A Libertarian View of Government?

In a previous essay for this site, I wrote about the big new building that county bureaucrats want to erect for themselves in my town and the enthusiasm with which misguided local merchants have greeted those plans. Disappointed by Chamber of Commerce milquetoasts, I had hoped for a fight between the city and the county over the proposed building. Unfortunately, no such fight is forthcoming.

This is ironic, because the city staffers who scatter like field mice in the presence of county apparatchiks with big ideas routinely threaten business owners who flout municipal guidelines about the size and color of signs in their shop windows. Even the few city council members who question the appearance of the proposed county building refuse to find anything impolite or unwarranted about its size. Instead they wonder whether the existing blueprint can be amended to modulate the building façade or specify metal light shelves on the top floor.

No one on the city payroll asks whether county supervisors suffer from an "edifice complex," or why they turn for inspiration to boastful designs of the kind Albert Speer once loved when work done by legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright can be found just down the street.

Some city councilmen rationalize their silence about the new county building by saying that because the city is subordinate to the county, it has very little influence with policymakers at that level. The end result of such reasoning is preemptive capitulation. If the city started with a different premise, it would come to a different conclusion.

I know more about English than about political science, but I bet the founding fathers never intended lesser governments to be doormats for greater governments. They were, after all, revolutionaries. Thanks to what I have learned from other pundits on this site, I also suspect that presidents like Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt have caused many people to reverse polarities on the adjectives "lesser" and "greater." Accordingly, another look at the original wiring diagram for our republic seems in order. What I want to know is why city and county roles in this little drama are not reversed.

The county owns the property in question, but the impact of any building on that site will be felt most acutely by the surrounding city, and this begs the question of how such intramural disputes should be resolved. From a layman's point of view, local presumption seems more faithful to the letter and the spirit of our founding documents than Darwinian notions of how to bet in contests between the strong and the weak. In other words, when different levels of government clash with each other, shouldn't respect for the American system give the high card in the hand to whichever jurisdiction is smaller?

I have never served on an interagency task force and do not often ponder the relationship between levels of government. But of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, this question walked into mine, and for all I know it needs an answer like Victor Laszlo needed an exit visa from Casablanca.

If government derives its just powers from the consent of the governed, and if government is at least theoretically "of the people, by the people, and for the people," then government jobs that are closest to people in the private sector would seem to be more legitimate than government jobs that are two, three, or four steps removed from the rest of us.

Law enforcement agents might recognize that insight as the impetus for experiments in community policing, but it has applications that go beyond exchanging high-fives or dinner invitations with the uniformed cops who patrol your neighborhood. If political power rests with individual citizens, then resolutions passed in town meetings come nearer to the republican ideal than acts of Congress. By that logic the city ought to outweigh the county, the county ought to outweigh the state, and the state ought to outweigh the feds, except in the few cases where the Constitution lets the feds put a thumb on the scale.

Apologists for the status quo may scoff at this apparent inversion of the power pyramid and its resemblance to states' rights claims once advanced by the Confederacy, but what else justifies voting? By voting someone into political office I deputize that person to decide in my name on issues of communal concern. Because at the local level that person is easy to reach and may even be a neighbor, I can expect him or her to act humbly in office. But by the time authority that originates with me has been hauled up or down the food chain to increasingly isolated state and federal politicians (paying taxes every step of the way), it is weary and easily startled. To my mind this "traveling proxy" view of the political process explains the constitutional need for a) limited government, b) separation of powers, and c) chief executives who tread lightly.

On the other hand, ignoring the rightful position of the American voter or dismissing the traveling proxy view as a utopian fantasy has serious drawbacks. Human nature being what it is, when people put the occupant of the White House at the top of the political power structure because he has access to missile launch codes, he begins to act as though he owns the White House, and legislators near him begin to act like bandits in "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre." They don't need no stinkin' badges. Energized by crises and high on proximity to the most powerful man in the world, they scorn civil liberties, demonize opponents, and pound treasury money down special-interest rat holes in transparent attempts to prove their racketeering prowess to constituents looking for handouts.