The Deterioration of New England Local Government (and of the United States)

Paul Rahe’s written an excellent essay explaining why libertarians ought to be social conservatives (via Instapundit), which is a point on which I’m writing for future publication.  For the moment, though, this paragraph is more immediately relevant:

In America, [Tocqueville] found institutions, mores, and manners antithetical to what he took to be democracy’s natural drift. Vigorous local self-government drew the inhabitants of New England townships out of their homes and into the public square. Initially, they made this move in self-defense, but the experience of participating soon became a pleasure all its own, and it induced individuals to abandon what he called “individualism” and to devote themselves to public concerns. In the process, these Americans learned to think ahead, they developed a powerful sense of their own capacity to cope with the vicissitudes of life, and they learned to cooperate with their neighbors and even with strangers in forming private associations for public purposes.

Rahe attributes much of the erosion of American civic society, including the ideas of local governance, private organizations, and moral self-control, to the sort of apathy that arises when generations forget what their ancestors saved them from, and what was necessary in order to accomplish that end.  There’s certainly a point to be made, in that regard, but I find myself returning to his phrase, “initially, they made this move in self-defense.”

On the local level, it doesn’t take quite the dramatic threat that is necessary to bring out the self-defense vote (so to speak) in big-time politics, which is one of the reasons pushing governance toward the local level is generally advisable.  So why do we not see the apathy of prosperity looping back every now and then to a rejuvenated public engagement?

Drawing from my experience on the local front in the rapidly deteriorating civic society of Rhode Island, I can attest to the fact that it does — that people do leave their homes and come together when local government overreaches.  Of course, I can also attest to the fact that multiple factors make it a very difficult road, these days, for long-term involvement.  Dissatisfaction has to be pretty high for well-meaning people to keep their motivation up.  And it takes a dramatic sense of purpose and armor-like skin to find what’s pleasurable in participating.  (“Pleasure” isn’t really applicable, to the extent that it differs from self fulfillment.)

The point is timely, because I’ve got a letter making the rounds in Tiverton linking several examples of government’s making community governance more difficult.  The hyper-local details aren’t important, here, but the crux of my objections are.

First, I’m finding again and again that parents (individually and unaware of each other) are worried about coming forward with complaints about such things as political advocacy going on within the school system, lest their children be targeted in some way.  Second, town government, with the assistance of the appointed town solicitor, repeatedly adjusts legal language to suit what officials believe it ought to say, not what it actually does.  And third, as the anonymous comments to be found at the above link illustrate, the opposition’s response is often not (let’s just say) presented in a very neighborly way.

Suppose a parent is inclined to object to her child’s school being used to advocate for political candidates.  She faces, first, the possibility of retaliation against her children.  (Whether this is a reasonable fear, I don’t know, but it is unarguably common.)  She faces, second, the possibility that the guardians to whom she’d complain would instead embarrass her by manipulating the rules of the game.  And she faces, third, the prospect of being hounded as some kind of wicked outsider by others in the community.

So how did this set of circumstances replace a community that encouraged engagement and debate?  In a phrase, big government.

The more responsibilities we as a community offload onto government structures, the more incentive and leverage there is to manipulate it, and the more centralized and distant government gets, the less a sense of community can apply.

Where a community operates by government, it funds its activities by taxation. And that means the dynamic changes from requesting assistance and encouraging cooperation to finding ways to require payments and manipulate public sentiment.  The rhetoric becomes exclusionary and designed to create hostile factions and isolate those in disagreement.

And where government operations expand to the extent that they have, most notably, with education, they attract the involvement of outside organizations that have absolutely no incentive to foster a sense of community beyond their narrow area of interest.  The National Education Association is a powerful national force with huge financial and political reasons to prevent communities from coming together if they’re likely to come to conclusions that the union doesn’t like.

I still have faith that people intuitively sense what’s going on and know that it’s wrong, but the whole business of government at every level has been made to seem so complicated and involvement has been made to seem so personally risky that too few individuals have the immediate personal stake or interest in abstract principle to take on the high demands of civic duty.



  • Ron Potvin

    You write, "People do leave their homes and come together when local government overreaches… Dissatisfaction has to be pretty high for well-meaning people to keep their motivation up." This sounds like a well-reasoned argument for the existence of groups like the TCC and Tiverton 1st. Both groups formed when dissatisfaction led people to "leave their homes and come together when local government overreache[d]." However, I don't see this as a sign of "the rapidly deteriorating civic society of Rhode Island," but as evidence of a vigorous and hard-fought democratic process. Your leap in logic to big government and the complaints (unsubstantiated) of a small number of parents escapes me. It's worth noting that Tocqueville came to America, in part, seeking the ideals that escaped France during their Revolution and subsequent fall into military dictatorship, restoration of the crown, and failed republic. As a result he tended to idealize America and overlook the messy parts of democracy. People sometimes shout, call names, lie to achieve their ends, and break rules. And yes, people also use rumors and innuendo in their service of their polemical goals. However, the idealist in me believes this is greatly overshadowed by the ability of citizens and taxpayers to "move in self-defense"–of their homes, of their children and their children's futures.

  • justinkatz

    Ron,
    You elide the relevant part of my argument. Yes, those groups form; what's critical is the difficulty of keeping the motivation for engagement going. Yes, all of the difficulties of messy democracy have existed inherently all along, but my point is that big government (in terms of scope and centralization) changes the dynamic in ways that are detrimental to self-governance.