The virtues of decentralizing government

Sam Smith

One significant reason liberals don’t do better these days is because they’ve turned their backs on the sensible decentralization of government. They have forgotten the devolutionary principles of the 1960s leftists or the fact that many of their favorite issues – such matters as the environment, smoking laws, marijuana, Real ID and gay rights – rose to prominence thanks to local and state action long before there was federal interest. Instead, they tend to see advocates of local decision making as reincarnations of pre-civil rights era segregationists.

This has all the logic of accusing people who raise children of being pedophiles. In fact, decentralization is not only written into the Constitution – albeit broadly ignored – but local action has been the secret behind every major social and economic policy that has graced this land.

Imagine if abolition, labor unions, women’s and minority rights, or the ecology movement had all been forced to wait until a congressional investigation or presidential candidate found them interesting enough to hold hearings. Doing things at the grassroots – whether as citizens, businesses or as local government – has been what has repeatedly moved American forward.

At the present time, for example, the federal government and Washington are as dysfunctional as at any period in our history. And it is a bipartisan dysfunction, bought and propelled by dysfunctional lobbyists and made to seem normal by a dysfunctional media. The obvious answer is to look down the pyramid of power and to rediscover that wise principle of subsidiarity, namely that government should be carried out at the lowest practical level.

For example, such functions as Social Security, Medicare and the Postal Service are best carried out at the national level, but there is no logical – nor legal –justification for the sort of federal interference now taking place in local public education.

Here are some reasons for pursing the principle of subsidiarity:

– Americans like state and local government much more than the feds. A Rasmussen report found that forty-three percent of U.S. voters rate the performance of their local government as tops compared to its counterparts on the state and federal level. Nineteen percent say state government is better than the other two. Just 14% think the federal government does a better job. Fifty-six percent of all voters believe the federal government has too much influence over state government. Only 12% percent say the federal government doesn’t have enough influence over states.

– Americans not only trust local and state government more, they are really mad – often with good reason – at the federal government. These two Gallup charts tell a part of the story. To insist that the federal government has all the answers is, these days, to invite a further breakdown of the whole system:

– The decentralization of the federal government can increase its effectiveness. There are a number of federal agencies that are already quite decentralized. Interestingly, these agencies are among those most often praised. The National Park Service, the Peace Corps, the Coast Guard, and US Attorneys all have dispersed units with a relatively high degree of autonomy and a strong sense of turf responsibility by their employees. What is common to these agencies is their close connection with the local. For example, one study found that US Attorneys in Las Vegas and Nashville enforced drug laws the least, a reflection of local values.

– A former Peace Corps regional director told me that in his agency’s far-flung and decentralized system, there was no way he could control activities in the two dozen countries under his purview, yet the Peace Corps became one of the most popular federal programs in recent times. Can the success of these decentralized agencies be replicated, say, in housing and urban development? Why not give it a try? If federal housing monies were distributed by 50 state directors (vetted like US attorneys by the states’ senators) who were given considerable leeway in the mix of policies they could fund and approve, we would, for starters, begin to have a better idea of which programs work and which don’t.

– It’s not a radical idea. In the European Union it’s the law: “The Community shall act within the limits of the powers conferred upon it by this Treaty and of the objectives assigned to it therein. In areas which do not fall within its exclusive competence, the Community shall take action, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, only if and in so far as the objectives of the proposed action cannot be sufficiently achieved by the Member States and can therefore, by reason of the scale or effects of the proposed action, be better achieved by the Community.”

– The more power you give the top level of government; the more is being granted a institution. The more power you give the lowest level, the more you are giving to a community and to associations. John L. McKnight described it this way: “The structure of institutions is a design established to create control of people. On the other hand, the structure of associations is the result of people acting through consent. . . You will know that you are in a community if you often hear laughter and singing. You will know you are in an institution, corporation, or bureaucracy if you hear the silence of long halls and reasoned meetings.” Here are some of the characteristics McKnight found among associations in contrast to institutions: Interdependency; a recognition of fallibility rather than the ideal; better at finding a place for everyone; lacking large bureaucracies so can respond quickly; non-hierarchical creativity.

– The more involved the federal government is in directing local affairs, the greater the cost, time and paperwork. A study of Milwaukee County in 1988 found government agencies spending more than $1 billion annually on fighting poverty. If this money had been directly given in cash to the poor, it would have meant more than $33,000 for each low income family — well above the poverty level.

– Writer John Gall has said that “systems tend to oppose their proper functions.” Unfortunately, complex failing systems like the federal government have little capacity to save themselves. In part this is because the solutions come from the same source as the problem. Complex systems usually try to save themselves by doing the same they have been doing badly all along — only harder. This is because the salvation of the system is implicitly considered far more important than the solution of any problems causing the system to fail. . .

