Building Little Republics in a Collapsing Empire

Several years after the passage of the Federal Boating Act of 1958, the Second Coast Guard District in St. Louis sent a team of unarmed men, and a van with outboard patrol boat in tow, to Oklahoma to begin safety inspections of vessels on a federal waterway. A few days later, the men returned sheepishly to St. Louis, explaining that they had been met by officers of the Oklahoma State Police who had told them they weren’t welcomed and that the next time they came to the state they had better “bring your authority on your hip.”

The commander of the Second District, Admiral O.C, Rohnke (whose aide I was) was infuriated and flew to meet with the governor and straighten him out on the matter. It was settled peacefully and there was no more trouble.

The Federal Boating Act of 1958 was an early and benign example of what I came to think of as federal greenmail as Washington increasingly began using the budget as a means of getting states to give up their 10th Amendment authority over matters “not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States.”

The boating act was quite mild by today’s standards. A Coast Guard history said of it:

“Among other benefits, this act made states essential partners in this cooperative effort. Most of the states quickly enacted boating safety laws involving boat numbering, equipment, and operation. These laws were typically uniform, making it easier for boaters to be in compliance when traveling from one state to the next. Further, many states initiated boating safety programs to implement their new laws, increasing the number of officers on the water for enforcement and rescue.”

Under today’s rules the options given the states would have been early eliminated in favor of hundreds of pages of federal regulations. Over the following decades the use of greenmail would explode – reaching a recent pinnacle not in the healthcare bill mandate – which wrongly asserts its rights based on the commerce clause – but in the massive interference with local schools found in the No Child Left Behind program, an intrusion assisted by highly conditional funding from private foundations who aren’t even mentioned in the Constitution.

While backing for this pecuniary assault on the Constitution has often been bipartisan, it is the support of supposedly anti-authoritarian liberals that is most discouraging, since if anyone was presumed willing to stand up for what Jefferson called our “small republics,” it was this wing of the Democratic Party.

But as time has passed – especially with the fading of the highly devolutionary 1960s – liberals joined the right in pressing for an ever greater centralization of government with predictable costs in freedom, imagination, and simple efficiency. The motivations may differ from those of the right – for example, liberals value a centralized educated elite’s choices over formerly decentralized decisions – the result has been the steady decline of democratic government.

Consider public education as an example. According to Jay Matthews of the Washington Post, the number of elected school boards in America has declined from more than 80,000 in 1950 to less than 14,000 today – all the more stunning because it has happened unnoticed. It’s just so much easier to let Arne Duncan call the shots, especially when he’s willing to pay you for it.

This in a country that was founded on articles of confederacy that stated, “Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this Confederation expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled.”

And after passage of the Constitution with its 10th Amendment, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “to take a single step beyond the boundaries thus specifically drawn around the powers of Congress, is to take possession of a boundless field of power, no longer susceptible of any definition.”

How right he was.

Arthur J. Versluis wrote in Modern Age:

In his autobiography, Jefferson also outlined this vision: “Every state again is divided into counties, each to take care of what lies within its local bounds; each county again into townships or wards, to manage minuter details; and every ward into farms, to be governed each by its individual proprietor. . . It is by this partition of cares descending in gradation from general to particular that the mass of human affairs may be best managed for the good and prosperity of all.”. . .

Later in life, Jefferson emphasized the importance of what he called the “little republics” as essential to the sustenance of an enduring larger republic. He wrote to John Cartwright that each ward or township should be like “a small republic within itself, and every man in the State would thus become an acting member of the common government, transacting in person a great portion of its rights and duties, subordinate indeed, yet important, and entirely within his competence. The wit of man cannot devise a more solid basis for a free, durable and well-administered republic.”. . . In his view, the strength of the republic as a whole-and for that matter, the vitality of the original American Revolution- lay nowhere but in the strength of the little republics.

He was not alone. Alexis de Tocqueville also spoke of “the political effects of decentralization that I most admire in America.”

