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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.

Some choice.

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 you.

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 neighborhoods affected.

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 to be.

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 "harmony."

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.

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