by Barry Edelson
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The War on Government

An Update

A Town No Longer

What happens if a small town holds an election and nobody shows up — including candidates for office? This is not a hypothetical problem in many parts of rural America, where seats on town councils and school boards go begging for lack of interest. As populations dwindle and economic activity slows to almost a complete stop in some remote places, local government effectively ceases to exist.

In northern Maine, some towns have taken the drastic step of officially dissolving their town governments and becoming instead part of a vast, sparsely populated region that is legally designated as the Unorganized Territory. For those residents who follow the lengthy process through to the end, their towns become nothing more than names on the map. As reported in The New York Times last week, town authority is then ceded entirely to the county and state governments, which take over whatever services the town could no longer afford to provide for itself. Property taxes are reduced accordingly, as the burden for policing, road maintenance, schools and so on is spread among a greater number of people over a much bigger area. Officials reckon that about 40 towns have taken this step in the state's history, though interest seems to have grown in recent years, as the responsibility becomes too great for small, scattered populations that just don't have the money, expertise or personnel to carry out the functions of town government.

The loss of local control, which must surely be a psychological blow to the pride and independence of a dying town, is, by stark contrast, a fantasy for some who live in the increasingly overcrowded cities and suburbs. As benighted locales in rural Maine cling in vain to the mythical ideal of the New England town meeting, others can only dream of shedding some of their layers of local government. In much of the country, multiple overlapping public entities, each with separate taxing authority, grasp tenaciously to their holds on both their municipal authority and the residents' wallets. Independent boards rule over each county, town, village and school district, not to mention other quasi-autonomous boards for specialized services such as libraries, water, and fire. If you live anywhere in the New York suburbs, for example, your property tax bill is an object lesson in governmental proliferation and pettiness. Why separate tax rates must be established each year for parking, lighting, sewage, and sundry other utilities, rather than having them all rolled into the orbit of a single county or town taxing authority, is presumably the result of centuries of infighting among political bosses, parties and factions. Hardly anyone willingly surrenders local control, a tendency that is expertly exploited by the powers that be to keep things exactly as they are.

The middle ground, as always, is shifting and elusive. But the tired debate over whether government is inherently good or bad does not seem to have much bearing on the reality of this situation. No reasonable person argues that we don't need fire fighters, courts or sanitation, only how we can provide public services effectively and at a reasonable cost. Certainly, there are anti-government fanatics who have never heard of a government service they wouldn't like to see turned over to a for-profit company (often conveniently owned by their friends). However, no one in rural Maine seems to have considered privatizing their town services, most likely because they know that no company could expect to earn a profit by providing services that the town itself could barely muster. The financial benefits of some governmental functions simply do not accrue in such a way as to make them worthwhile targets of private investment. We could privatize the roads, for instance, and allow private companies to charge tolls for their trouble, but that would inevitably lead to the abandonment of rural highways where there aren't many drivers and those who remain couldn't afford to pay for them anyway. This is precisely why we have virtually no passenger rail service anymore, except for publicly subsidized commuter lines in populated places, and Amtrak, whose ill-defined public/private status is clearly no way to run a railroad.

Why, we may ask, should states and counties provide any services at all in far-flung areas where cost efficiency is well nigh impossible? Perhaps the back roads and remote outposts of the state police are not worth supporting. Whenever there's a natural disaster like a flood, we wonder whether other taxpayers should be compelled to pay for those who insist on rebuilding in disaster-prone areas. Why not apply the same principle to those few who choose the solitude of the woods and mountains over the convenience of the town and city? If people decide to live in the boonies, they have to dig their own wells and septic systems. Why are the rest of obliged to subsidize their electricity and fire protection but not their water and sewage? Where does the reasonable obligation to our fellow citizens begin and end?

There are no absolute answers to these questions, because neither government nor private industry is able or willing to provide every possible good to every person in every place. But one thing is certain: neither the ghost town nor the bustling suburb is, in itself, an argument for more or less government. Citizens of small towns may or may not like what the county or state may offer, and may choose to organize themselves differently. Some malcontents never tire of railing against the federal government and imagine they could live well without its intrusiveness as well as its protection. We can pretend otherwise by eschewing the word 'government', but human beings never get very far on their own and without some form of public organization. If you think you can get through life in a log cabin and never having to dial 911, lots of luck. But when disaster strikes and you need that ambulance, at least have the decency to acknowledge that the public sector (i.e., the rest of humanity) does have its uses.