– The federal government’s own population is a little smaller than that of Los Angeles. That means it is an institution that serves two groups: the United States and a de facto city the size of LA. Which one it will be serving at any particular moment is up to it and not to us.

– One of the states that has best survived the Great Recession has been North Dakota and one of the reasons is that it has its own state bank. Of course, the federal government could have a national bank, but it doesn’t and it wouldn’t be anywhere near as responsible to local conditions as a state institution. Meanwhile, the North Dakota model is begging for other states to imitate.

– The further one becomes removed from a problem, the more it is likely to be dealt with in an abstract fashion. The practical is inevitably downgraded.

– Our huge federal government has increased the class conflict in America. Washington has become increasingly become a job factory for those with advanced degrees, typical of only about eleven percent of Americans. The language, thinking and action of this elite subculture puts the whole government at odds with general America. It is abstract, technological, legalistic, bureaucratic, and over dependent on data collection and analysis. This is a cultural, not a political, matter. For example, one of Barack Obama’s biggest problems is not that he is black but that he is a Harvard Law School graduate who doesn’t know how to talk United States.

– Liberals are afraid to criticize big government because they think it makes them sound like Republicans. In fact, the idea of devolution — having government carried out at the lowest practical level — dates back at least to that good Democrat, Thomas Jefferson, who spoke of the need for “little republics.” Conservative columnist William Safire admitted that “in a general sense, devolution is a synonym for ‘power sharing,’ a movement that grew popular in the sixties and seventies as charges of ‘bureaucracy’ were often leveled at centralized authority.” In other words, devolution used to be in the left’s bag.

It should be again

The issue that’s killing the left

Sam Smith

2010

Rasmussen Reports has come out with a fascinating poll that goes a long way towards explaining why not only liberals are doing so badly, but the left in general, the Democratic Party and Barack Obama. Here’s what the poll found:

– Forty-three percent of U.S. voters rate the performance of their local government as tops compared to its counterparts on the state and federal level.

– Nineteen percent say state government is better than the other two.

– Just 14% think the federal government does a better job.

– And 25% aren’t sure.

– Fifty-six percent of all voters believe the federal government has too much influence over state government. Only 12% percent say the federal government doesn’t have enough influence over states, and another 26% say the balance is about right.

This is a huge matter that Democrats and progressives don’t even discuss, yet helps to create the sort of popular anger that has developed over the past year. Nearly two thirds of the voters think state and local governments are better than the federal version.

There are two ironies in this:

– The Democrats could do everything they should be doing – only far better – if they simply paid more attention to the level and manner it is done.

– Those expressing outrage at what the Democrats are doing think the level and manner is the same as its underlying virtue and thus end up opposing programs that would serve them well. And so they serve the interests of the very centralized authority they think they are opposing.

Neither side seems able to separate the question of what needs to be done from who should, and how to, do it. The liberals think it can only be done at the federal level which leads conservatives to conclude it shouldn’t be done at all.

Liberals are afraid to criticize big government because they think it makes them sound like Republicans. In fact, the idea of devolution — having government carried out at the lowest practical level — dates back at least to that good Democrat, Thomas Jefferson. Even FDR managed to fight the depression with a staff smaller than Hillary Clinton’s and World War II with one smaller than Al Gore’s. Conservative columnist William Safire admitted that “in a general sense, devolution is a synonym for ‘power sharing,’ a movement that grew popular in the sixties and seventies as charges of ‘bureaucracy’ were often leveled at centralized authority.” In other words, devolution used to be in the left’s bag.

The modern liberals’ embrace of centralized authority makes them vulnerable to the charge that their politics is one of intentions rather than results — symbolized by huge agencies like the Department of Housing & Urban Development that fail miserably to produce policies worthy of their name.

Still stuck back in the states’ rights controversy over integration, liberals fail to see how often states and localities move ahead of the federal government. Think, for example, of where gays would be if there were no local laws to help them.

As late as 1992, the one hundred largest localities in America pursued an estimated 1,700 environmental crime prosecutions, more than twice the number of such cases brought by the federal government in the previous decade. As Washington was vainly struggling to get a handle on the tobacco industry, 750 communities passed indoor no-smoking laws. And, more recently, we have had the local drive towards relaxing anti-marijuana laws and the major local and state outcry against the Real ID act.

Conservatives, on the other hand, often confuse the devolution of government with its destruction. Thus while the liberals are underachieving, the conservatives are undermining.

The question must be repeatedly asked of new and present policies: how can these programs be brought close to the supposed beneficiaries, the citizens? And how can government money go where it’s supposed to go?

