My father was a child of the ’60s and an outspoken left-winger. Imagine my shock as a child, then, when he would happily vote for Republican candidates for local office. The simple reason was that he knew them, or knew people who did, and knew who would be best for the job. Even in our medium-sized Midwestern college town, people knew each other well enough that candidates were not bundles of assumed policies based on party affiliation, but real people.
I was reminded of this memory recently as I watched the all-too-predictable recriminations stemming from the absurd federal government shutdown. At the national level, getting votes is about grandstanding, partisan identity, and sound bites, rather than actually knowing one’s constituency. Even most states are too large for the level of personal engagement you find at the local level. What would happen, then, if local governments had a lot more control over policy? Some localities could lower taxes and provide fewer services, while others could do the opposite. Local school boards could have much greater control over curricula and measuring outcomes. And many aspects of the culture wars could be settled at a level where far more consensus likely exists.
People often talk about how politicians in Washington used to be far more collegial across the aisle. Kiss those days goodbye. But when government officials live in a community, know the people, and are less subjected to the 24-hour news cycle, bickering could be replaced with some degree of trust.
This method of government also has a certain Hayekian logic. More decisions are made by those who more closely observe localized information. Of course, decentralization involves the loss of some types of efficiency or economies of scale, but it would take a lot of chutzpah to call our current system efficient.
Considerably more control divested to local governments would also be an invaluable way to learn what policies do and don’t work. Rather than theoretical discussions with little empirical data, we would have numerous case studies and data points.
This would not be a perfect solution for anyone. My father, for example, would probably not have liked the policies enacted in our Indiana town. But there’s freedom of migration in this country, and as I noted above, this structure would tell us a lot more about what actually does and doesn’t work. Some libertarians might see this as a half-measure preserving government control while presenting more individual opportunities for bad governance. But unless one believes we’re just around the corner from an anarcho-capitalist paradise, such decentralization would seem to mean moving in the right direction.
Our federal government is like a huge corporation that doesn’t even have the profit motive to discipline it. Combined with a reality-show president, it looks like more of a farce every day. No matter one’s political stripes, more policy diversity at the local level may be the best currently available option.