As late as 1992, the one hundred largest localities in America pursued an estimated 1,700 environmental crime prosecutions, more than twice the number of such cases brought by the federal government in the previous decade. As Washington was vainly struggling to get a handle on the tobacco industry, 750 communities passed indoor no-smoking laws. And, more recently, we have had the local drives towards relaxing anti-marijuana laws, permitting gay marriage and the major local and state outcry against the Real ID act.

Because this issue is not raised often enough, we find huge unnoticed disparities in the effectiveness of federal programs. For example, both Social Security and Medicare work well with surprisingly little overhead. In such programs, the government serves primarily as a moral redistribution center for tax revenues.

On the other hand, an environmentalist who ran a weatherization program once told me that she figured it cost $30,000 in federal and local overhead for each $1600 in weather-proofing provided a low income home.

A study of Milwaukee County in 1988 found government agencies spending more than $1 billion annually on fighting poverty there. If this money had been given in cash to the poor, it would have meant more than $33,000 for each low income family — well above the poverty level.

As I put it some time back, “What works so well in the manufacture of a Ford Taurus — efficiency of scale and mass production — fails to work in social policy because, unlike a Taurus, humans think, cry, love, get distracted, criticize, worry or don’t give a shit. Yet we keep acting as though such traits don’t exist or don’t matter. We have come to accept the notion that the enormous institutions of government, media, industry and academia are natural to the human condition and then wonder why they don’t work better than they do. In fact, as ecological planner Ernest Callenbach pointed out, ‘we are medium-sized animals who naturally live in small groups — perhaps 20 or so — as opposed to bees or antelopes who live in very large groups. When managers or generals or architects force us into large groups, we speedily try to break them down into sub-units of comfortable size.'”

By ignoring such wisdom, our systems end up like athletes on steroids. And, as with many athletes, nature eventually pulls the plug.

There are several factors speeding the shift away from democratic devolution, not all of them political:

– For example, there has been a huge increase in the number of lawyers in Congress and elsewhere in the federal government. Lawyers tend to be technocratic control freaks more than ideological ones. But the effect is much the same and has helped to produce more federal laws since the late seventies than we had had in our first 200 years.

– The explosion of MBAs have also helped, up from around 5,000 a year in the 1950s to around 150,00o in the past decade.

– The takeover of the liberal movement by a grad school elite that sees itself as far brighter than much of the country, of superior virtue, and which believes that as long as you can manage something you can make it work. In many ways. Barack Obama – bringing us into our third decade of uninterrupted presidency by a Harvard or Yale graduate – epitomizes this approach not just in his manner but in his obsession with data, assessment, tests and legislative complexity. The foregoing not only fail empirically; they annoy the hell out of much of the rest of the country. Further, the liberal elite with increasing frequency can be heard speaking of less powerful and educated Americans in a manner reminiscent of white southerners of a pst time talking about blacks.

– This shift blends perfectly with corporate and conservative values producing, regardless of which party wins, a result that varies only between the plutocratic and the oligarchic. Thus we have bipartisan test tyranny in our schools, with Arne Duncan leading for the Democrats and former Bush Ed Secretary Margart Spellings saying things like, “States were not bold enough in seeking meaningful and disruptive change to confront school failure.” You may recall that “inadequate boldness” provision of the Constitution, right?

Given the cultural character of the modern liberal there is little hope that any positive change will come from that source any more than from the now bizarrely childish leadership of the Republican Party.

Further, both are fully under the sway of a completely corrupt campaign financing system. Essential to keeping things under control in this system is concentrating the bribes in as few places possible, preferably mostly in Washington. The less power elsewhere the better.

The liberal media repeatedly suggests that any decentralization of power is a step back towards a Civil War definition of states rights and that opposing federal concentration is the sole purview of the reactionary right.

This is, of course, nonsense and one needs to look no further back than the left of the 1960s to find examples of a progressive approach to devolvement of power.

Still, realistically, it is left to populist progressives, Greens, libertarians, independents, and localists ranging from lettuce growers to school board members, to declare the practice of democracy not the privilege of an elite but the right of every citizen.

This is not a matter of either/or. The goal is to found in the concept of subsidiarity, which argues that government is best carried out at the lowest practical level.

