Why Canada Is Able to Do Things Better

A country that can’t ensure the daily operation of Penn Station isn’t a country that can prevent transportation gridlock. A country that contracts out the operations of prisons to the lowest private bidder isn’t a country that can rehabilitate its criminals.

Why Canada Is Able to Do Things Better, The Atlantic

Ouch. The truth hurts.

Conservative hypocrisy on government overreach and local control

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.

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By U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class Michael Sandberg. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
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.

Have we lost Madison’s vision of a representative democracy?

By Polar Cruises (Flickr: [1]) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By Polar Cruises (Flickr: [1]) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
George Thomas has an insightful piece exploring the perils of populist democracy that is worth reviewing, especially in light of what happened last night.

Thomas critiques the movement on both left and the right during this election towards a simplistic, “folk theory” of democracy, in which political leaders are completely beholden to populist will. And what is lost, he argues, is the educative function of representative leadership.

Obscured by the turn to populist democracy is any sense that representatives and political parties play an important role in educating and shaping the public mind, or that democracy depends on political leadership to refine, channel, and elevate popular wants. This is curious because it is so at odds with the understanding of liberal democracy that underlies our Constitution, an understanding that is increasingly under pressure. It is particularly curious that Republicans, who not only purport to revere America’s Constitution but have made a habit of insisting that it is being undermined, have embraced a populist view of democracy.

As a recourse, Thomas turns to Madison’s vision of a representative democracy. We’ve reviewed Federalist #10 before, examining the distinction that Madison makes between a direct democracy and a representative democracy (in fact, it’s one of the more popular posts on this blog).

Our political institutions were crafted to be responsive to the people over time, but also to put space between the people and their representatives. Self-government also required self-restraint. This would allow the often inchoate and disparate views of the public to be formed by way of the political process.

. . . Republican and democratic government were both forms of popular government rooted in the authority of the people, but Madison favored a republic to “pure” democracy precisely because of its educative and enlightening ambitions.

A populist democracy requires a populace deeply knowledgeable about policy and politics. This is not a realistic expectation to hold about the general populace.

Ordinary citizens are busy with private life and obligations closer to home. Self-government requires them to be generally informed and able to make judgments about their representatives, but we cannot expect them to be experts on the range of issues they are now asked to speak to during elections.

Yet increasingly, voters are asked, such as on ballot propositions in California, to make complex policy decisions. And politicians, on the other hand, increasingly bow to the “will” of a populace calling for untenable extremes. As Thomas states, “[Politics] requires compromise.”

But what happens when political leaders and the parties themselves seem to be composed of the “less inquiring”? What happens when our leadership class abdicates the educative role that Madison envisioned?

What happens is what we’ve seen from the Republican party all throughout Obama’s presidency: a complete unwillingness to compromise in order to govern more effectively. Which resulted in the “abuse” of executive power that conservatives so loathed the Obama administration for.

Insistence on political principle is an important feature of democratic politics, but it must be coupled with a recognition that persuading others and building coalitions is a crucial part of politics and essential to the creation of viable public policy.

. . . Achieving numerous ends requires a recognition that the difficult business of politics is often about finding the right balance between competing goals, given limited resources.

Thomas concludes his essay by stating, “Educating the public mind, and preparing it for democratic self-government, is more important than ever.” I’m afraid that Trump’s presidency will be guidance precisely on how NOT to govern. The extreme contrast to Obama’s measured, dignified, and intelligent administration will be illustrative indeed.

Time to Upgrade Our System, America

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Like most rational people, I really didn’t think someone so clearly unfit for public office as Donald Trump could ever be elected as US president. But as of right now, it looks he has, and the electorate has spoken. What I wrote in an earlier post during the height of election frenzy, comparing Trump to a chaos monkey, has become painfully relevant.

Progressives like me in enclaves like NYC have a misguided sense of what many Americans are feeling, thinking, and experiencing. But our system is designed such that all those people have some degree of power when it comes to exercising their right to vote. And they did.

Hence, Trump. We now must live with the consequences of that vote and come to terms with our electorate. Unless we decide that our Union no longer is fit.

So the chaos begins. Can our constitutional system of checks and balances withstand Trump’s impulsive decision-making?

Will we be able to update our constitutional system to control for the sort of faction we’re witnessing occur, the very faction that our representative democracy was designed to be a bulwark against?

Can our Union endure?

 

 

An example of why direct democracy is problematic

“Polls suggest voters may actually be confused about the two measures; a Capitol Weekly survey in late October found that while 92 percent of voters who identify as anti-death penalty say they plan to vote for Prop 62, “40 percent of those same anti-death penalty voters are casting ballots for Proposition 66.” Californians could conceivably vote “yes” on both. If both measures pass, the one with the most “yes” votes wins.”

–Liliana Segura, “NO CLOSUREEnd the Death Penalty or Speed It Up – California Faces Opposing Ballot Initiatives” on The Intercept

A Proper Balance of Power

“Curbing the administrative state does not, to be sure, mean abandoning necessary regulations in areas from the environment to financial markets. But faithfulness to the Constitution does require subjecting them to the separation of powers.

. . . the proper balancing of powers may also make the centralization of authority, to the degree it is genuinely necessary, less threatening than orthodox constitutionalists have generally supposed it to be. That is, the danger to constitutionalism is not merely the extent to which authority is concentrated at the national level of government, but the extent to which it is concentrated within the national level. The dispersal of power makes an otherwise necessary allocation of power to the national government safer.”

–Greg Weiner, “A Constitutional Welfare State” in National Affairs