The PJ Tatler

Should Small Government Be Our Goal?

Local government may be too small to address its citizen’s problems. That’s the case made by MSNBC’s Chris Hayes on Tuesday’s All In. Hayes opened his commentary outlining perceived flaws with local government:

You hear it over and over again from politicians, particularly on the Right. “Big government is bad. Small, local government is good…”

But there’s no smaller government more closer to its citizens than local municipal government. In Ferguson, we saw that the reality of “small government” is often very different from the reality of it. We saw a local government that was not accountable to its residents and was simply not equipped to deal with the problems inside its municipal borders.

Part of that has to do with accountability. In last year’s municipal elections in Ferguson, just over 12% of eligible voters cast ballots, and just 6% of African-American residents voted. Ferguson is not unique in that respect. Turn out in local elections is famously low, and accountability is often hard to come by – part of the reason why Jonathan Chait wrote in New York Magazine, “The myth of localism is rooted deep in our political psyche. Left and Right alike use ‘small’ and ‘local’ as terms of approbation, ‘big’ and ‘bureaucratic’ as terms of abuse. None of us is equipped to see that the government that actually oppresses us is that which is closest to us.”

The discussion which followed with guest contributor Brian Murphy expounded on these points, arguing that local government proves inadequate to serve citizens. The heavily implied position which Hayes and Murphy advocate is that these perceived local inadequacies argue for more power to higher levels of government.

Of course, there’s quite a few unspoken premises upon which that case is built. Before you can judge government’s adequacy, you must first grasp its purpose. The debate over the “size” of government often misses that point. The real issue is government’s proper role, not its size. Indeed, the role of government should dictate its size in any given context.

Do you want a small police force, or an effective one? Do you want a small military, or a strong one? Do you want smaller, fewer court rooms, or as many as necessary to handle your district’s case load?

If you believe government exists to protect individual rights and administer equal justice under the law, then you want a police force that protects you from criminals, a military that protects you from foreign aggressors, and a court system for enforcing contracts and resolving disputes. You want those institutions “big” enough to work, not “small” for the sake of smallness. If you’re Chris Hayes, on the other hand, your intrusive vision for government can’t be so easily satiated.

It’s odd to cite low voter turnout as evidence of poor accountability in local government. It’s not as though people aren’t allowed to vote, and thus incapable of holding their local officials accountable. Rather, eligible voters choose not to participate.

Perhaps a key reason for low interest in local elections is the relative impotence of local government. In my suburban city outside the Twin Cites, our school district receives the lowest allocation of per pupil funding of any district in the state. Yet, neither our city council nor our school board have any control over that whatsoever. If you want to increase interest in local elections, return true autonomy to local governments.

(Today’s Fightin Words podcast is on this topic available here. 13:44 minutes long; 13.26 MB file size. Right click here to download this show to your hard drive. Subscribe through iTunes or RSS feed.)