Here in the U.S., one of the core tenets of conservative ideology is that the government needs to keep its bureaucratic nose out of individual people’s business. Hence, frequent outcries against federal government “overreach” and rallying calls around “local control.”
Yet there’s some deep tensions that can manifest from this ideology when it’s applied beyond guns and other NIMBYist advocacy. And there’s a hypocrisy that becomes evident when conservatives that espouse such ideology gain power.
To help illuminate what lies behind this anti-government sentiment, let’s first examine an essay published by The Hoover Institution (based on a book of the same name) called “Rugged Individualism: Dead or Alive?”
The essay provides a useful term that underpins these concepts: “rugged individualism.” The term, which apparently was coined by Herbert Hoover, highlights the “frontier spirit” of unregulated American expansionism and capitalism.
Yet even within this very essay, which argues explicitly for “rugged individualism,” look closely at the following passage and how when a cherished cause arises, (in this case, the cause of civics education) an argument for government regulation suddenly appears:
“Civic engagement has become a battle cry in education, which is fine—but it needs to be preceded by civic education. The states need to get busy requiring courses in civic education and schools of education should make sure their graduates understand enough of the content of the American system to teach it effectively.“
Herein lies the tension between rugged individualism and government regulation. This author’s advocacy for “rugged individualism” hinges around the desire for keeping government out of regulating individual choices. But the minute he turns to the failure in education to consistently adhere to a structured and sequential curriculum of knowledge, guess what he suggests? The government needs to require it!
Yet this call for government regulation is able to subvert traditional conservative alarms because he refers this control to state-level government. But this is highly revealing of the problem with such rhetoric. Conservatives, such as the author of this essay, will speak generally of government vs. individual responsibility when it behooves them, until it comes to something specific they want other people to do, whereupon they can then immediately turn to talking about state power, offsetting it against the federal government. As if state rights were synonymous with that of an individual’s. This is clearly fallacious thinking.
You can’t have it both ways. Either you are for centralized government regulation (for specific purposes), or you are for little to no government regulation. Whether government regulation should occur at the federal level or state level (or city or county level) is a completely different argument.
So you can see this problematic thinking playing out whenever there are hardline conservatives in power and issues such as abortion (where’s the ‘rugged individualism’ for women, huh?), LGBTQ rights, or immigration enforcement come up for political posturing.
For example, there’s been some attention on Texas right now, where extremely hardline conservatives control the state and are seeking to control the progressive enclave of Austin.
In a recent Washington Post article, “In Austin, the air smells of tacos and trees — and city-state conflict,” a Republican lays out the political logic for government regulation:
“Matthew Walter, president of the Republican State Leadership Committee, an organization of Republican state officials, said preemption laws are coming up more and more because of political losses by Democrats at the state and federal levels.
Cities ‘seem to be sort of the last vanguard of Democratic and progressive ideals, which at this point continue to move leftward toward . . . a more socialist vision,’ Walter said. Because cities and counties derive their power from the states, states are within their rights to rein in rogue local governments, he said.”
States certainly are within their rights, because that’s what the concept of a centralized and hierarchical government is about. But follow that logic all the way up. That means the federal government is within its rights to reign in rogue state governments. Though Walter’s logic also begs the question of why it would be the duty of state government to regulate anyone else’s “progressive ideals” or vision.
In a post on NY Time’s The Upshot, “Blue Cities Want to Make Their Own Rules. Red States Won’t Let Them.,” Texas Governor Greg Abbott further reveals the circular thinking that lies behind an argument for state government to regulate anyone else’s “rugged individualism”:
Abbot, the Upshot states, “has been a vocal advocate for state laws that he says are necessary to protect individual liberty from local government overreach. When cities overstep their bounds, he said this year, they ‘should pay the price for it.’”
So . . . state government can regulate local government when local government regulates individuals (in ways your party doesn’t agree with).
Think about that for a minute. State government, according to this logic, is necessary to prevent local government overreach. So does that mean a state government can never overreach? Only federal or local governments can overreach? But whatever happened to the idea of “local control” here?
Or does this really just mean that any government only “overreaches” when it legislates something that your base doesn’t agree with? And that any other legislation–like, oh, I don’t know, preventing women from getting an abortion, let’s say, which regulates an individual’s choices–is just fine and dandy. Is this really logical? Only in the political pandering sense of logic. i.e. hypocrisy.
Here’s another quote from a Republican trying to justify state government control over local control:
“We’re the United States of America. We are not the United Towns of Florida. We’re not the United Counties of Florida,” said Randy Fine, a Republican state representative. . .
. . . “The state is the nexus of government in this country. The states created the federal government, and the states created local government.”
Well, thanks for the history lesson, Mr. Fine. Except there’s this thing called the U.S. Constitution which superseded the Articles of Confederation. And arguably, it was local governments that led to states, not the other way around.
Maybe the problem here is that when conservatives argue about the essential importance of “local control,” they rarely define what exactly “local” really means. Because when push comes to shove, they suddenly revert to “state’s rights.” But that sure sounds like a big stretch to me, to correlate a “local” government with a state government.
Conservatives themselves do butt heads over such things. This can be viewed most recently in arguments over public education and charter schools. Some conservative supporters of charter schools are not supporters of the laissez faire approach, but rather point to the evidence that charters are most effective (in terms of test scores, at least) when they are more strictly regulated by states. Others, such as in a new collection of essays on the topic, Charting a New Course, deride such “system-centered reformers” and argue that charters are over-regulated and choices should be left up to the parents and the free market.
Well, I’ll leave such internecine debates to conservatives themselves to hash out. In the meantime, I’m going to listen to (or read) anyone who brings up government overreach or local control with great skepticism.