Because such questions are not asked often enough, we find huge disparities in the effectiveness of federal programs. For example, both Social Security and Medicare work well with little overhead. In such programs, the government serves primarily as a redistribution center for tax revenues.

On the other hand, an environmentalist who ran a weatherization program once told me that she figured it cost $30,000 in federal and local overhead for each $1600 in weather-proofing provided a low income home.

A study of Milwaukee County in 1988 found government agencies spending more than $1 billion annually on fighting poverty. If this money had been given in cash to the poor, it would have meant more than $33,000 for each low income family — well above the poverty level.

The problem is not just with traditional liberals. My fellow Green Party members – heavily decentralist in many ways – fail to see the possibility for new alliances with others if the devolutionary principle were raised in a more visible and universal fashion. Similarly, localism is quite popular among environmentalists, but it only seems to apply to growing food and not to saving democracy.

And now we have a Democratic president who has, in one short year, managed to mangle two of the issues his party used to be good at – heath care and reviving the economy – in no small part because of an assumption that he and his grad school retinue are far better equipped to decide how to do it all than, say, the mayor of Cleveland or the state legislature of Montana.

The end result is that his programs have failed and the underlying policies have unfairly gotten a bad name.

How much saner it would be to recognize the desire of people to share not only in the benefits, but in the exercise, of power and adjust one’s policies to reflect this.

The point here is not to argue any particular solution, but to say that the ever increasing centralization of decisions at the federal level – thanks to both major parties – is a fundamental cause of both our problems and the anger about them.

As I wrote some time back, “What works so well in the manufacture of a Ford Taurus — efficiency of scale and mass production — fails to work in social policy because, unlike a Taurus, humans think, cry, love, get distracted, criticize, worry or don’t give a shit. Yet we keep acting as though such traits don’t exist or don’t matter. We have come to accept the notion that the enormous institutions of government, media, industry and academia are natural to the human condition and then wonder why they don’t work better than they do. In fact, as ecological planner Ernest Callenbach pointed out, ‘we are medium-sized animals who naturally live in small groups — perhaps 20 or so — as opposed to bees or antelopes who live in very large groups. When managers or generals or architects force us into large groups, we speedily try to break them down into sub-units of comfortable size.'”

It’s time for liberals and progressives to bring their politics down to the ‘hood. They’d be surprised at the friends they would make.

SAM SMITH, PROGRESSIVE REVIEW, 1993 – A couple of summers ago at the annual convention of the longtime liberal group, Americans for Democratic Action, I proposed a resolution on the decentralization of power. Here’s a portion:

|||| There is growing evidence that old ideological conflicts such as between left and right, and between capitalism and communism, are becoming far less important as the world confronts the social and economic results of a century marked by increasing concentration of power in countries of widely varying political persuasion. A new ideology is rising, the ideology of devolution — the decentralization of power. Already it has swept through the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

Its voice is heard in Spain, in Quebec and in Northern Ireland. It is the voice of people attempting to regain control over societies that have become increasingly authoritarian, unresponsive, and insensitive, a revolt of ordinary humans against the excesses of the state. . .

All around us is evidence of the disintegration of effective government and a growing alienation of the people from that government as a result. Our systems of governance have become too big, too corrupt, too inflexible and too remote from democratic concerns to respond equitably and rationally to the changing needs of the people. Government has many beneficial functions it can perform, but these can only be achieved when the government itself is structured so as to reflect — and not thwart — the will of the people.

Therefore we embrace the devolutionary spirit of the times and, recognizing that the ideology of scale must now be considered as carefully as the ideology of liberal and conservative, we urge that this nation begin devolving power back to the people — that we correct a decades-long course which has too often led to increasingly centralized power with increasingly ineffective and undemocratic results. To this end, we propose the following critical issues to fellow liberals and progressives to consider, debate and act upon while there is still time to reverse the authoritarian course of the American government:

– How do we end the growing concentration of power in the presidency and return to the tripartite system of government intended by the Constitution? How can Congress reassert its constitutional role in the federal government?

– How do we prevent federal government green-mail of the states — the granting or withholding of federal funds to force state legislation — from being used as a way around the powers constitutionally granted the states?

– How can we decentralize federal agencies to the state and local level?

– How do we create a new respect for state and local rights? The bitter struggle to establish the federal government’s primacy in the protection of civil rights of all its citizens has been used far too long as an excuse to concentrate all forms of power in Washington. That legal battle has been won. We must now recognize the importance of state and local government in creative, responsive governance and not continue to assume that good government can only come from within the Beltway.