We need not go back very far in history to see what the world would be like without government on a large scale: clean streets only for the well-to-do, justice only for those who can afford to sue, education only for the chosen few. The uneven quality of public services is no more an argument against government than bankruptcy is an argument against capitalism. Teenagers and misfits fail to appreciate the trade-offs of living in a complex society. To them, freedom and fairness are absolutes, and compromise is always with the devil. The rest of us ought to know better.

Don't Drink the Water

The imperative of good government was never more apparent than in the water crisis unfolding in Flint, Michigan at this very moment. There are any number of villains in this story, from the governor and his small-government bias, to the state's environmental officials who seem not to have heard of lead poisoning until a few weeks ago, to the appointed city managers who have evidently done little to help Flint emerge from its long decline.

No one could seriously argue that the city of Flint and the state of Michigan ought not to supply drinking water to its population, though some have advocated privatizing the delivery of water, just like every other city service. Given the city's abysmal failure to provide this most basic of human needs — one that has been seen as a fundamental urban responsibility since at least the time of the ancient Romans (who, incidentally, invented the lead pipe) — turning it over to someone else might, in retrospect, have been a good idea. But this begs the issue of why Flint suffered such a monumental catastrophe. Indifferent government is one thing; utter incompetence is another.

One is hard pressed not to equate this dreadful event with other memorable instances of governmental ineptitude. "Heck of a job, Brownie", President Bush's pat on the back for his thoroughly unqualified FEMA director, Michael Brown, during the botched federal response to Hurricane Katrina, jumps to mind. The race factor is also hard to ignore: the shirking of public responsibility all too often falls of the backs of poor, black people. Then again, the chemical spill in West Virginia's Elk River a year ago affected mostly poor white people, but citing an example of poor people of any color getting the short end of the stick does not exactly offer much consolation. The have-nots are often excoriated by the heartless haves for not fending more for themselves and depending too much on the government (i.e., on the taxes the rich have to work very hard to avoid paying). But it is rather hard to stand on your own two feet when you are being poisoned. And, not for nothing, the water that flows from your golden taps is also supplied by the government.

It is hard to argue with the proposition that lead-tainted water in a wealthy white suburb would have been dealt with much more quickly, or wouldn't have been allowed to happen in the first place. Arguably, the response would also have been quicker if this had happened in a wealthy black suburb. This crisis is more about powerlessness than race, but of course race matters because a higher percentage of black people in this country are also poor, and frequently find themselves at the short of end of many sharp sticks. In nearly every aspect of public and private policy — justice, education, employment, health, the environment, etc. — power, poverty and race are inextricably intertwined and inseparable.

What seems to be the root cause of Flint's tragedy is what the economist John Kenneth Galbraith called "private luxury and public squalor". Americans invest massive sums to make their private spaces gleam. For even the modest homeowner, the building supply store is a modern-day mecca. But our attitude toward the public square has always been marked by indifference or even aversion. This leads to many perverse incentives, as Galbraith explains, such as the manufacturer of desks for school classrooms who is seen as providing a valuable product, offering employment and enriching shareholders, while the classrooms themselves for which the desks are made are little more than a drain on the public purse. As a nation built on the premise of a tax revolt, we have shown limited patience and uneven support for public enterprise.

Still, there are usually enough qualified people engaged in the business of government, and even a few men and women of vision, to overcome the general mediocrity of the civil service, face down the hostility of tax-cutting politicians, and keep the wheels of civil society turning. Occasionally, however, there is a perfect storm of incompetence and negligence. This is what appears to have happened in Flint: a state government in thrall to a penny-pinching mania, city managers on a short tenure with no incentive to take the long view, and a very old infrastructure of water delivery (and, presumably, much else in Michigan's run-down, rust-belt cities) that required more, not less, attention to keep it functioning in proper order.

