A Horde of Lilliputian Governments

LIND, MICHAEL

Thinking Aloud A HORDE OF LILLIPUTIAN GOVERNMENTS By Michael Lind "The era of big government is over," President Clinton announced after the 1994 Congressional elections. Whether that...

...In liberal practice, the cities and the Federal government are allies against the states...
...Why...
...Then there is the democratic argument for consolidation...
...By pitting jurisdictions against one another, the consumers of government services can reward good governments and punish bad...
...has over 3,000 counties and more than 500 central cities...
...In the 20th century, American politicians have played Doctor New Deal and Doctor Win-the-War...
...But "End Multiple Taxation...
...the one-person water services district...
...In recent years this has begun to change, as equalization of public school funding within states (if not yet among them) has become a liberal cause...
...In 1978, when Proposition 13...
...Abraham Lincoln once mocked the idea of the natural right of secession: Could neighborhoods secede...
...is not a slogan to set the saloons on fire...
...Advocates of decentralization on both the Right and the Left claim that the best governments are those closest to the people, who can exercise their civic muscles by participating...
...But equal funding should be accompanied by metro-wide school district consolidation to eliminate disparities between inner-city and suburban school districts...
...It is all very well to mutter about the parasitic statists in the Federal government, but if you denounce the tyrannical one-worlders in Albany or Sacramento, people will begin to wonder...
...Eliminating layers of government is the kind of reform that can unite business-minded conservatives and neoprogressives...
...Sounds good...
...The U.S...
...passed in California, many Los Angeles homeowners paid itemized taxes to more than a dozen different entities: the city, the county, the school district, park districts, flood-control districts...
...Suburban Detroit alone has more than a hundred school systems...
...make that 1,401...
...And when it comes to reform, New Englanders, with their nostalgic myth of the "village meeting," are handicapped compared to Southerners and Westerners, who are not inclined to romanticize their own tradition of the county courthouse gang...
...One Federal government, 50 state governments, more than 3 00 metro governments...
...If you think Washington is full of sleazy, back-slapping good old boys, you should get to know the members of a county commission...
...In the United States, which has lacked such state-builders (Alexander Hamilton having failed), democratization has meant the multiplication of little electorates like coral polyps, which pile together in reefs that lack any ordering principle other than propinquity...
...Anyone who imagines that local governments are efficient has never worked for one...
...might do the job...
...the catalyst of the modern tax revolt...
...but in the real world the multiplication of elections, by baffling voters, contributes to low voter turnout...
...The robust American nation is pinned down, Gulliver-like, by a horde of Lilliputian governments...
...many dating back to the days of buckled shoes and witch-hunts...
...According to indices like voter turnout, many European democracies tend to be healthier and more vibrant than ours...
...But if you are an individual living in the typical suburb, to say nothing of the average inner city, you are in no position to get a better deal for yourself by pitting one governmental unit against another...
...It would be ironic indeed if it turned out that the conservative ideal of less government depends on the achievement of the progressive ideal of fewer governments...
...Staten Island wants to secede...
...For one thing, the Western states are bigger, so that metropolitan regions tend not to sprawl across "tri-state areas...
...The euthanasia of redundant governments is long overdue...
...On the basis of employment experience in local, state and Federal governments, I long ago formulated Lind's Law: The lower the level of government, the more crooked and inefficient the public employees...
...withelectedMetro Councils responsible for all services...
...Could individuals...
...While the turn-ofthe-cenrury Progressives threw themselves into projects for institutional reforms at every level, post-New Deal liberals, concentrating on passing Federal programs, have tended to treat the structure of American governments as something immutable...
...Not all of these democratic versions of the duchies and bishoprics of the Holy Roman Empire can levy taxes...
...Partly it has to do with a proportional-representation electoral system that maximizes voter choice...
...If conservatives are guilty of neglecting the problems caused by too many governments, liberals should be chastised for having ignored a potential area for realistic reform...
...Much of the tax burden that conservatives have blamed on the Federal government actually results from the accumulation of taxes levied by redundant local government units...
...Whether that is the case or not, one thing is certain: The era of lots of governments is still here...
...This is fine if you are IBM, hunting for the best tax exemptions...
...In most European countries, democracy has meant grafting elections onto rational state structures created by the likes of Napoleon and Bismarck...
...it's bottom- heavy...
...The result is worse on the Eastern seaboard than west of the Mississippi...
...Sooner or later the Right will realize that the problem is not just too much government, but too many governments...
...The revolt against the Federal government would quickly fade if C-SPAN turned its cameras for a few years on state legislatures, school boards and city councils...
...Add these to one city government, five borough governments, 17 counties in three states, and hundreds of school districts, towns and villages, and you get an estimated 1,400 governments in the New York metropolitan area...
...What is needed is a bipartisan alliance of Federal and state politicians to promote the merger of smaller entities: villages, suburbs, inner cities, counties...
...Even affluent professionals who reside in bedroom communities ultimately pay a price for metropolitan incoherence if they commute to and work in dysfunctional urban centers...
...Why not turn the Federal government's 320 Metropolitan Statistical Areas into as many Metro Governments...
...In addition, Southern and Western state laws make it easier for major cities to expand by annexing their tiny neighbors...
...In the 21 st century, we will need leaders willing to play the municipal version of Doctor Kevorkian...
...Turnout is always highest in contests where national candidates are on the ballot, for the good reason that the issues are clearer and far more is at stake...
...has not yet materialized, but we're closer than you might realize...
...In The Frozen Republic ( 1996 ), Daniel Lazare notes that "Manhattan's Fourteenth Street, all two-and-a-half miles of it, slices through four police precincts, five sanitation districts, five community planning districts, three Congressional districts, four state senate districts, three State Assembly districts, and three City Council districts...
...The efficiency argument posits a "market" for government...
...Enough of them can, however, to give citizens unpleasant surprises at tax time...
...The proliferation of dinky governments has been defended on grounds of both efficiency and democracy...
...In New England, by contrast, borders are as rigid as they are old...
...When it comes to government, whether or not less is more, fewer is undoubtedly better...
...To be sure, "Metro Power ?? Now...
...In conservative rhetoric, the states and cities are allies against the Federal government...
...surely that would provide enough diversity to allay Jeffersonian fears of the Leviathan...
...Now...
...But another reason is that European government structures are more streamlined than ours, and therefore easier for voters to understand...
...Conservatives to the contrary, then, American government is not top-heavy...
...Michael Lind is author of Up from Conservatism and The Next American Nation...
...Although 80 per cent of Americans live in metropolitan areas, only 3 per cent live under single metropolitan governments...
...Metro-area and state-level consolidation is the perfect issue to separate rational conservatives from militia nuts...
...And the typical state driver's license bureaumakes Federal postal workers look like models of Prussian discipline and Singaporean competence...
...When was the last time you found yourself in a shouting match over a county election...
...The reductio ad absurdum of hyperfederalism...

Vol. 80 • May 1997 • No. 8


 
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