The issue that's killing the left

SAM SMITH
Progressive Review

Rasmussen Reports has come out with a fascinating poll that goes a long way towards explaining why not only liberals are doing so badly, but the left in general, the Democratic Party and Barack Obama. Here's what the poll found:

- 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.

This is a huge matter that Democrats and progressives don't even discuss, yet helps to create the sort of popular anger that has developed over the past year. Nearly two thirds of the voters think state and local governments are better than the federal version.

There are two ironies in this:

- The Democrats could do everything they should be doing - only far better - if they simply paid more attention to the level and manner it is done.

- Those expressing outrage at what the Democrats are doing think the level and manner is the same as its underlying virtue and thus end up opposing programs that would serve them well. And so they serve the interests of the very centralized authority they think they are opposing.

Neither side seems able to separate the question of what needs to be done from who should, and how to, do it. The liberals think it can only be done at the federal level which leads conservatives to conclude it shouldn't be done at all.

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. Conservative columnist William Safire admitted 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." In other words, devolution used to be in the left's bag.

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.

Still stuck back in the states' rights controversy over integration, liberals fail to see how often states and localities move ahead of the federal government. Think, for example, of where gays would be if there were no local laws to help them.

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 drive towards relaxing anti-marijuana laws and the major local and state outcry against the Real ID act.

Conservatives, on the other hand, often confuse the devolution of government with its destruction. Thus while the liberals are underachieving, the conservatives are undermining.

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 Medicare work well with little overhead. In such programs, the government serves primarily as a 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. 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 problem is not just with traditional liberals. My fellow Green Party members - heavily decentralist in many ways - fail to see the possibility for new alliances with others if the devolutionary principle were raised in a more visible and universal fashion. Similarly, localism is quite popular among environmentalists, but it only seems to apply to growing food and not to saving democracy.

And now we have a Democratic president who has, in one short year, managed to mangle two of the issues his party used to be good at - heath care and reviving the economy - in no small part because of an assumption that he and his grad school retinue are far better equipped to decide how to do it all than, say, the mayor of Cleveland or the state legislature of Montana.

The end result is that his programs have failed and the underlying policies have unfairly gotten a bad name.

How much saner it would be to recognize the desire of people to share not only in the benefits, but in the exercise, of power and adjust one's policies to reflect this.

The point here is not to argue any particular solution, but to say that the ever increasing centralization of decisions at the federal level - thanks to both major parties - is a fundamental cause of both our problems and the anger about them.

As I wrote 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.'"

It's time for liberals and progressives to bring their politics down to the 'hood. They'd be surprised at the friends they would make.

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. Here's 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.

WIKI ON: SUBSIDIARITY - Subsidiarity is an organizing principle that matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority. The Oxford English Dictionary defines subsidiarity as the idea that a central authority should have a subsidiary function, performing only those tasks which cannot be performed effectively at a more immediate or local level. . . Subsidiarity is, ideally or in principle, one of the features of federalism, where it asserts the rights of the parts over the whole.

The word subsidiarity is derived from the Latin word subsidiarius and has its origins in Catholic social teaching. The concept or principle is found in several constitutions around the world (for example, the Tenth Amendment to the United States Constitution which asserts States rights).

It is presently best known as a fundamental principle of European Union law. According to this principle, the EU may only act (i.e. make laws) where action of individual countries is insufficient. . . .

The present formulation is contained in Article 5(2) of the Treaty on European Union:

"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."

SUBSIDIARITY IN THE CATHOLIC CHURCH - The principle of subsidiarity was first developed by German theologian Oswald von Nell-Breuning. . . . 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. . .

"Positive subsidiarity", which is the ethical imperative for communal, institutional or governmental action to create the social conditions necessary to the full development of the individual, such as the right to work, decent housing, health care, etc., is another important aspect of the subsidiarity principle.

The principle of subsidiarity was developed in the encyclical Rerum Novarum of 1891 by Pope Leo XIII, as an attempt to articulate a middle course between laissez-faire capitalism on the one hand and the various forms of communism, which subordinate the individual to the state, on the other. . .

February 2010