Local Democracy for Christmas

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Our Congress is the finest body of men money can buy ~ Morey Amsterdam.

With Congress, every time they make a joke it’s a law, and every time they make a law it’s a joke ~ Will Rogers.

The new Congress hasn’t even convened and the jokes have begun. John McCain repeats his earlier spiel: Defeat in Iraq is disastrous, victory is possible and essential, send more troops — an overwhelming number of them. Although McCain is the Republican frontrunner for 2008, he won’t last long if he keeps up this line. Charles B. Rangel once again proposes to reinstate the military draft. Pelosi quickly quashes that idea. The new House Majority Leader, a Maryland Democrat, is Steny H. Hoyer. He wants "to make sure the American public knows what we’re doing." Fellow Maryland Congressman, Albert Wynn, takes the cue, stating: u2018u2018Both the county and the state of Maryland will benefit because he will be in a position of great influence when the discussion of major projects, such as transportation projects, comes up." Is this what Hoyer means when he vows to bring "honesty and civility back to the House of Representatives"?

Mr. Hoyer is correct. The American public does not know what the Congress has done, and Mr. Hoyer is not about to clue them in. Mr. Hoyer is not about to have a fireside chat with Americans to explain how the FBI can investigate them under the USA Patriot Act or to explain how much more milk and cheese cost them because of Congress. No, he intends to broadcast a unified and cohesive Democrat line that the American public can swallow. He wants to "work very closely with Nancy Pelosi to create the cohesion that will be essential to the new direction of Congress and the Country."

We can find out what Congress has done easily enough. A convenient place to start is Wikipedia’s "partial list of notable United States federal legislation." But understanding in detail what these laws do and mean is a big job. It’s a practical impossibility for the average person.

President Bush is forever rattling on about "democracy." He’s either insincere, manipulative, inept, ignorant, or a blathering idiot. It is impossible to have a meaningful "democracy" (actually a republic) unless the people know what the laws are. It’s impossible to have a Federal or National democracy in a country this size and with the political system we now have. We are in the grips of a special interest democracy. We are taxed and ordered about by a government of the elite, by the elite, and for the elite. We have an elitist democracy. For the political purists among you, we have an elitist republic.

What we Americans are experiencing is a distant democracy. What we have is an unresponsive democracy. What we have is an unaccountable democracy. What we have is an overpowering democracy. What we have is a centralized democracy. If we really want democracy, then what we should have is a local democracy, a democracy that is responsive, accountable, and kept under control by local citizens. We should have many, many local democracies.

Yes, Mr. Hoyer, you are more correct than you realize. The American people do not know what’s in the laws or what they are doing to us. How can they? Even Congressmen do not know what is in the 79,000 pages of the Federal Register. (There were 2,620 pages in volume 1 in 1936.) The main reason why we do not know is that these are Federal laws, not to mention that they are complicated monstrosities.

If the Federal government’s laws were eliminated and government once again became county or local government (not even state government), then people would have a fighting chance of knowing what their governments were up to. This might bring about or restore Mr. Bush’s fabled democracy. Local rule used to be the American paradigm before the Federal government made itself number one. Localism is the American ideal, not federalism. We cannot have local democracy when the Federal government is telling every American school what to do, when the Federal government is thrusting mandates down the throats of state and local governments, and when the Federal government directly taxes every American over the heads of local governments.

Yes, Mr. Bush, Americans want democracy, but we want local democracy. Your pollsters and focus groups have fed you the correct words to use: freedom and democracy. They are still popular ideas, and it is a good thing they are. But you, Mr. Bush, and many of your predecessors have corrupted these words intentionally. You have been misleading Americans for decades and misleading them successfully.

Local democracy is not a big, national, inefficient government. It is not FEMA or Medicare D. It is not nationalized welfare. It is not a warfare/welfare democracy. Federal democracy is bureaucratic democracy. Federal democracy is a democracy of paperwork, obstacles, silly restrictions, stupid meddling, intrusive and overbearing regulations. Federal democracy wrecks local cultures, mismanages land and resources, produces endless warfare overseas, and invites attacks on United States soil. Federal democracy destroys America’s soul and traditions. It undermines families and cherished values. It works against revered American principles. It corrodes life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Federal democracy is national democracy, and national democracy is national socialism.

National democracy — national socialism — is not the democracy that Americans want. We want local democracy. We want decentralized democracy.

Everyone responds to incentives. American corporations openly use incentive pay to encourage the creation of wealth. Congress faces incentive pay too, but its use is hidden. Congress produces no wealth. Congress, unlike businesses, produces nothing, but it uses incentive pay to destroy wealth and redistribute wealth. Its members manage to get benefits for themselves, whether votes, campaign contributions, future jobs, and pensions, by catering to special interests.

We actually stand still for a system in which Congressmen make more money by increasing the number of destructive laws, that is, laws that benefit special interests and harm Americans at large! That’s how perverse our political system is. We live with and accept a system that encourages the destruction of wealth and well-being.

How does this work? We the divided people have little or no personal interest in seeing laws pass that benefit all of us, because each one of us receives only a fraction of a law’s overall benefits while finding it very costly to alter a Federal law. Therefore, few good Federal laws are passed. But a few of us have a substantial personal interest in passing laws that benefit a few of us narrowly. Therefore, more bad Federal laws are passed.

Why do we let this happen? We have been taught falsely that the Federal government is more efficient and effective. Think of the FBI’s propaganda. Think of Eliot Ness. Then remember that the FBI could have prevented 9/11 but did not. Remember FEMA and Katrina. Remember the Iraq War and before that the Vietnam War. Look forward to cuts in Social Security. Look forward to the Medicare tsunami. Remember the huge amounts of Medicare fraud. Could this happen at the local level?

As power is devolved to the local level, the perverse incentives of a distant Federal democracy begin to weaken. We not only understand the costs and benefits of local laws more thoroughly, we also can affect them more easily. Special interests can still operate, such as real estate developers and construction trade unions, but it is easier to overcome them and there is more competition among towns and cities. People can move around. They can leave New York for Texas. If all government were local, a locality could not enforce excessive and unwanted restrictions of any kind. People would either move out or their threat of moving out would prevent such restrictions in the first place.

In the limit, the scope of democracy should be reduced to as little as possible so that your life will not be run politically by people who act against your interests by using the power of government. The ideal is zero democracy. With zero democracy, the costs of your actions are not forced upon anyone else and their’s are not forced upon you.

If Americans actually want democracy, if they merely wish to be better off, then they need to shut down the Federal government. They need to see through the false seductions of Federal power. Underneath the mask and makeup is a face you do not want to see. Mr. Hoyer and no other Federal official are going to tear off the mask and let you see the Dracula you are in bed with.

To make my point, I have a tongue-in-cheek suggestion. Our current incentive system acts to increase Federal democracy, which harms us. We need to reverse the incentives. Americans need to elect Congressmen and pay them to reduce the Federal government drastically. It will be well worth it. If we bribed every Congressman with $10,000,000, the cost would be only about $5 billion.

If bribery is too crude for American sensibilities, we can use the fact that Congress can establish its own pay. Congress should pass a law giving itself incentive pay. For every x Federal laws that it repeals, it can pay itself y dollars, and then it can vote to amend the Constitution to put itself out of business permanently. We can call this the Free America Act.

With such incentive pay, the Federal government would be reduced in very short order. Who cares if every Congressman retires with a big bank account if they remove the Federal incubus once and for all?

This is the Thanksgiving season. Christmas is not far off. Let us place local democracy on our shopping list.

Michael S. Rozeff [send him mail] is the Louis M. Jacobs Professor of Finance at University at Buffalo.

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