“The government that governs least, governs best. The government that is best is closest to the people.”
Here, in essence, was the Jeffersonian philosophy of limited government that made America a beacon of freedom in the 19th century. Thomas Jefferson was one of the leaders of a classical liberal philosophy that was popular in the first century or so in the history of the United States.
Unfortunately, it is a philosophy now in decline. It is disdained by generations who have forgotten, or perhaps never learned, the critical lessons of Western liberty. Liberty was achieved not through the expansion of governments and their bureaucracies, but through limiting and disbursing the power of government; ensuring it did not arrogate the liberties of individuals. This tradition of limited government goes back centuries to the wisdom of ancient Greece and Rome.
Jefferson, who was greatly influenced by the English philosopher John Locke, was suspicious of central governments. Jefferson and his intellectual scions wanted people to be left alone to choose for themselves. They called for less government and a reliance on small units of government. They believed that government units closest to the people were generally better than those that ruled from great distances. Indeed, that distant ruling model was one of the causes of the American Revolution as were the many revolutions against imperialist powers over the last two centuries.
The average citizen, classical liberals believed, should in most cases make vital decisions themselves without the intervention of political elites who often operate through bureaucracies that have been delegated power from legislatures and Congresses.
These bureaucratic elites often insist they know better than the average citizen. That they, and only they, must save people from themselves, although they rarely are as candid as to admit their desire to rule us in this imperial manner. They are often removed from the people they rule. They are frequently people who lecture you on why you should use public transit and send your kids to public schools. Yet it turns out many of them use private cars and send their kids to private schools.
Bureaucrats Destroying Mom and Pops
We saw an example of a distant bureaucracy in our last segment. We examined the demise of Ben’s Best Kosher Deli. Here is an example of how an uncaring city bureaucracy miles away in Manhattan helped ruin another longtime small business in Queens. This bureaucracy is a distant part of the incredibly large New York City government. It is a government that overtaxes and overregulates.
Clearly, in New York City, the government was and is not close to the neighborhoods of Queens. That is where its new traffic plan last year hurt Ben’s. It was a longtime business that had survived generations of high taxes and often senseless regulations that would have appalled Jefferson and other liberty loving people.
Decentralization was the theme of the original U.S. constitution and it is the trademark, as the great historian of freedom Lord Acton would tell us, of all free societies. And the relentless centralization at almost all levels of American government over the last century or so, especially the federal government along with a massive city like New York, is probably the greatest danger to all liberty loving people.
Centralization: The Road to Serfdom
Centralization leads to bad government and the unintended consequence of government ruining community institutions such as beloved small businesses. I assume that even the worst of political elites don’t want to destroy small businesses. After all, if they destroy the Moms and Pops of our economy who will then pay their salaries and support their huge bureaucracies? But then again, I may be assuming too much, I may be imputing too much wisdom to a group of people who generally have never had to meet a payroll and figure out how to steer a business through difficult times.
But I do believe that these elites—these social democrats who pretend to believe in limited government—want more and more power consolidated in their unelected bureaus and commissions. The result is the government becomes a bigger and bigger part of the economy. Ergo, the economy weakens; growth rates slow down or disappear as the government takes on more and more power.
Centralization is a kind of backdoor collectivism. It is a socialism without doctrines. It is one in which nobody mentions Marx or Engels but the government, often through unelected bureaucracies, such as the New York City Department of Transportation or authorities like the MTA, runs more and more aspects of our lives including our businesses. It directs or takes over more and more of our lives without the legislative authority to do so.
What is needed?
Decentralization: The Road to Freedom
We need a massive rollback of government. It should be accomplished through the decentralization of the biggest units of government, such as the city of New York, which can never effectively govern a huge distant county like Queens.
If Queens, a county of more some two million population, were an independent city, it would be the third or fourth largest municipality in the United States.
Given its economy—several of New York’s financial services offices in Manhattan have moved to Western Queens, seeking the same lower rents that have driven others here—Queens can and should rule itself. By the way, if Queens were a city, it should have various subdivisions to ensure that power was divided and subdivided, the separation of power idea that was at the heart of the original U.S. constitution.