It was first defined by German theologian Oswald von Nell-Breuning who said, who thought that “functions of government, business, and other secular activities should be as local as possible. If a complex function is carried out at a local level just as effectively as on the national level, the local level should be the one to carry out the specified function. The principle is based upon the autonomy and dignity of the human individual, and holds that all other forms of society, from the family to the state and the international order, should be in the service of the human person.”

Despite the way America’s media monopolies discuss it, it is hardly a radical idea. For example, Article 5.2 of the European Union treaty states:

“In areas which do not fall within its exclusive competence, the Community shall take action, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, only if and in so far as the objectives of the proposed action cannot be sufficiently achieved by the Member States and can therefore, by reason of the scale or effects of the proposed action, be better achieved by the Community.”

Further, moving towards the concept requires far more of a revolution in attitude than it does of a revolution in law. We already have, for example, a number of models hidden in the federal government already:

The National Park Service, the Peace Corps, the national endowments for the arts and the humanities, the Coast Guard, and US Attorneys all have dispersed units with a relatively high degree of autonomy and a strong sense of turf responsibility by their employees. A further example can be found within the postal service. While many complain about mail service, you rarely hear them gripe about their own mail carrier, who is given a finite task in a finite geographical area. I stumbled across this phenomenon while serving in the Coast Guard. At the time, the Guard had about 1800 units worldwide but only 3000 officers, with many of the officers concentrated on larger ships and in headquarters units. Thus there were scores of units run by enlisted personnel who rarely saw an officer. The system worked extremely well. It worked because, once training and adequate equipment had been provided, there was relatively little a bureaucratic superstructure could do to improve the operations of a lifeboat, rescue cutter or loran station. As with the education system, a bureaucracy in such circumstances does itself far more good than it can do anyone in the field.

Further, though a federal institution, such devolved agencies become a part of the local landscape. I was, for example, only a few days in Bristol, RI, on my assignment as operations officer of a Coast Guard cutter before I was invited to come to the Elks Club anytime I wished. We were, in effect, the navy of the little republic of Bristol.

A former Peace Corps regional director told me that in his agency’s far-flung and decentralized system, there was no way he could control activities in the two dozen countries under his purview, yet the Peace Corps became one of the most popular federal programs in recent times. Can the success of these decentralized agencies be replicated, say, in housing or urban development? Why not give it a try? If federal housing monies were distributed by 50 state directors (vetted by the states’ senators as are US Attorneys) who were given considerable leeway in the mix of policies they could fund and approve, we would, for starters, begin to have a better idea of which programs work and which don’t. The federal government would also have better relations with the states.

There are other approaches such as broad revenue sharing or just not making too many decisions at the federal level.

Would there be corruption? Absolutely. But first it would not compare in size to that now afflicting such federal agencies as HUD and the Pentagon and, second, through evaluation, investigation and local media coverage, we would better know what the corrupt – as well as the admirable – were up to than we do today.

It is argued by the American elite – those who rule because of wealth, media power, corporate or other undemocratic forms of control – that the devolution of government is at best romantic silliness and at worst stupid.

Give these people the chance and they will seize whatever remains of American democracy, of which I was reminded when the closet reactionary Brookings Institution came up with a proposal for my state of Maine that emphasized the consolidation of everything from towns to schools. Did they know so little about the place that they didn’t understand that Maine’s historic localism has been one of its major virtues and survival techniques?

There is strong evidence that running government – or any institution – on the principals of subsidiarity makes far more sense than consolidating in the false name of efficiency.

In a piece arguing for the peaceful succession of American states – a greatly excessive alternative in my view – Kirkpatrick Sale makes a number of cogent points:

Among the nations that are recognized models of statecraft, eight are below 500,000 – Luxembourg, Malta, Iceland, Barbados, Andorra, Liechtenstein, Monaco, and San Marino.

Of the 14 states generally reckoned freest in the world, 9 have populations below Switzerland’s, at 7.7 million, and 11 below Sweden’s, at 9.3 million; the only sizable states are Canada, the United Kingdom, and Germany (the largest, at 81 million).

