GETTING LIBERALS & PROGRESSIVES TO THINK SMALL
SAM SMITH, PROGRESSIVE REVIEW, 1993 - A couple of summers ago at the annual convention of the longtime liberal group, Americans for Democratic Action, I proposed a resolution on the decentralization of power. Permit me to recycle a portion:
|||| There is growing evidence that old ideological conflicts such as between left and right, and between capitalism and communism, are becoming far less important as the world confronts the social and economic results of a century marked by increasing concentration of power in countries of widely varying political persuasion. A new ideology is rising, the ideology of devolution -- the decentralization of power. Already it has swept through the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.
Its voice is heard in Spain, in Quebec and in Northern Ireland. It is the voice of people attempting to regain control over societies that have become increasingly authoritarian, unresponsive, and insensitive, a revolt of ordinary humans against the excesses of the state. . .
All around us is evidence of the disintegration of effective government and a growing alienation of the people from that government as a result. Our systems of governance have become too big, too corrupt, too inflexible and too remote from democratic concerns to respond equitably and rationally to the changing needs of the people. Government has many beneficial functions it can perform, but these can only be achieved when the government itself is structured so as to reflect -- and not thwart -- the will of the people.
Therefore we embrace the devolutionary spirit of the times and, recognizing that the ideology of scale must now be considered as carefully as the ideology of liberal and conservative, we urge that this nation begin devolving power back to the people -- that we correct a decades-long course which has too often led to increasingly centralized power with increasingly ineffective and undemocratic results. To this end, we propose the following critical issues to fellow liberals and progressives to consider, debate and act upon while there is still time to reverse the authoritarian course of the American government:
- How do we end the growing concentration of power in the presidency and return to the tripartite system of government intended by the Constitution? How can Congress reassert its constitutional role in the federal government?
- How do we prevent federal government green-mail of the states -- the granting or withholding of federal funds to force state legislation -- from being used as a way around the powers constitutionally granted the states?
- How can we decentralize federal agencies to the state and local level?
- How do we create a new respect for state and local rights? The bitter struggle to establish the federal government's primacy in the protection of civil rights of all its citizens has been used far too long as an excuse to concentrate all forms of power in Washington. That legal battle has been won. We must now recognize the importance of state and local government in creative, responsive governance and not continue to assume that good government can only come from within the Beltway.
- How do we reduce restrictions on federal funds granted states and localities in order to foster imaginative local application of those funds and to prevent the sort of federal abuse apparent, for example, in restrictions on family planning advice?
- How do we encourage -- including funding -- neighborhood government in our cities so that the people most affected by the American urban disaster can try their own hand at rebuilding their communities?
The principle that all government should be devolved to the lowest practical level should be raised to its proper primacy in the progressive agenda. We cannot overstate the peril involved in continuing to concentrate governmental power in the federal executive.|||||
The resolution proved too much for the traditional liberals of ADA and the resolution was roundly defeated in committee. Many voters, however, have divined the problem of excessive scale while remaining, unsurprisingly, confused as to what to do about it. False prophets on the right tout a phony "empowerment," The media muddles the matter with its usual in-depth cliches. What is lacking is not devolutionary theory, nor grand schemes, nor useful experiments, but rather a practical progressive politics of devolution. We need to apply our theories and our experience to the every day politics of ordinary citizens. If we do, I think we will surprise ourselves and others in a discovery of where the American mainstream really flows.
Here, for starters, are a few suggestions of devolutionary issues progressives could press:
- Public schools: In the sixties there was a strong movement for community control of the schools. Because it came largely from minority communities and because the majority was not adequately distressed about public education it faltered.
- Neighborhood government: Real neighborhood government would not be merely advisory as is the case with Washington DC's neighborhood commissions. It would include the power to sue the city government, to incorporate, to run its own programs, to contract to provide those of city hall, and to have some measure of budgetary authority over city expenditures within its boundaries. Not the least among its powers should be a role in the justice system, since it is impossible to recreate order in our communities while denying communities any place in maintaining order.
