Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
November 12, 2001
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
A Critique of Local Government
We just had another pathetic "local" election that will make no difference in our lives.
Hardly anybody voted, but then, why should we? We had only two choices -- to
continue with the same club that runs things year after year no matter how badly they do, or to
elect the anti-Fedex group that raised self-serving self-delusion to new heights.
Well, it's not going to change any time soon, and do you know why?
Because we don't have any local government. It doesn't exist in most places in America,
and it certainly doesn't exist here.
Greensboro has more than two hundred thousand people. When Bristol, England,
dominated North Atlantic fishing and trade in the late 15th century, it had ten thousand people. It
was the second largest city in England.
During the American revolution, Greensboro's present population would have made it the
largest city in the colonies.
The original Constitution provided that a member of the House of Representatives should
represent about forty thousand people. By that standard we should have five Congressmen from
our city alone.
Are you getting the picture? Our "local" government rules over more citizens than some
of the original states.
That's why most of us don't know personally a single person who holds elective office.
We're not in the club, and we can't get in the club because it takes so much money just to get
your name before the public in a "local" election.
Imagine, if you will, the impossible: Genuine local government in Guilford County.
Imagine the county divided into compact civic units of about ten thousand people, each
with its own elected council.
We wouldn't pay anybody who served on such a council, because it wouldn't be even a
part time job. And it wouldn't cost anything to run for office on that council, because you could
walk through the neighborhoods of your local council and meet everybody who wanted to talk to
Imagine each council hiring a few policemen who would soon know personally every
family in the neighborhood, who would respond to local calls because that was their job.
Imagine having zoning decisions made by a council that actually lived in the
I can already hear the arguments against it. We have professional firefighters -- could we
afford them if we had thirty or more separate departments? Of course we couldn't -- but I
wouldn't localize firefighting because it's one of the few areas where centralized training actually
pays off. Nor would I eliminate citywide and countywide law enforcement -- large-scale traffic
enforcement and criminal investigations would simply be separated from the highly visible local
officers who would help to keep the peace in the first place.
What would welfare look like if it was administered by unpaid councils elected by local
neighborhoods, audited by a central authority? People in real need might actually be treated with
respect, as human beings with a temporary financial problem. Freeloaders would be identified
easily because the officials would know them personally.
Few indeed are the aspects of local government that would not be improved, or at least
not worsened, by actually making the decisions locally instead of in a central office that, because
it is responsible to hundreds of thousands of voters, is in fact responsible to nobody.
As for the argument that centralized government is more cost-effective -- puh-leeze.
When you have a government over two hundred thousand citizens, you end up with a
bureaucracy. There are many people whose jobs consist of making people under them work up
time-consuming reports in order to present those reports to people higher up the food chain.
With local government, those jobs would be completely unnecessary, because the people at the
top would actually know, personally, every single person doing the low level jobs.
Government gets expensive in part because administrators have to be paid substantially
more than their underlings. So the more layers you add, the higher the salaries at each layer have
That's why, for instance, we have a school superintendent being paid a salary ludicrously
higher than any of the teachers who are actually doing the work of teaching.
That's why our "efficient," centrally planned school system is not responsive to anybody
at all, and why the people who are paid the most are the ones whose entire job is forcing more
time-wasting busywork on teachers so they have less time to spend with our kids.
I'm sure they have elaborate justifications for their jobs -- but wouldn't it be lovely just
to divide the county up into exactly as many school districts as we have high schools, assigning
each district a certain number of middle schools and elementary schools? Each minidistrict
would have its own school board. There would be no district administration, beyond the school
board and a couple of paid clerks. The highest officials would be the principals of each school.
That would be the highest salary anybody was paid.
Each school board could then decide, directly, such matters as hiring and firing,
attendance policies, planning for the future.
Instead of begging the impersonal, distant school district to please get your kids out of
trailers, then watching them pay far too much to build new schools elsewhere while yours get
nothing, your school board would concentrate on the needs of your neighborhood.
And with the money we'd save because we'd have no highly paid bureaucrats at all, we
could build or remodel all the buildings our neighborhoods needed.
It would be an easy matter to equalize spending across the whole county while leaving
control in local hands.
Is there any chance this would happen?
Of course not. Because the immediate response of the people who profit from the present
system would be to flood the county with propaganda about all the "wonderful programs" that
would be destroyed and how expensive or unfair local minidistricts would be.
You know just what that propaganda campaign would look like. We already saw it when
we were told that merging three school districts into one would promote "efficiency" and
I believed that campaign. I was all for merger back then.
Has anyone seen efficiency? Or even marginal wisdom in the allocation of resources?
Has racial harmony actually been improved? Are minority students doing better? Are teachers
getting the independence and respect and support they need to teach well?
Does anybody think students from poorer neighborhoods are getting a better education
now than they would get in neighborhood schools where the administration and faculty were
directly responsible to the people in their neighborhood?
Where school board members would actually have a chance of knowing by name all the
students who had special needs?
It isn't going to happen.
But when people moan about how local elections get such a low voter turnout, you might
point out to them that part of the reason may be that we don't actually have any local elections.
Democracy. Wouldn't it be nice to give it a try?
Who knows? It might even work.