Big state government vs. little local government

In classic conservative political theory, the most significant form of government is what is closest to the people; that is, local governments in which the people select their neighbors to govern the community.  As levels of government get farther and farther away from the people who elected them, political involvement becomes ever more abstract and the distant government gets potentially ever more problematic, especially when it usurps power from the officials closer to the people.

Nevertheless, today many state governments–particularly some that are Republican-controlled–are working to minimize the authority of local governments.  Some of these conservative state legislators complain about a too powerful federal government usurping the rights of the states, while themselves working to increase the power of state government at the expense of city and county governments.

Debates about the relative authority of state and local government are not new. But in places such as Tennessee, where Republicans claimed comfortable majorities in the legislature in 2010, they come with a different subtext.

Many of these state lawmakers have accused the federal government of adopting an imperious, one-size-fits-all mentality and of subverting the rightful powers of states. At the same time, many high-profile debates in the Tennessee Capitol over the past two years — on topics such as local wage rules and local non-discrimination rules, among others — have centered on the state trying to limit the power of localities to make decisions for themselves.

To some critics, that’s a sign of hypocrisy. What conservative supporters of these laws argue, though, is that localities sometimes use their power in ways that are inconsistent with values the state holds dear, such as defending property rights and reducing government regulation. Their case is that the only way the legislature can enact its vision for government is to use the power it has, not delegate it to others.

Most of the legislation in Tennessee hasn’t passed yet, and some of it seems unlikely to pass soon. Still, in Tennessee and elsewhere, it’s clear that for conservative lawmakers, local control is just one principle, a principle that sometimes is superseded by others.

While the extent of local government autonomy varies from state to state, nowhere is that autonomy absolute. Even in states such as Tennessee that offer limited “home rule,” state governments can act to overrule the localities.

“What the locals need to remember,” said Tennessee state Rep. Jim Gotto (R), “is that all the power they have is what has been delegated to them by the state.”

As a result, states and localities are engaged in a constant push and pull in state capitols. In Indiana, for example, the legislature rejected a bill this year that would have given some local jurisdictions the power to ask voters for tax increases to pay for public transit. The move came even though the mayor of Indianapolis considered the bill a top priority and the measure had the support of other local officials and business groups.

via Republican legislatures move to preempt local government – The Washington Post.

It sounds like the emphasis is on final results rather than conservative principles.  Taxes are bad and development is good, reason the state legislators, so they are voting to prevent local communities from raising taxes and limiting development.  But shouldn’t the particular communities have the right to make decisions on issues like those?   Are those bottom-line issues more important than the principle of limited government?  If the federal government were to issue mandates on those issues that were to conservatives’ liking, would conservatives be OK with that, even if it meant usurping the jurisdiction of both state and local governments?

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • SKPeterson

    This works both ways, or rather, both sides of the aisle. Look at California. They are imposing conditions on land use and development on local communities in the state. However, they are doing this to promote more dense urban environments and increased used of public transit. Legislators seem to be perennially short-sighted; they never think the worm will turn.

    To some extent, I understand the impulse at the state level to try and rein in, or to push, local county or municipal governments to act in certain ways that the legislators believe benefits the state as a whole. Their concern seems to be that if one community goes off on its own in some “weird” way (I will leave alone for now the Weird Cities movement that seems to be a new cultural meme) that it will besmirch the entire state.

    Yet, there are plenty of examples to the contrary. Austin is viewed as the epicenter of leftism in Texas which is fine for most of the rest of Texas. They simply shrug it off with a casual, “That’s just Austin.” What Austin does or doesn’t do (and the bad guy used to be the Travis County DA who liked to investigate people all over the state for questionable political motives) generally does not impact what San Antonio, or Fort Worth or El Paso are going to do.

    I believe in subsidiarity – the political philosophy that the best rule is one that is as close to the people as possible, i.e., local is best. However, subsidiarity doesn’t mean “no stupid things will ever happen in government” just because local governments have more autonomy. It simply means that local politics should matter and that people should take a more active interest in their real neighbors and their communities. Moreover, subsidiarity doesn’t even have to equate with the political realm, but more broadly it applies to the civic realm. The churches, the neighborhood associations, the civic clubs and interest organizations that build up communities, address issues outside the political process, and make life better for many people.