– How do we reduce restrictions on federal funds granted states and localities in order to foster imaginative local application of those funds and to prevent the sort of federal abuse apparent, for example, in restrictions on family planning advice?

– How do we encourage — including funding — neighborhood government in our cities so that the people most affected by the American urban disaster can try their own hand at rebuilding their communities?

The principle that all government should be devolved to the lowest practical level should be raised to its proper primacy in the progressive agenda. We cannot overstate the peril involved in continuing to concentrate governmental power in the federal executive.|||||

The resolution proved too much for the traditional liberals of ADA and the resolution was roundly defeated in committee. Many voters, however, have divined the problem of excessive scale while remaining, unsurprisingly, confused as to what to do about it. False prophets on the right tout a phony “empowerment,” The media muddles the matter with its usual in-depth cliches. What is lacking is not devolutionary theory, nor grand schemes, nor useful experiments, but rather a practical progressive politics of devolution. We need to apply our theories and our experience to the every day politics of ordinary citizens. If we do, I think we will surprise ourselves and others in a discovery of where the American mainstream really flows.

Here, for starters, are a few suggestions of devolutionary issues progressives could press:

– Public schools: In the sixties there was a strong movement for community control of the schools. Because it came largely from minority communities and because the majority was not adequately distressed about public education it faltered.

– Neighborhood government: Real neighborhood government would not be merely advisory as is the case with Washington DC’s neighborhood commissions. It would include the power to sue the city government, to incorporate, to run its own programs, to contract to provide those of city hall, and to have some measure of budgetary authority over city expenditures within its boundaries. Not the least among its powers should be a role in the justice system, since it is impossible to recreate order in our communities while denying communities any place in maintaining order.

We should create the “small republics,” that Jefferson dreamed of, autonomous communities where every citizen became “an acting member of the common government, transacting in person a great portion of its rights and duties, subordinate indeed, yet important, and entirely within his own competence.”

– States’ rights: While maintaining federal preeminence in fields such as civil rights, progressives should be strong advocates of states’ rights on issues not properly the federal government’s business such as raising the drinking age or the 55 mph speed limit. Such advocacy would help to form new coalitions and stir up the ideological pot. In particular, progressives should oppose the use of federal green-mail — forcing states and localities to take measures at the risk of losing federal funding — as a clear end run around the 10th amendment of the Bill of Rights. As the Supreme Court noted in Kansas v. Colorado, this amendment “discloses the widespread fear that the national government might, under the pressure of supposed general welfare, attempt to exercise powers which had not been granted.”

– Federal spending: In an important and necessary break with liberal thinking, progressives should become advocates of a much smaller federal government by pressing for the direct distribution of funds to the state and local level. Whatever problems of malfeasance or nonfeasance may result, they are almost guaranteed to be less than the misuse of these funds at the federal level. As Congress’ own auditor, Comptroller General Charles Bowsher, recently told a hearing that “there are hardly any [federal] agencies that are well managed.” The flaw in liberal thinking is that federal housing funds are used for housing, agriculture funds for farmers and so forth. In fact, an extraordinary percentage of these moneys are used to maintain a superstructure to carry out poor housing policy or bad farm policy. The basic principle should be to get the money to the streets or the farms as quickly — and with as few intermediaries — as possible.

Further, progressives should challenge the presumption that the feds know best. At the present time, much of the best government is at the state and local level. It could do even better without the paperwork and the restrictions dreamed up in Washington to fill the working day. And even when that doesn’t prove true, you don’t have to drive as far to make your political anger known.

– Small business: Many progressives act as though an economy isn’t necessary. It would pay great dividends if the progressive agenda included support for small businesses. Small businesses generate an extraordinary number of new jobs. Further, small business is where many of the values of the progressive movement can be best expressed in an economic context. While ideally many of these businesses should be cooperatives, even within the strictures of conventional capitalism they offer significant advantages over the mega-corporation. Writing in the New York Times, brokerage firm president Muriel Siebert said recently: “Unlike monolithic Fortune 500 companies, small businesses behave like families. [A study] indicated that one reason for the durability of businesses owned by women is the value they place on their workers. It showed that small businesses hold on to workers through periods when revenues decline. Rather than eliminate workers, they tend to cut other expenses, including their own salaries. . . Nearly half of the workers laid off by large companies have to swallow pay reductions when they find new full-time work; two out of three work for at least 20 percent less money than before.” As Jon Rowe says of Korean family-run groceries, “a family operates on loyalty and trust, the market operates on contract and law.”