Some, like Flint native Michael Moore, have loudly called for Gov. Rick Snyder to resign. Maybe he should, but it's hard to see how that would make things better. Snyder is undeniably very conservative, having pushed for right-to-work and anti-abortion laws during his five years in office, and joining the recent Republican chorus calling for Syrian refugees to be prevented from entering the country (this in a state with probably the nation's oldest, largest and most productive Arab-American population). On the other hand, Snyder broke ranks with conservatives, and earned the enmity of the Tea Party, for accepting the Medicaid expansion of the Affordable Care Act, and called for 50,000 visas for immigrants with degrees to help bolster Detroit's flagging economy. He never held public office before being elected governor, starting out as a CPA (which explains why he has the charisma of a tax accountant) and working his way up into corporate management. But while he may not be the perfect poster child for small government conservatism, he is nonetheless someone who clearly comes down on the side of private capital versus public expenditure. Even if we give him the benefit of the doubt that he is not a racist and would never have knowingly allowed Flint's water to be contaminated just to save a few dollars, he appears to be yet another wealthy political neophyte who just does not understand the consequences of his actions, let alone how dire those consequences are for the poor. Heck of a job, Brownie.

Freedom Fighters or Trespassers?

While some small towns in Maine willingly if reluctantly surrender local control to the county and state, others harbor dreams of freeing themselves from the burden of "tyrannical" government altogether. This, we gather, is the state of mind of the occupiers of a wildlife refuge in eastern Oregon. They claim as their mission the "return" of public lands to their "original owners", though they seem to have overlooked (but have been reminded) that (a) the lands originally belonged to Native American tribes whose descendants still live there, and (b) nearly all public lands in the western United States came directly into the possession of the federal government from those tribes through treaty, subterfuge or outright theft. At no point were they ever privately owned.

The leader of the group, Ammon Bundy (son of the self-exposing racist Cliven Bundy) and his merry band of invaders have chosen a deliberately provocative way of making their point. There is a perfectly legitimate political argument to be made for opening up more public lands for private use, but armed insurrection is not going to draw much sympathy for your cause. They have not exactly been welcomed by the local population, either, on whose behalf they claim to be acting. Turning the land over to local control would be more meaningful if the locals actually wanted it. Most if not all of the nearby residents who have expressed an opinion have called for Bundy's bandits to leave from the day they arrived.

Furthermore, a counter-protest group of environmental activists has also set up camp in the area, reminding us and the occupiers that mining and ranching are not the only uses to which the land can be put.

In the absence of logic or reason coming from the Bundy camp, one is compelled to attempt some of one's own. Is it just the federal government that is the object of the occupiers' contempt, or all government? If they had their way and the land were actually turned over to the local county, and said county decided to restrict its use to recreation, would the Bundys, who earn their living by ranching (and refuse to pay the grazing fees they owe to the Feds) be satisfied? Or what if the county did allow grazing on the land, but charged even higher fees than the federal government charges? Would the Bundy army have to come back and seize the land again, this time from the county, and turn it over to some other group of "the people" whose cause they say they are championing? If we think it through, it's hard to see how these people are fighting for any principle at all, but are merely trying to get something free, at the point of gun, for themselves and their friends and allies. This, if memory serves, is called armed robbery.

Even if the occupiers actually got what they say they wanted, government isn't going to disappear from the West. The state of Oregon, the local county and towns, and any number of environmental and civic groups are all going to have a say over what happens to that land. Someone is still going to have to repair its roads, educate the children who live on it, provide police protection, and so on. Even if the occupiers ended up with complete control of the land, they themselves would have to provide these services in one form or another, or else the local people would eventually rise up and oust them in favor of someone who will. Invasion is easy, governing is hard. Just ask the Pentagon officials who planned the invasion of Iraq. Just ask ISIS. No one likes to live in chaos.

As the snow piles up across the East this weekend, think about the public employees up and down the coast who are working very long shifts to clear the public roads, without whose effort we would all be stuck at home for a good long while. Then spare a thought for the people of northernmost Maine, whose snow-covered roads are now the responsibility of the county or the state. Finally, think about Bundy and his gang, whining about their "liberty". There's not much liberty in being trapped by the snow, or left to the mercy of armed imbeciles.


January 24, 2016


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All writings on this site are copyrighted by Barry Edelson. Reprinting by permission only.