In a recent report published by the Ludwig von Mises Institute, which is one of the best non-profit outfits anywhere, we learn about a family that was given the shaft by the local city bureaucracy. Now, this is not big news. It happens all the time. But this time, the family stuck it back to the city, good and hard. This is a “man bites dog, and then kicks its butt for good measure” story. The article is titled, “Secession in Michigan,” by Adam Young.
On Tuesday, December 17, 2002, Arenac Township and Omer City, Michigan held a joint referendum brought about by the actions of one woman, Cheryl Perry. The Perrys simply no longer wished to be looted by the Omer municipal government, even if it was only $41.62 a year. . . .
Omer entered the national spotlight, with ABC News, the Chicago Tribune, and the Detroit Free Press stopping by, when Cheryl Perry refused to be bullied by her “representatives” and decided to fight City Hall. It all began when the Omer city government promised to extend the existing water line to connect the new home the Perry’s were building, but halfway through construction, the government changed its tune, claiming the city government’s coffers were bare and it couldn’t afford the pipeline extension. . . .
The city’s regime said they would be happy to extend the pipeline if the Perrys would be willing to pay for it, and at the inflated cost of all government construction, one presumes. Apparently, this “offer” didn’t appeal to the Perrys, who instead dug their own well at a cost to themselves and now have all the water they need.
The Perrys dug a well. This way, they could live in their new home. They were fortunate. In some urban communities, digging a well is illegal. The cities’ water departments won’t allow the competition. They refer to it as “below-market pricing” — way below. Sometimes 500 feet below.
The city continued to charge the Perrys $41.62 a year for water service. This was legal. It was preposterous, but it was legal.
In an interview Cheryl Perry had a very common sense reaction to this action by Omer’s governmental bureaucracy: “I don’t feel I should have to pay because I don’t get the water.”
This woman just didn’t get it. Legally, taxes aren’t primarily about services. They’re primarily about power. “See this gun? I’m holding it. You aren’t. I’m entitled to hold it. You aren’t. Pay up.”
But Mrs. Perry decided that there was a better way, a better political way. “Find someone else who holds a gun, but who extracts less tribute.”
When petitioning one’s government for redress of grievances proved to be a farce, Cheryl Perry turned the tables on the bureaucrats: if she had to pay the tax because she lived in Omer, she would secede from Omer and take her new house and land with her. Cheryl Perry petitioned the city government to secede from Omer and join neighboring Arenac Township, a process covered by Michigan State law, which requires a local referendum. So, on December 17, both Arenac Township and Omer held a contest at the ballot box — an “election” over only one issue: whether to allow the Perrys to leave Omer’s jurisdiction without actually moving.
Now, here’s a novel idea! Get governments competing against each other for your tribute money. “Let’s get an auction going here! Let’s see some price competition!”
Arenac Township Clerk Elaine Pula thought some sort of compromise would eventually be worked out. “I kind of thought the city of Omer and our township would get together and, you know, come up with something to save the expense.”
Compromise? Governments? Bureaucrats? Guns? Not likely.
Mrs. Perry persisted. She demanded an election. She wanted to know: Would other townspeople in Omer stand with her and allow her to secede?
To hold the vote Omer and Arenac Township spent $2,000 which included printing enough ballots for all 1,000 potential voters and hiring workers to man the voting places from 7am to 8pm, even though most people figured around 50 people would actually turn up to vote, if that.
After the polls closed Cheryl Perry got the outcome she wanted. Out of a total vote tally of 140, with 82 votes Yes and 58 miserable voters voting No, the Perrys had successfully seceded from Omer and Omer’s taxman.
She won. She has successfully transferred her official allegiance to a more distant government, which charges her nothing for the water it doesn’t supply. Whether it supplies a fire truck, the report didn’t say.
No, not the new city’s assessment; our assessment.
Was it worth her trouble? Was it worth the city’s $2,000?
Mr. Young, a libertarian, proves once again that too many libertarians take no delight in the absurd. This was not true of Murray Rothbard, but it afflicts a lot of them. They prefer cold-blooded cost-benefit analyses. But in making these analyses, they never factor in the sheer joy of sticking it to politicians. He writes:
However, the concern for libertarians should be the waste in time, money and lost opportunities entailed by having your income and other property perpetually at the mercy of the vote of your neighbors. Consequently we should see this as yet another reason to not only fight City Hall, but to abolish it, because even if conservatives would herald it a success, it would only be because she won, but what if she lost? The Perrys would have been forced to relinquish some of their property year after year because their neighbors agreed that they should.
“I wish we didn’t have to go through this whole thing,” Cheryl Perry told ABC News. “It’s been pretty time-consuming for us.”
I call your attention to five words: “Cheryl Perry told ABC News.” This lady was successful in getting her story in front of millions of voters, most of whom have been manhandled by some bonehead local bureaucrat at least once. Besides, they watch ABC news for entertainment value. What better entertainment than this! Here was true reality TV. She was able to get some local politicians to eat the political equivalent of horse colons. Mr. Young is oblivious to all this.
And even though Cheryl Perry won her referendum and thus saved the extorted costs of the annual water levy, how much did she lose in lost opportunities as well as her share of the actual costs that she and others were forced to incur to operate the referendums? An additional cost is the social cost incurred by the Perrys whose neighbors grew to resent both the Perry’s themselves and the attention they brought to their town.
Is he kidding? Social cost? What social cost? In the Perrys’ cost-benefit analysis, personal delight in sticking it to the system on national TV surely must have offset any threat of possible future social costs, however we might measure such a phantom.
We see in this story the irrevocable operation of North’s Law of Bureaucracy:
“There is no government regulation, no matter how plausible it initially appears, that will not eventually be applied by some bureaucrat in a way that defies common sense.”
There are only two things that successfully restrain the expansion of bureaucracy: (1) cut their budgets; (2) publicly humiliate them for having done something preposterous that’s completely legal.
The Perrys did both. They cut the Omer’s budget by $41.62 a year. They forced the city to “waste” money on an election that the city lost. They also forced local bureaucrats to worry about being exposed in the national media as ham-handed dolts. Have you ever done anything of equal political value with your spare time? I surely haven’t.
Mr. Young eventually sided with the Perrys. “The Perrys were right: justice and the right not to be coerced cannot be separated.” But that’s too antiseptic for my taste. They not only beat city hall, they beat it where it hurts most: on national TV. They did what it is almost impossible to do. They converted run-of-the-mill, anti-business-as-usual political pig-headedness into entertainment. Do that, and you will get covered by the media. (The master of this approach was the late Saul Alinsky.)
The Perrys are an inspiration to me. They fought city hall and won. They have challenged my innate cynicism about such efforts, for it was I, a quarter century ago, who announced in Reason magazine the following principle of political action:
“You can’t fight city hall, but you can pee on the steps and run.”
I was wrong. Sometimes you can pee on the steps and then get on ABC News.
January 23, 2003