– Decentralizing the federal government: There are a number of federal agencies that are already quite decentralized. Interestingly, these agencies are among those most often praised. The National Park Service, the Peace Corps, the Coast Guard, and US Attorneys all have dispersed units with a relatively high degree of autonomy and a strong sense of turf responsibility by their employees. A further example can be found within the postal service. While many complain about mail service, you rarely hear them gripe about their own mail carrier, who is given a finite task in a finite geographical area. I stumbled across this phenomenon while serving in the Coast Guard. At the time, the Guard had about 1800 units worldwide but only 3000 officers, with many of the officers concentrated on larger ships and in headquarters units. Thus there were scores of units run by enlisted personnel who rarely saw an officer. The system worked extremely well. It worked because, once training and adequate equipment had been provided, there was relatively little a bureaucratic superstructure could do to improve the operations of a lifeboat or loran station. As with education, a bureaucracy in such circumstances can do itself far more good than it can do anyone in the field.

Similarly, a former Peace Corps regional director told me that in his agency’s far-flung and decentralized system, there was no way he could control activities in the two dozen countries under his purview, yet the Peace Corps became one of the most popular federal programs in recent times. Can the success of these decentralized agencies be replicated, say, in housing or urban development? Why not give it a try? If federal housing moneys were distributed by 50 state directors who were given considerable leeway in the mix of policies they could fund and approve, we would, for starters, begin to have a better idea of which programs work and which don’t.

– Raising the issue: Every policy and piece of legislation should be subjected to evaluation not only according to the old rules of right and left but according to the ideology of scale. We must constantly be asking not only whether what is proposed is right, but whether it is being done at the right level of society’s organization.

These are just a few examples of how a politics of devolution might begin to develop. It is needed if for no other reason than it is our best defense against the increasing authoritarianism of the federal government and the monopolization of economic activity. It is also needed because, without it, democracy becomes little more than a choice between alternative propaganda machines. In the 1960s, Robert McNamara declared, “Running any large organization is the same, whether it’s the Ford Motor Company, the Catholic Church or the Department of Defense. Once you get the certain scale, they’re all the same.” And so, increasingly to our detriment, they are. We must learn and teach, and make a central part of our politics, that while small is not always beautiful, it has — for our ecology, our liberties, and our souls — become absolutely essential.

WIKI ON: SUBSIDIARITY – Subsidiarity is an organizing principle that matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority. The Oxford English Dictionary defines subsidiarity as the idea that a central authority should have a subsidiary function, performing only those tasks which cannot be performed effectively at a more immediate or local level. . . Subsidiarity is, ideally or in principle, one of the features of federalism, where it asserts the rights of the parts over the whole.

The word subsidiarity is derived from the Latin word subsidiarius and has its origins in Catholic social teaching. The concept or principle is found in several constitutions around the world (for example, the Tenth Amendment to the United States Constitution which asserts States rights).

It is presently best known as a fundamental principle of European Union law. According to this principle, the EU may only act (i.e. make laws) where action of individual countries is insufficient. . . .

The present formulation is contained in Article 5(2) of the Treaty on European Union:

“In areas which do not fall within its exclusive competence, the Community shall take action, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, only if and in so far as the objectives of the proposed action cannot be sufficiently achieved by the Member States and can therefore, by reason of the scale or effects of the proposed action, be better achieved by the Community.”

SUBSIDIARITY IN THE CATHOLIC CHURCH – The principle of subsidiarity was first developed by German theologian Oswald von Nell-Breuning. . . . Functions of government, business, and other secular activities should be as local as possible. If a complex function is carried out at a local level just as effectively as on the national level, the local level should be the one to carry out the specified function. The principle is based upon the autonomy and dignity of the human individual, and holds that all other forms of society, from the family to the state and the international order, should be in the service of the human person. . .

“Positive subsidiarity”, which is the ethical imperative for communal, institutional or governmental action to create the social conditions necessary to the full development of the individual, such as the right to work, decent housing, health care, etc., is another important aspect of the subsidiarity principle.

The principle of subsidiarity was developed in the encyclical Rerum Novarum of 1891 by Pope Leo XIII, as an attempt to articulate a middle course between laissez-faire capitalism on the one hand and the various forms of communism, which subordinate the individual to the state, on the other. .

Cross over politics and the ideology of scale

Sam Smith

In an age of conglomeration and domination, the cross-political nature of devolution – or the ideology of scale – attracts little attention. One can go through a whole political campaign and never consider it. But that doesn’t mean the issue is not there.

Consider two current examples: the assault on local control of public schools and the smart growth movement. Both are driven by a curious alliance of liberal, conservative and corporate interests. And both attempt to replace the decentralization of decision-making with centralized, bureaucratic choices.

