Wednesday, August 12


Sam Smith

There's a myth that progressives have to love big government and the right has to hate it. And so they do. And we tend to sit contentedly in the rows the media and politicians have assigned for us.

But, in fact, the idea of the devolution of power has crossed ideological lines many times,. For example, the American left in the 1960s was deep into community, decentralization of power and the local. Today, the buy local movement reflects some of the same values.

The liberal establishment, however, doesn't like decentralization, a fact reflected in how Obama has handled the stimulus, education and healthcare issue and how easily each has stirred heavy resentment.

An important new Pew Research poll illustrates the problem:

- 24 percent of Republicans, 35 percent of independents, and 61 percent of Democrats view the federal government favorably.

- 57 percent of Republicans, 48 percent of independents, and 48 percent of Democrats view state governments favorably.

- 70 percent of Republicans, 60 percent of independents, and 60 percent of Democrats view local governments favorably.

In other words, the more we decentralize the more we come together and the more we like government.

It's not an either-or matter. For example, the stimulus bill could have included far more local initiative and control over spending than it did and would have been far more acceptable as a result. Ironically, one of the major beneficiaries would have been Democratic mayors.

But the standard liberal approach - raised to a new level by Obama - assumes that those at the top know more than those at lower levels. It's the old bias of the progressive movement of the early 20th century: favoring purported experts over politicians.

But there is no reason for the modern left to buy into it. For example, in 1992, for example, 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. And this was two decades after the first Earth Day. Similarly, as Washington was still struggling to get a handle on the tobacco industry, 750 communities passed indoor no-smoking laws. And where would gays be today without local and state action on their behalf?

A lot of this involves not so much ideology as class and culture. The Washington establishment does consider itself smarter than the rest of the country, it shows, and it angers many beyond the capital's borders. This gets translated into various issues, some rational and some ridiculous.

But this isn't as surprising as some would have us believe, nor as incurable. If you're going to run a grad school government, you've got to expect some kickback. After all, there's nothing in the Constitution that gives government to the brightest and the best, even if its authors were brighter and better than most in charge of things these days. They understood that power had to be shared, even if it slowed things down a bit or created a variety of Americas. That's why we have the Tenth Amendment, one of the constitutional provisions least liked and most ignored by liberals.

As the Gallup poll shows, the closer government comes to us, the better we like it. This is not a left or right thing. After all, there would be no gay marriage at all if it weren't for the devolution of power.

If liberals, progressives and Greens would speak up for the decentralist values that helped to create America they would find themselves with many new allies and far fewer foes.

Sam Smith, Great American Political Repair Manual, 1997 - Liberals are afraid to criticize big government because they think it makes them sound like Republicans. In fact, the idea of devolution -- having government carried out at the lowest practical level -- dates back at least to that good Democrat, Thomas Jefferson. Even FDR managed to fight the depression with a staff smaller than Hillary Clinton's and World War II with one smaller than Al Gore's. And conservative columnist William Safire admits that "in a general sense, devolution is a synonym for 'power sharing,' a movement that grew popular in the sixties and seventies as charges of 'bureaucracy' were often leveled at centralized authority."

The modern liberals' embrace of centralized authority makes them vulnerable to the charge that their politics is one of intentions rather than results -- symbolized by huge agencies like the Department of Housing & Urban Development that fail miserably to produce policies worthy of their name. Conservatives, on the other hand, often confuse the devolution of government with its destruction. Thus while the liberals are underachieving, the conservatives are undermining.

In fact, a sensible and democratic devolution of power should be high on the American repair list. The question must be repeatedly asked of new and present policies: how can these programs be brought close to the supposed beneficiaries, the citizens? And how can government money go where it's supposed to go? Because such questions are not asked often enough, we find huge disparities in the effectiveness of federal programs.

For example, both social security and the earned income tax credit function well with little overhead. In such programs, the government serves primarily as a redistribution center for tax revenues. On the other hand, an enviromentalist who ran a weatherization program 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.

Similarly, a study of Milwaukee County in 1988 found government agencies spending more than $1 billion annually on fighting poverty. 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. The newsletter Neighborhood Works quoted Art Lyons, director of the Center for Economic Policy Analysis, on what goes wrong: "Salaries of social service professionals are spent back in wealthy communities. The building rent goes to the landlord, who probably doesn't live in the neighborhood. So the system creates a self-contained prophesy of poverty and deprivation."

Even when you don't want to devolve power out of the federal government -- and in many cases you don't -- the programs themselves can be brought closer to people. Some agencies already are quite decentralized, including US Attorney offices, the Coast Guard, the National Park Service and the delivery of mail. In such cases, the federal government is represented by a small unit (or even an individual such as your postal carrier) with considerable autonomy within a defined turf.

The principle could be applied to other agencies. Why not, for example, have 50 state directors for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, each (as with US Attorneys) approved by the state's senators and each given a budget, a menu of programs, and considerable autonomy in how to handle them? I would wager that there would be at least two results: (1) citizens would have a better idea of what was going on in federal housing programs and (2) the programs would get better.


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