New York City and King George III
By the way, Queens isn’t the only place ripe for successions from New York City. Staten Island, opted to leave the city about a quarter of a century ago. Its residents voted overwhelmingly in a referendum in the 1990s to become the independent city of Staten Island.
Unfortunately, the result was thrown out by a court challenge that held the referendum backers hadn’t followed all the steps under law to holding a legal referendum (They had not asked the New York City Council for its approval to hold a referendum. With that kind of logic, one would assume the Declaration of Independence was illegal because American colonials didn’t ask King George III for his approval before signing it).
New York City needs radical de-centralization if local government is ever to mean anything to many Queens residents who regard their distant government as pesky, pricy and a perpetual pain in the tuchus. Government, or what Jefferson’s friend Tom Paine called “a necessary evil,” would not be as bothersome if it were smaller and closer.
A French View of 19th Century America
Alexis de Tocqueville, in his “Democracy in America,” praised the small township governments he saw in his tour of Jacksonian America. My experience, in my 20s and 30s working as a reporter and living in small towns in the Midwest and in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, confirmed this same small government feeling. I found the local units of government, the towns, villages and small boroughs, more responsive to the complaints and comments of citizens than I had seen growing up in New York City.
For instance, I can remember my mother, living in Delaware Township, Pennsylvania, complaining about her taxes and other things. I told her that the township supervisor, who was a part-time government official as well as someone who had a private sector job, was accessible.
He was not a career politician. He was not constantly on his phone, talking to his media advisor or some political shill about the next election. She actually called him on the phone and was satisfied with his explanation of the township tax rate.
By contrast, can one imagine someone, living in a big town or city in America today and actually having a chance to have a coherent, intelligent conversation with an elected public official?
“Talk to the Mayor? Surely, You Joke”
Can one imagine, in this era of runaway government headed by career pols—pols who often spend more time thinking about the next election than actually doing their jobs—actually having an intelligent palaver with a big city mayor, governor or congressional representative or U.S. senator?
And yet these are the men and women who, in theory, are serving us; this class of political careerists serve at our pleasure; they dance to our tune.
O.K., I admit it. GregoryBresiger.com often uses wild humor to explain how the world works.
Let me use a personal example. In working in small towns and cities, I often was able to do the same as my mother seeking information about her taxes: I spoke with officials of small town governments. They answered my questions. And, whether or not I liked their answers, they were on the record; I was actually interacting with the people who ruled me. And better than that: They interacted with the people they were serving. It was a healthy relationship.
Senator Chuck Schumer, Where Are You?
Now let’s fast forward. Today, I am an old man. I sometimes write business stories that could have a political impact. For instance, recently I did a story for the New York Post business section on a proposed stock trading tax. As with numerous other political stories, I called various federal representatives. In this case, it wanted to hear from our two U.S. senators from New York, Kirsten Gillibrand and Charles Schumer.
In years of dealing, or trying to deal, with these people I learned that they will never actually talk to you, or to the vast majority of their constituents, unless they’re running for re-election (For instance, they don’t ride the egregious state-run subways to anywhere. But they will sometimes get on them when they’re running for re-election).
As a reporter, you negotiate to get them to answer your questions. And, if you’re lucky, one of their press people, might actually answer a question or two. In the case of the latest story I did on the proposed stock transaction tax plan supported by Hillenbrand, the usually garrulous Schumer didn’t even answer through his or her press people.
My complaint isn’t just that our ruling class is disconnected from any meaningful relationship with the press; it is that it is disconnected from the average taxpayer who pays the bills; people such as the owner of Ben’s Best, along with his employees, now looking for new jobs.
Less Government Equals Better Government
What is needed is the breakup of big units of government. Government should be smaller—-and much, much less expensive! —and it should be brought closer to the people that it supposedly serves. This principle should be applied in many places; from Queens to Catalonia to Scotland to the six counties of Northern Ireland to the north of Iraq, where the Kurdish people, some of the most-victimized people in history, want to run their own affairs.
Break up governments. Make them smaller, much smaller and more open. Then we’ll all be better off. And then the tragedy of small businesses regulated and taxed to death might be reduced.