There are other national rankings. Literacy: Of the 46 countries that claim a literacy rate of 99 or better, 25 are below 7.5 million. Health: Measured by the World Health Organization, 9 of the top 20 are under 7 million. In 2009 rankings of happiness and standard of living, the top countries were Norway, Iceland, Sweden, Netherlands, Australia, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Canada, Ireland, Denmark, Austria, and Finland; all but Canada and Australia have small populations.

In fact, there are 85 countries out of the 195 counted by the United Nations that are under 10,000 square miles-that is to say, the size of Vermont or smaller.

One of the reasons for all this is that the smaller the entity the more likely more people will be involved – if only to express their gripes to a town councilmember over coffee in a restaurant.

Of course it can become stressful, too, especially when one attempts to combine excessive top-down regulatory requirements with local supervision. Rob Snyder of Maine’s Island Institute notes that “Swans Island has roughly 300 year-round residents. In the community they have around 25 active boards: fire, planning, harbor, select, school, library. . . At last count, these boards require the efforts of 127 individuals. . . On Matinicus at this time of year you have 35 people, maybe less. Six or so couples that stay on the island year-round must fill all of the mandatory town, school, energy and safety requirements. Vinalhaven, the largest population at around 1200, has 68 active boards and Peaks, a community of 600 has roughly 41.”

But that is why the question of who decides what has to be worked out on a case by case basis. And as Snyder points out, “The number of leaders on islands are legion.”

At the other end, is the cost of ignoring the small. For example, the Small Business Administration Advocacy Office found that companies with 500 or more workers small firms pay nearly $3,000 less per employee to comply with federal regulations.

Not surprising when you have a president with 39 self-described czars running the show and a bipartisan inability to see the difference between a huge corporation and a small business.

For such reasons, a Rasmussen poll found that

– Forty-three percent of U.S. voters rate the performance of their local government as tops compared to its counterparts on the state and federal level.

– Nineteen percent say state government is better than the other two.

– Just 14% think the federal government does a better job.

– And 25% aren’t sure.

– Fifty-six percent of all voters believe the federal government has too much influence over state government. Only 12% percent say the federal government doesn’t have enough influence over states, and another 26% say the balance is about right.

Now, obviously, there is no sign that the federal government will give up its drive for more power, that Arne Duncan will stop telling individual schools what to do or that stimulus money will flow more directly to mayors and governors so the choices can be made by those most profoundly affected.

But what we can do is to make it a defined cause and while pressing the battle, strengthen the little republics in which we already live and ally ourselves more strongly with those elsewhere.

This is not a hopeless endeavor. Way back in the 1960s, when I was editor of a community newspaper in a neighborhood of mixed ethnicity, I noticed the marked difference between the city govenmrnet’s response to the problems of poorer black residents and those of the far better organized white community. What was fascinating was that the latter did not gain this power by some measurable form of influence such as money or votes. It was simply extremely well organized and the downtown officials decided it was easier just to leave it alone.

I recently saw something similar in Maine. FEMA decided to define the coastal flood zones – a decision that could have heavy effects on building and on insurance costs. In doing so, in the best mono-conceptual thinking of the federal government, it drew maps essentially premised on Maine’s shoreline not being that much different from that of, say, Florida or New Jersey. The reaction in Maine was to rebel but to do it in a way that made FEMA look sort of dumb. One community hired their own engineers to plot the problem and came up with dramatically different results from FEMA’s. In the end an embarrassed FEMA backed off.

And when you think of it, the Tea Party is a sort of little republic that has had unusual success not because of intrinisic power but because all the other little republics of America have failed to recognize their own potential power.

The interests of the federal government and that of communities, cities and states should not be at odds. They don’t have to be. But they certainly are and will remain so until we discover that what truly brings us together is not Washington or who occupies the White House but the infinite small republics across the land of common hopes, values and frustrations, and which can learn to share these with each other in such a way that even those at he top will have to listen. And then, maybe, we can even change the nature of the oligarchy, but at worst we will have helped keep our own small republics free even in the midst of a collapsing republic.

SAM SMITH edits the Progressive Review.


Sam Smith edits the Progressive Review.