We should create the "small republics," that Jefferson dreamed of, autonomous communities where every citizen became "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 own competence."
- States' rights: While maintaining federal preeminence in fields such as civil rights, progressives should be strong advocates of states' rights on issues not properly the federal government's business such as raising the drinking age or the 55 mph speed limit. Such advocacy would help to form new coalitions and stir up the ideological pot. In particular, progressives should oppose the use of federal green-mail -- forcing states and localities to take measures at the risk of losing federal funding -- as a clear end run around the 10th amendment of the Bill of Rights. As the Supreme Court noted in Kansas v. Colorado, this amendment "discloses the widespread fear that the national government might, under the pressure of supposed general welfare, attempt to exercise powers which had not been granted."
- Federal spending: In an important and necessary break with liberal thinking, progressives should become advocates of a much smaller federal government by pressing for the direct distribution of funds to the state and local level. Whatever problems of malfeasance or nonfeasance may result, they are almost guaranteed to be less than the misuse of these funds at the federal level. As Congress' own auditor, Comptroller General Charles Bowsher, recently told a hearing that "there are hardly any [federal] agencies that are well managed." The flaw in liberal thinking is that federal housing funds are used for housing, agriculture funds for farmers and so forth. In fact, an extraordinary percentage of these moneys are used to maintain a superstructure to carry out poor housing policy or bad farm policy. The basic principle should be to get the money to the streets or the farms as quickly -- and with as few intermediaries -- as possible.
Further, progressives should challenge the presumption that the feds know best. At the present time, much of the best government is at the state and local level. It could do even better without the paperwork and the restrictions dreamed up in Washington to fill the working day. And even when that doesn't prove true, you don't have to drive as far to make your political anger known.
- Small business: Many progressives act as though an economy isn't necessary. It would pay great dividends if the progressive agenda included support for small businesses. Small businesses generate an extraordinary number of new jobs. Further, small business is where many of the values of the progressive movement can be best expressed in an economic context. While ideally many of these businesses should be cooperatives, even within the strictures of conventional capitalism they offer significant advantages over the mega-corporation. Writing in the New York Times, brokerage firm president Muriel Siebert said recently: Unlike monolithic Fortune 500 companies, small businesses behave like families. [A study] indicated that one reason for the durability of businesses owned by women is the value they place on their workers. It showed that small businesses hold on to workers through periods when revenues decline. Rather than eliminate workers, they tend to cut other expenses, including their own salaries... Nearly half of the workers laid off by large companies have to swallow pay reductions when they find new full-time work; two out of three work for at least 20 percent less money than before."
As Jon Rowe says of Korean family-run groceries, "a family operates on loyalty and trust, the market operates on contract and law."
- Decentralizing the federal government: There are a number of federal agencies that are already quite decentralized. Interestingly, these agencies are among those most often praised. The National Park Service, the Peace Corps, 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 or loran station. As with education, a bureaucracy in such circumstances can do itself far more good than it can do anyone in the field.
Similarly, 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 moneys were distributed by 50 state directors 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.
- Raising the issue: Every policy and piece of legislation should be subjected to evaluation not only according to the old rules of right and left but according to the ideology of scale. We must constantly be asking not only whether what is proposed is right, but whether it is being done at the right level of society's organization.
These are just a few examples of how a politics of devolution might begin to develop. It is needed if for no other reason than it is our best defense against the increasing authoritarianism of the federal government and the monopolization of economic activity. It is also needed because, without it, democracy becomes little more than a choice between alternative propaganda machines. In the 1960s, Robert McNamara declared, "Running any large organization is the same, whether it's the Ford Motor Company, the Catholic Church or the Department of Defense. Once you get the certain scale, they're all the same." And so, increasingly to our detriment, they are. We must learn and teach, and make a central part of our politics, that while small is not always beautiful, it has -- for our ecology, our liberties, and our souls -- become absolutely essential.
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