’t necessarily good for you either, yet you leave state and local affairs in the hands of the US Senate, of which only 1/50 are elected by people from your state — and your vote is diffused by all the other voters of your state.  And not just the hands of the senate, but those of the rest of the federal government too, which can’t pass laws without the cooperation of the senate.  Are you not impressed with how well the federal government has feathered their own beds, or how much they’ve screwed things up?

      The whole point is that you’d be removing these tools (as you put it) from the hands of the federal government and placing them in more local hands — not just the state legislature but also the county and so on.  At each lower level, the legislators trying to feather their own beds would be more accountable to fewer people, who were more aware of the particular issues and personalities involved. 

      And in turn, the legislators would be increasingly more attuned to the values and interests of the particular people to whom they’re accountable, the more local they are.  They might not be angels, but when the competition is the federal government, they don’t have to be.  And in the meantime, they remove a bunch of issues from the national debate that don’t belong on the national level.

      Since you hadn’t addressed these points of my argument, I gave you the benefit of the doubt and, rather than assuming the worst of your motives, I assumed that you just hadn’t understood how these points played into my full argument, so repetition and occasional clarification will have to do.

      I’ll be back later tonight — these comments don’t take me long, but I have work to do.

michael kors outlet michael kors handbags outlet michael kors factory outlet