John Chuckman

A new generation of American politicians “stands in the doorway” for states’ rights, although the scene of the drama has shifted to the nation’s capital, and the words used are far more civil than those heard in Alabama decades ago. You won’t hear the actual phrase “states’ rights,” with its disturbing history of service to American apartheid, but the stakes for millions of Americans may be just as great as they once were on the steps of an Alabama courthouse.

If nothing else, the call for doing more with local government is a great lazy politician’s trick for getting elected to national office. You offer voters the easy-to-keep promise of doing very little yourself coupled with assurances they will have better, more responsive government and pay less for it. This pitch plays especially well in areas where recent sprawl-development is costing taxpayers inordinate amounts to provide new local services of every description.

It is uncritically assumed that the closer government is to people, the more responsive it is to their needs. This proposition seems plausible, but does it stand up to scrutiny?

It is worth noting that few people in any town can name their state representative. Even fewer can name officials like county executive or city treasurer. And voter-participation across the nation drops to its lowest levels in local elections.

Corruption, on the other hand, gives every evidence of reaching peak levels under local government. Local police forces often are riddled with it. In some cases, they have been found to have hired common criminals. As well, American police have been cited by Amnesty International for brutality. And you don’t have to be a secret agent to understand that the easy availability of drugs in almost every corner of America isn’t really the fault of corrupt police in Mexico.

Local judges, in any number of American cities, when they aren’t just the legally-incompetent tools of machine politics, have been caught countless times taking bribes and fixing cases. Local companies often receive special consideration from local governments concerning either the enactment of new regulations or the enforcement of existing ones – after all, that’s just how many of the nation’s worst toxic dumps came into being.

The worst scandals in American history were state and local scandals. In the state where I grew up, just over my adult lifetime, a past governor, a secretary of state, and a county clerk have gone to prison. We all know the story of a past governor of Maryland who took brown paper bags full of cash from contractors for the state, even after he became Vice-President. And it is simply a fact that most of the many petty tyrants in American history, from Huey Long to Bull Connor, from Tammany Hall to Boss Tweed, were state and local figures.

And, as I’ve remarked before, while the State Department self-righteously wags its finger at the democratic shortcomings of other nations, vote fraud remains part of local American politics. It has a long and rich history, having been instrumental to the rise of a number of politicians.

There just aren’t enough checks and balances in local government. With smaller units of government, economies of scale make the cost of effective checks and balances greater. Post-war urban sprawl, on the other hand, has created tens of thousands of small, new units of governments.

In most communities, the local press has no inclination to investigative journalism. The actual day-to-day role of most small-town newspapers and broadcast stations is parochial boosterism.

The federal government comes with a complex set of checks and balances, which while not faultless provide a good deal of protection, and I’m not just referring to the old civics-class chestnut about three branches of government. Undercover investigations, audits, and especially the work of the many semi-autonomous agencies such as the Internal Revenue Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration and others serve an important role in keeping things honest.

The federal government provides national standards important to all citizens. It is precisely a lack of such standards that so often allows differing state regulations to function as security for scoundrels. Incompetent professionals and con artists drift from state to state to keep their operations going. Deadbeat dads do the same to avoid or delay their obligations to society. Some states provide methods for protecting assets from abandoned children or other worthy claimants.

All this kind of thing ends up costing American society a great deal of money and grief. It just doesn’t show up clearly with all the many different sets of books.

Are there many states, especially ones with large cities, where the child welfare agencies haven’t been shown to be shamefully inadequate? Are there many states, again especially ones with large cities, where the public school systems aren’t failing large parts of the population? Strings of incompetent or corrupt local school boards form almost an educational gulag across America. And isn’t it true that there are sizeable parts of the country, particularly the inner cities, where community and meaningful government virtually have ceased to exist?

How is it reckoned that state and local governments are qualified to assume any greater role in the lives of citizens they have so often and in so many ways so miserably failed?

I think there is an important parallel to be made between the assumed merits of local government and another often carelessly-praised concept, “family values.” Families, when you are lucky enough even to have one, can be wonderful things. But for every exemplary, delightful, helpful family, there is at least one where anger, drunkenness, abuse, prejudice, and even mental illness set the tone, to say nothing of poverty. You don’t build a better country by ignoring these things. While it is not government’s role to replace families, it is certainly its role to intervene, educate, assist, and even prosecute where appropriate. And this same kind of oversight is one of the federal government’s most important responsibilities vis-a-vis the states. Its abdication can only be destructive for the well-being of millions.