For example, only Vilsack among the Democratic candidate for president has challenged the No Child law despite it being based on absurdly inadequate justifications, proposed by the least qualified president ever to hold office and pushed by a bunch of child profiteers who will probably be the only clear winners under the legislation.

Similarly, the smart growth movement is being increasingly driven by a dubious alliance between “we know what’s good for you” liberal planners and developers who initially resisted the idea until they realized how many new high-rises might result.

Liberals and conservatives who favor America’s two centuries of local school control, or wish to resist the transformation of successful communities into high-rise factory farms for globalized serfs, find themselves ignored, ridiculed as NIMBYs or considered behind the times.

One developer’s Power Point even declared that “fear and loathing of density is. . .ironic, dangerous, counter-productive.” In other words, preferring the lifestyle predominant in 99.9% of human history is now dangerous and counter-productive. Further, in the tradition of the new managerial mullahs, anyone who doesn’t like what they’re up to is suffering from fear and loathing of positive change.

No Child Left Unregimented

The assault on community controlled public education is not only a result of Bush’s No Child law. Bill Kauffman once noted in Chronicles that it was liberal Harvard president President James Conant who produced a series of postwar reports calling for the “elimination of the small high school” in order to compete with the Soviets and deal with the nuclear era. Says Kauffman, “Conant the barbarian triumphed: the number of school districts plummeted from 83,718 in 1950 to 17,995 in 1970.”

Writing in Principal Magazine, Kathleen Cushman pointed out that the small school movement was driven by “the steady rise in school size that has seen the average school population increase five-fold since the end of World War II. A push to consolidate schools has reduced the number of districts by 70 percent in the same period. Ironically, this trend toward big schools coincides with research that repeatedly has found small schools – commonly defined as no more than 400 students for elementary schools – to be demonstrably better for students of all ability levels, in all kinds of settings. Academic achievement rises, as indicated by grades, test scores, honor roll membership, subject-area achievement, and assessment of higher-order thinking skills. For both elementary and secondary students, researchers also find small schools equal or superior to large ones on most student behavior measures. Rates of truancy, classroom disruption, vandalism, theft, substance abuse, and gang participation all are reduced in small schools, according to a synthesis of 103 studies.”

Education is one of those human activities clearly centered on two people (teacher and student). As the system surrounding this experience becomes larger, more complex and more bureaucratic, the key players become pawns in a new and unrelated bureaucratic game. The role of the principal also dramatically shifts – from being an educational administrator to being a cross between a corporate executive and a warden. It is such a transformation that helps to bring us things like what happened at Columbine.

Consider, for a moment, that not a single private school has merged with five or ten other academies in the name of efficiency and improved learning. No one has suggested a Andover-Exeter-Groton-Milton-Choate-Kent School Administrative District.

If conglomeration of schools really helped, why would such places not give it a try? I once asked the head of one of the top private girl’s schools in the country what he considered the maximum size of a school he’d like to run. His reply: 500 students. . .”Remember, that means 1,000 parents.”

Yet not only do we find George Bush, with lots of Democratic support, actively destroying local control over public schools, mayors and governors rushing to join the attack.

For example, inspired by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg who has yet to produce convincing results for his corporatization of public education, DC’s 36-year old new mayor Adrian Fenty is following suit. He wants to abolish the elected school and put the system under his control despite his impressive inexperience in education. But Fenty, like many in politics and business, is absolutely convinced that certainty is an adequate substitute for competence.

How little he really understands was well described by Colbert King in the Washington Post:

“If governance and lack of accountability are the main problems, why do students attending Lafayette and Murch elementary schools, which are west of Rock Creek Park, exceed proficiency targets in reading and math by wide margins while students at Ketchum and Stanton elementary schools, east of the Anacostia River, fall far short of the mark? The four schools are in the same governance structure. Their principals report to the same superintendent and are guided by the same school board policies. True, Lafayette and Murch, located in middle-income neighborhoods, have more white students. But before going off on a racial tangent, consider this: Black students attending Lafayette and Murch, in contrast to their counterparts in Southeast, also excel in reading and math.” King asked Fenty why his takeover would help matters: “His bottom line: he has the energy, determination, and sense of urgency that he feels are missing among school leaders to make those things happen.” In other words, he thinks what the schools really need most is himself.

Perhaps even more bizarre is what is happening in Maine. The plan itself is familiar: the pursuit of the false god of educational efficiency through the concentration of school districts as ordered by the governor. 290 school districts would be merged into 26 regional administrative units.

What makes it stranger is that Maine is one of a handful of New England states where one can still find the remnants of American democracy functioning at human scale thanks to such institutions as town meetings and lots of small villages that do what they want without excessive interference from above. This tradition has produced in recent years more independent governors (although not the present one) than just about any state and a culture of honest independence in politics and governance that would best be emulated rather than reorganized.

