Think Globally, Bully Locally

“Would you tell me please, Mr. Howard,” asked Benjamin Martin, a fictional character loosely based on Revolutionary War figure Francis Marion and portrayed by Mel Gibson in The Patriot, “why should I trade one tyrant 3,000 miles away for 3,000 tyrants one mile away?”

In the film — and in the making of America’s Revolution against Britain — the question was whether rule by a domestic elected legislature was really any better in principle than rule by a distant foreign king.

The same question can still be reasonably posed in cities and towns across that same America more than 200 years later. While “states’ rights” claims and other arguments in favor of decentralization and localized rule are characteristic of the American political tradition, local government often makes the best case against delegating power to government at all.

If you live in a suburb or rural town, you probably know what I’m talking about. Your city likely has more ordinances than it has people, many of those ordinances probably make little or no sense for the communities they govern, and those ordinances are probably selectively enforced, if for no other reason than that no local government could possibly afford the staff to enforce all of them on everyone.

More to the point, these ordinances are just lying there like loaded guns, waiting to be picked up by the city functionary who has a personal ax to grind, or who’s outraged at a citizen’s temerity in speaking out against a favored boondoggle of the moment during the “public comment” portion of the last city council meeting.

Think about it: You have a very good chance of making it through your whole life without attracting the attention of an FBI agent or a US Attorney. It’s a big country with its political attention centered on Washington, DC, and you’re small potatoes in the ‘burbs, right?

On the other hand, you probably live within a block or two of any number of local government officials and employees, any of whom can put a cramp in your lifestyle at will … and may very well do so, using the force of law, the first time the two of you find yourselves on the opposite side of an argument.

Last time I checked, my own small city of fewer than 800 people was ruled by more than 500 pages of ordinances. We have laws specifying the required amount of window area in each home’s exterior rooms … and the number of holes per square inch in the screens on those windows.

And those are just the plainly stated ordinances! A few years ago, our board of alderpersons adopted a new electrical code. In point of fact, it was the electrical code of the City of New York, a city a thousand miles away with a population 10,000 times our own city’s. It was adopted without a full reading by the board, or any member of the board (not surprising, given that it’s several thousand pages long).

Without pause for forethought, in a matter of minutes, this small city government adopted a body of law which would have been debated for months, if not years, in the state’s legislature or US Congress.

Thankfully, those hundreds of pages of ordinances and thousands of pages of code will not be uniformly enforced. The city’s entire annual budget is insufficient to provide for uniform enforcement. If they were uniformly enforced, the city’s population would quickly descend toward zero, as few people could afford either the monetary costs or the 24-hours-a-day effort it would take to remain in perpetual compliance.

Unfortunately, those hundreds of pages of ordinances and thousands of pages of code will be enforced … selectively.

Did your kid get in a fight last week with the son of a zoning board member? Good luck getting that variance your small business needs to expand into a second lot.

Did you lead a public effort to defeat one of the city council’s worse ideas in last year’s elections? Don’t be surprised when the annual “exterior inspection” reveals a few thousand dollars worth of work you’re going to have to have done on your home (after you buy a permit from city hall for that work, of course!) if you want to avoid hefty fines and court costs.

The virtue of decentralized government is a myth. In truth, the closer the state gets to you, the more damage it’s capable of doing to you in the course of providing “services” that could just as easily be provided through voluntary cooperatives or homeowner associations.

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