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Saturday, April 23, 2011

Looking to History for Another Opinion

As a U.S. citizen and legal resident of the state of Michigan, has it ever occurred to you that you have no legal right to local self-government? That’s what one side of the argument is claiming these days, the other side arguing that the state’s 1963 constitution does make such provision. Here’s a scary statement, however, from the legal side defending local self-government:
It is true as a matter of state law that the State of Michigan, if it chose to do so, could eliminate local government jurisdictions and govern them directly … The State has the power to create cities, townships, villages and counties, and it can legally eliminate them as well.

Wow. That is the guy on our side? Follow that link above to read the entire article and both sides of the question.

Lately I’ve been dipping once again into Alexis de Toqueville’s Democracy in America. Yes, yes, I know—before you can object, I acknowledge that this book was written by a very young Frenchman and not by an American citizen, let alone an American lawyer, judge or historian. Some of de Toqueville’s opinions have been challenged in the years since his 1831 visit to the United States, but there is no other survey of American life and politics from that period, the more objective for having been written by an outsider, that covers as much ground from as many different perspectives as de Toqueville’s account. A dinner party conversation, for example, he would often write up several different times in his journals, first giving the bare facts, then the social background of the guests, then the political discussion of the evening. His work continues to be taken seriously to our day.

What strikes me most forcibly in this re-reading is the emphasis the author lays on local government in America. Specifically, he notes that township government preceded any organization of counties and states and, in older, longer-established parts of the country, continues to be not only the form of government with the most direct citizen population but also the greatest source of allegiance to community, law and nation. Thus from his observations he maintains “...that the most powerful, and perhaps the only, means which we still possess of interesting men in the welfare of their country, is to make them partakers in the government.” Here is another statement, somewhat longer but important for containing a supporting argument within it:
The partisans of centralization in Europe are wont to maintain that the government can administer the affairs of each locality better than the citizens could do it for themselves; this may be true, when the central powers are enlightened, and the local authorities are ignorant; when it [central authority] is alert, and the local authorities are ignorant; when it is accustomed to act, and they to obey. ...But I deny that it is so, when the people are as enlightened, as awake to their own interests, and as accustomed to reflect on them, as the Americans are. I am persuaded, on the contrary, that, in this case, the collective strength of the citizens will always conduce more efficaciously to the public welfare than the authority of the government. ...[W]enever a central administration affects complete to supersede the persons most interested, I believe that it is either misled, or desirous to mislead [my emphasis added].”

We in Michigan and across the entire United States need to decide once again what we want. Do we want our citizens to become “accustomed to obey,” or do we want them—that is, ourselves—to gain and hold, through continued practice, the skills of self-government? Why cannot the state send in advisors rather than managers to struggling communities? It is what our country first attempts with governments overseas. Why should our own local governments be accorded less respect than foreign governments? It is no mere coincidence that de Toqueville saw the greatest danger to democracy in the "tyranny of the majority."

Or is self-government just too much work? Are we not up to the standards of 1831 any more?

4 comments:

Gerry said...

The only problem is that we do not attend to local self-government in meaningful ways.

Look at how townships and counties operate in this region. There are numerous well-publicized examples of self-dealing, Good Old Boys (and Girls) taking care of each other, preferential treatment in matters of zoning, tax exemption, grantmaking, and service delivery.

I don't want to pick on any particular local unit of government (although really, people, the septage plant fell down and no one went to jail???) The problem is universal.

The "persons most interested" will always prevail in any political situation. For one thing, a lot of them don't have to sit through tedious meetings. They have people for that, or they can pick up the phone and call a friend who sits on the Planning Commission.

For years public attendance at Torch Lake Township meetings consisted of one or two people. There were many times when I was The Public. Someone else is being The Public now, because I'm busy watching what they were doing 150 years ago--which turns out to be pretty much the same stuff they're doing now.

The more things change . . .

P. J. Grath said...

Gerry, the meaning you are giving to "persons most interested" seems much narrower than de Toqueville's. My question to you is, do you think the new state law is a solution to local problems?

Gerry said...

Of course not. But I don't think it will make the problems a whole lot worse, either. From where I sit, it's more or less beside the point.

The only way to have effective self-government of, by and for the people is for the people to become engaged - to fill those seats at the meetings, to read every word of proposed ordinances, to talk to each other quietly and to listen to each other respectfully.

We are not doing that in this country, not at any level of government.

P. J. Grath said...

Yesterday I read "The Custom-House," Nathaniel Hawthorne's prologue to THE SCARLET LETTR. With wry humor he paints a picture of bureaucratic deadwood in the form of do-nothing government employees. It's hard to imagine a staff that unproductive today (however much screaming comes from certain quarters), so maybe things don't always get worse. Maybe they go in cycles. I try to stay aware but, at the same time, not go overboard with alarm, not become so obsessed I'll forget to notice and be grateful for the beauty of each day.

What else can I say? Time will tell.