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06 July 2010

The Proper Role of Government: Local Government

The Proper Role of Government, by Ezra Taft Benson
-- read the full text.
My commentary as I study his article:
Part I (Foundational Principles, Origin of Rights)
Part II (Separation of Church and State)
Part III (Source of Governmental Power)
Part IV (Powers of a Proper Government)
Part V (Government = Force)
Part VI (The US Constitution)
Part VII (Local Government)
Part VIII (Legalized Plunder)

From the essay:


It is a firm principle that the smallest or lowest level that can possibly undertake the task is the one that should do so. First, the community or city. If the city cannot handle it, then the county. Next, the state; and only if no smaller unit can possible do the job should the federal government be considered. This is merely the application to the field of politics of that wise and time-tested principle of never asking a larger group to do that which can be done by a smaller group. And so far as government is concerned the smaller the unit and the closer it is to the people, the easier it is to guide it, to keep it solvent and to keep our freedom. Thomas Jefferson understood this principle very well and explained it this way:

“The way to have good and safe government, is not to trust it all to one, but to divide it among the many, distributing to every one exactly the functions he is competent to. Let the national government be entrusted with the defense of the nation, and its foreign and federal relations; the State governments with the civil rights, law, police, and administration of what concerns the State generally; the counties with the local concerns of the counties, and each ward direct the interests within itself. It is by dividing and subdividing these republics from the great national one down through all its subordinations, until it ends in the administration of every man’s farm by himself; by placing under every one what his own eye may superintend, that all will be done for the best. What has destroyed liberty and the rights of man in every government which has ever existed under the sun? The generalizing and concentrating all cares and powers into one body.” (Works 6:543; P.P.N.S., p. 125)

It is well to remember that the states of this republic created the Federal Government. The Federal Government did not create the states.

I've spent a lot of time pondering this section of Benson's essay, as the things that he's saying were not as obvious to me this time. Starting with that first sentence:

It is a firm principle that the smallest or lowest level that can possibly undertake the task is the one that should do so.

I mulled this statement over for a while before I realized that this principle is at the root of all the jokes about doing things "by committee." Some things are funny because they are true. Committee jokes fall into this category. Management jokes are closely related. In both cases it's humorous commentary on what happens when too many people are trying to make decisions: you often either get gross inefficiency, power trips, or both. Giving the job to the lowest level possible, as Benson suggests, is one way to eliminate those problems. Jefferson's observation brings to light the fact that the lowest level of government is self-government of the individual and family.

I think there are two things that make this principle of self-government something very difficult to put into practice and leave in practice:

1. The temptation to meddle in other people's affairs, often with the intent to help them, is a powerful thing. But self-government has a corollary: minding our own business. Not everybody thinks like I do, not everybody values the things I do, and people will make different choices, and that's OK. I must remember to live and let live. I cannot and should not "right" every foolish thing that I see. It's not my business. They have their freedom, and to keep my own I must respect theirs.

2. The freedom that comes with self-government comes with a relatively high cost: responsibility for the outcomes of the decisions I make. If my business fails, I will loose money. If I choose to quit school I will probably not have insurance... and thus neither will my children. If I live in a dirty house rather than get off my butt and clean it, my family and I will likely get sick. The more free I am to make decisions, the more I am going to be responsible for the results of those decisions. This is as it should be. There is no justice in shifting my consequences - or my rewards - to other people.

Even in a perfect world, where everyone behaved honorably and respected their neighbor's freedom to choose, we would need to work together to meet some of life's challenges. Fire and other natural disasters typically threaten more than one family, and even in a utopian setting would require people to work together. Since the world we live in a less-than-perfect world, we also have crimes that will need to be dealt with. And much of the modern lifestyle that we enjoy rests on projects in the community, such as roads, sewers and water pipelines. Since most of these things are situations unique to the local area, it seems logical that they would be best dealt with at the local level. Thus the need for an active local government, sensitive to the needs and wants of the community that created it.

To apply the principle outlined in this section of the essay to the United States, we would see a pyramid emerge: The foundation, and largest section at the bottom would be the responsibility shouldered by each individual and family for their own self-governance. The next section, somewhat smaller, would be local government: city and county. Smaller still would be the State governments, with the Federal government limited to the few powers outlined in the Constitution. Those powers delegated deal primarily in only three areas:

1. Creating an equal footing among the States for trade by standardizing currency and certain other trading rules.
2. Presenting a united front to foreign powers.
3. Providing for common defense, should the need arise.

One thing to note is that implementing this philosophy would create a situation where the variance of local choice from one area to another could, and likely would be considerable. This makes sense: local conditions vary considerably.

Another interesting note is that following the American Revolution, the thirteen English Colonies became thirteen States. As I read about the history that lead up to the creation of our Constitution, it has become clear to me that Massachusetts and Virginia were distinct from each other in much the same way that Germany and France are distinct from each other. I had wondered why, outside of America, "State" refers to a sovereign entity, a country, but inside, it's a piece of the whole of the Union. Turns out it's because in many ways our States are (or at least, began as and ought to be) a sort of federation of cooperating nations that deal with the rest of the world with a united front. One of the challenges in creating these United States was that of creating a national identity, and convincing people that it was worthy of the possible dangers to their local identity. But the national union - the federation of the several states - was never intended to destroy that which made each state unique, nor to destroy the freedoms of those states to govern themselves. Alexander Hamilton put it this way in Federalist #3:

"But as the plan of the convention aims only at a partial union or consolidation, the State governments would clearly retain all the rights of sovereignty which they before had, and which were not, by that act, EXCLUSIVELY delegated to the United States"

Benson's remark is a timely and urgently needed reminder:

"It is well to remember that the states of this republic created the Federal Government. The Federal Government did not create the states."

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