And who suggested the course that the governor is following? None other than representatives of that citadel of Washington anti-democratic elitism, that hospice of prematurely aging MBAs and political science majors: the Brookings Institution. This is like Arianna Huffington coaching the Chicago Bears.

To add to the oddity, it is all being done in the name of “smart growth.”

To give a sense of how alien this is to traditional Maine culture, consider a town meeting I attended a few years back in Freeport. I got there a little late and the respectables had taken all the chairs, so I stood in the hall outside with the baseball cap and pencil in the ear set, all intensely interested and exchanging play by play among themselves. It was a heated discussion that eventually produced the resignation of a couple of council members but I tired of standing and so returned to my quarters to watch it on TV. At 11 pm, when I thought the citizen input was almost over, two people showed up to testify explaining they had become so perturbed, they had gotten out of bed, dressed and braved the ice and cold to join the fray at town hall.

Now that’s the way democracy is meant to work, but it’s damn seldom that you see it any more. And when you do, the sensible reaction should be: don’t mess with it.

Although the Maine media has seemed to give implied blessing to the school reorganization scheme, there is life in the state yet as public comment illustrates.

One Brunswick school board member called Governor Balducci’s plan “totalitarian.” Said another, “To lose our local control, I think it would be devastating.” Asked one citizen: “Tell me folks, right here in Brewer, do you want somebody from Alton, Bradley or Bangor telling you how we should run our school system?”

A school superintendent, according to the Brunswick Times Record, “warned the plan could mean a higher per-student cost for Brunswick, possible budget cuts that would affect teaching staff, and a potential clash of educational philosophies between Brunswick, Freeport and the towns of School Administrative District 75 that would share one administrative office and one school board under the proposed plan. [The superintendent] also criticized the governor and Education Commissioner Susan Gendron for producing a plan that glossed over the loss of more than 600 teachers, hundreds of jobs for administrative office staff and the educational impact of superintendents.

Other comment, as reported by local press:

Roger Shaw, superintendent of the Mars Hills schools: “All small schools are struggling for survival and all small schools are in danger. Whether by chance or design, we are in the crosshairs of state policy.”

Harvey Shue, a junior at Hampden Academy called it an “extreme act” to merge his 2,200-student school district into a 16,000-student district based miles away.

Richard Farrell of Monhegan “said it would be unworkable to relocate the management of its seven-pupil elementary school to the mainland. He said parents would be hard-pressed to attend meetings and that the island’s overall cost would be bound to increase.”

Andrew Geranis of York “asked lawmakers to reject any proposal that would change the way schools are now governed. ‘Local control is the heart of our life in Maine,’ he said.

Angela Iancelli of Monhegan Island “said she feared that district consolidation would lead to the closing of the island’s small school, which she said manages to operate efficiently while turning out students who perform well on state achievement tests.”

This is not a left-right struggle but one that may far more important for our future: a struggle between communities and bureaucracies and between humans and systems. At present, the communities and humans are not winning.

Smart Growth

The tie-in with smart growth is quite revealing. The smart growth movement started as a largely well-intentioned movement led by planners and environmentalists. Many of their proposals made sense but it had some serious problems, beginning with the insulting manner it treated suburban communities in which many Americans lived, had improved their lives and educated their children. As is traditionally the case with planners, these citizens were expected to adapt to a purportedly ideal physical model – even at the cost of having to move or being evicted – instead of having the emphasis placed on improving – for them as well as the environment – the communities in which they currently lived.

This is not a new problem with planners. In 1910, G. K. Chesterton described two characters, Hudge and Gudge, whose thinking evolved in such a disparate manner that the one came to favor the building of large public tenements for the poor while the other believed that these public projects were so awful that the slums from whence they came were in fact preferable. Wrote Chesterton:

“Such is the lamentable history of Hudge and Gudge; which I merely introduced as a type of an endless and exasperating misunderstanding which is always occurring in modern England. To get men out of a rookery, men are put into a tenement; and at the beginning the healthy human soul loathes them both. A man’s first desire is to get away as far as possible from the rookery, even should his mad course lead him to a model dwelling. His second desire is, naturally, to get away from the model dwelling, even if it should lead a man back to the rookery.

“Neither Hudge nor Gudge had ever thought for an instant what sort of house a man might probably like for himself. In short, they did not begin with the ideal; and, therefore, were not practical politicians.”

Much of American politics and planning follows the Hudge-¬Gudge model, producing failure for both conservatives and liberals — the former offering us an army of the homeless and the latter presenting us finally with drug-infested housing projects.

