In a letter written in 1816, Thomas Jefferson famously asserted:
No, my friend, 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 defence of the nation, and its foreign and federal relations; the State governments with the civil rights, laws, 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.
Jefferson’s insight—that the dispersal of power throughout multiple levels of government will help ensure the preservation of liberty—has informed antistatist conservative rhetoric pretty much for as long as such rhetoric has existed. It’s a truism of classical liberal thought: the concentration of power begets tyranny.
Yet is this truism entirely true? Certainly as regards race, something like the opposite proved to be the case from Jefferson’s time to the civil rights era. States and localities brutally suppressed liberty, while the federal government, in particular the judiciary, gradually assumed the role of guarantor of minority rights.
But I think the issue—call it the tyranny of the local—extends far beyond race.
It should seem obvious to most that state power is sort of like the Cosmic Cube of Marvel Comics lore (sorry, I just took my kids to this show in downtown D.C.): that is, it’s subject to abuse in fragments as well as in toto.
I wrestled with this back in 2010, writing in reference to the tea party, aka, That Which I’ve Wanted Nothing to Do With:
Administering transfer payments—the redistribution of wealth—is often one of the least complicated things that the federal government does, requiring simply the collection of a tax and the cutting of a check. It is far, far less intrusive, for example, than the creepy surveillance apparatus that surrounded us even before 9/11.
And it’s arguably less intrusive, less “nanny”-like, than what local government does. Think of your interactions with your municipality: It hits you, literally, where you live—the composition of your neighborhood, the dimensions of your house and the lot it sits on, the standards that govern the guts of your house: electricity, plumbing, heating and air-conditioning. It collects taxes on that property to pay for the school your children attend. It collects your trash and yard waste.
By comparison, Nanny doesn’t reside in Washington. She’s in city hall or the county seat. She’s on your school board and sewer board and in the zoning office.
With the exception of anarcho-capitalists, virtually no one denies the need for and legitimacy of this sort of governance. But the early-modern conservative movement trained its fire instead on things like free school lunches and social insurance for the elderly. High taxes, overgenerous welfare, excessive regulation—these were the things that animated the Reagan insurgency, again with a focus on Washington. Petty corruption in Congress (check kiting, the House Bank) as well as the specter of new federal gun regulations—these are what sparked the 1994 GOP takeover.
But thanks in part to a center-left/libertarian consensus on a suite of urban issues, it’s possible that a more holistic approach to government reform might emerge. Jonathan Chait has a must-read essay on what he calls “Big Small Government.” Chait twins the excesses of the Ferguson, Mo., Police Department (to that he could have added the sexual horrors permitted tacitly for decades by police in Rotherham, England) with onerous municipal regulations on housing density and occupational licensure; he writes, too, of poli-sci research demonstrating that state election outcomes are driven by considerations of national politics.
His provocative conclusion:
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.
What all this means, perhaps, is that, as a polity, we’re unhealthily obsessed with the federal government. For conservatives, this obsession, hardly confined to the fringes, often borders on paranoia. And the legacy of Jefferson has left them blind to the kind of government intrusiveness and bullying (and worse) that actually, and profoundly, affects our daily lives. Granted, when I say “our,” I’m talking about those of us who live in or near large or mid-sized cities. Still, I’m confident that if conservatives running for office maintained a sense of proportion about the ills, real or imagined, of a strong central government—if they didn’t quite so readily extol the virtue of state and local government—it’s possible they wouldn’t frighten a majority of the national electorate, as they currently do.