In the case of smart growth, the Hudge-Gudge conflict could have been avoided by considering not just a community’s ecological liabilities but its assets, and then figuring out how to lessen the former without harming the latter. This might lead not to large scale redevelopment but towards ways of making it less necessary for people to move around so much in order to fulfill a day’s tasks, permitting accessory apartments in single-family neighborhoods and easing zoning restrictions on community-serving small businesses. In many suburbs wastefully designed shopping strips can provide more than enough room for high-rise density without imposing them on communities that don’t want them.

It is helpful also to bear in mind that next to economists, no profession has been so consistently wrong and harmful to the human spirit as urban planning.

There was, for example, zoning that destroyed the mixed use city in the name of cleanliness and health and that laid the groundwork for the sprawl of which planners now complain.

There were decades of racist federal housing lending policies that created ghettoes in cities as the money fed the expansion of the suburbs.

There was the destruction of magnificent streetcar systems on behalf of the automobile.

There was urban renewal that destroyed communities instead of rebuilding them.

There was anti-human public housing.

There were – and continues to be – grandiose “economic development” programs that overwhelmingly favored the upper class and a small coterie of developers but which left less wealthy urban residents increasingly victims of neglect and of gentrification.

Each of these schemes were based on physical solutions to human, social and economic problems – conceived by planners and politicians stunningly indifferent to their affect on actual people.

The human, the community, the small were repeatedly considered archaic, insignificant and regressive.

From the progressive movement of the early 20th century on, well-meaning but excessively self-assured members of the elite have controlled the debate, the money and the plans, with barely restrained contempt for the reservations, concerns and resistance of the less powerful. And so it is with smart growth.

Listen to Grow Smart Maine:

“Many of Maine’s smaller cities and towns are experiencing unplanned growth but lack the resources and experience to manage that change in ways that protect the character of their community. . . The Model Town Community Project will work with a selected town during 2006 and 2007 to provide tools and advice that will help the town shape its future. The project will mobilize local, state and regional resources, enable the town to explore new growth strategies and fully engage local residents by combining the best elements of New England town meetings with ground breaking new technologies.”

In other words, we’ll come in and show you how to run a town meeting our way, just like we learned at business school.

But if smart growth is meant to be about environmentally sound planning, how come we have to consolidate our school districts and our town offices?

Because once you put your faith in the sort of expertise that a planning-managerial elite offers, once you turn to MBAs like others turn to Jesus, then you don’t really need democracy, town meetings or small schools. What you need is efficiency and managerial skill and you have been promised that, so why worry?

Further, even over smart growth’s short life, a disturbing alliance has developed between some liberals and developers thanks to the latter discovering that the environmentalists didn’t really want to stop them from building, they just want them to build somewhere else and most likely in a place where they could get more per square foot.

Washington, DC offers a good example and, once again, the Brookings mafia is hard at work. In fact, it even wants to eliminate something that make Washington one of the most appealing cities in the world: its building height limit.

Reports the Washington Post: “Christopher B. Leinberger, a land-use expert at the Brookings Institution, last week brought up the prospect of raising the height limit on buildings in the District. He didn’t specify a height but encouraged community leaders, planners and developers to at least entertain the idea. ‘Things have changed,’ he told a standing-room-only crowd . . . ‘We have an office market that needs to go someplace,’ he said. ‘Density is critical. We’re running out of land. We need to build up.'”

In some neighborhoods, citizens are even being called NIMBYs because they don’t want high-rises shoved into their pleasant communities and the name-callers include not just the developers but enabling liberals who think they’re saving the planet. Never mind that in their own city, in Greenwich Village or in Europe there are plenty of examples of density without high-rise factory farms.

Fortunately, not everyone is taken in.

One in attendance at the density meeting wrote online afterwards: “The biggest hole in the program, in my humble opinion, was the fact that none of the presenters acknowledged that DC is not Bethesda or Atlanta or Portland. It is our nation’s capital, not a strip mall out in Fairfax waiting to be retooled.”

It is this remarkable notion of our nation’s capital and other cities – that they are just strip malls waiting to be retooled – that is driving much of urban planning and politics these days.

In both the school consolidation and the smart growth debates the issue of human scale – and not some liberal-conservative conflict – is at the core. But we have been taught – by intellectuals, by the media, by politicians, – to revere a promise of efficiency and technological advance over the empirical advantages of living the way humans have traditionally lived, including valuing the small places that host, nurture and define their lives. We have been trained not to even notice when our very humanity is being destroyed in the name of mere physical change.

We should notice, though, because in the end, if we lose the fight for staying human, whether we were liberal or conservative won’t have mattered a bit.

A FIELD GUIDE TO DEVOLUTION