  • SKPeterson

    This works both ways, or rather, both sides of the aisle. Look at California. They are imposing conditions on land use and development on local communities in the state. However, they are doing this to promote more dense urban environments and increased used of public transit. Legislators seem to be perennially short-sighted; they never think the worm will turn.

    To some extent, I understand the impulse at the state level to try and rein in, or to push, local county or municipal governments to act in certain ways that the legislators believe benefits the state as a whole. Their concern seems to be that if one community goes off on its own in some “weird” way (I will leave alone for now the Weird Cities movement that seems to be a new cultural meme) that it will besmirch the entire state.

    Yet, there are plenty of examples to the contrary. Austin is viewed as the epicenter of leftism in Texas which is fine for most of the rest of Texas. They simply shrug it off with a casual, “That’s just Austin.” What Austin does or doesn’t do (and the bad guy used to be the Travis County DA who liked to investigate people all over the state for questionable political motives) generally does not impact what San Antonio, or Fort Worth or El Paso are going to do.

    I believe in subsidiarity – the political philosophy that the best rule is one that is as close to the people as possible, i.e., local is best. However, subsidiarity doesn’t mean “no stupid things will ever happen in government” just because local governments have more autonomy. It simply means that local politics should matter and that people should take a more active interest in their real neighbors and their communities. Moreover, subsidiarity doesn’t even have to equate with the political realm, but more broadly it applies to the civic realm. The churches, the neighborhood associations, the civic clubs and interest organizations that build up communities, address issues outside the political process, and make life better for many people.

  • http://theoldadam.wordpress.com Steve Martin

    I agree with SK.

    California is a mess and is actually run by the unions who are the ATM of the Dem. Party here. Hence all the wasteful boondoggles while the real problems are ignored.

    Small government, maximum freedom. Big government, minimum freedom.

  • http://theoldadam.wordpress.com Steve Martin

    I agree with SK.

    California is a mess and is actually run by the unions who are the ATM of the Dem. Party here. Hence all the wasteful boondoggles while the real problems are ignored.

    Small government, maximum freedom. Big government, minimum freedom.

  • trotk

    As SK said, I believe in subsidiarity, but it is worth noting that the relationship between communities and their state government is fundamentally different than the relationship between states and the federal government.

    In the case of the former, the communities didn’t come together to create the state and give it certain proscribed powers. It is the state that empowers the communities, more oftentimes than not. The relationship is obviously reversed, though, in the relationship between states and the federal government. This difference should lead to fundamental differences in how divisions of power are viewed.

  • trotk

    As SK said, I believe in subsidiarity, but it is worth noting that the relationship between communities and their state government is fundamentally different than the relationship between states and the federal government.

    In the case of the former, the communities didn’t come together to create the state and give it certain proscribed powers. It is the state that empowers the communities, more oftentimes than not. The relationship is obviously reversed, though, in the relationship between states and the federal government. This difference should lead to fundamental differences in how divisions of power are viewed.

  • Tom Hering

    Don’t towns, cities, and villages all exist as legal creations of state government? Can’t state governments take over their management in extraordinary circumstances? Isn’t this a fundamentally different relationship than the one between the states and the federal government?

    As for the Norman Rockwell view of local government, anyone minimally involved in them knows that anti-democratic shenanigans are the rule.

  • Tom Hering

    Don’t towns, cities, and villages all exist as legal creations of state government? Can’t state governments take over their management in extraordinary circumstances? Isn’t this a fundamentally different relationship than the one between the states and the federal government?

    As for the Norman Rockwell view of local government, anyone minimally involved in them knows that anti-democratic shenanigans are the rule.

  • Joe

    Tom — they answer to your questions is yes and no. The relationship between states and local municipalities depends on the constitutions and laws of the states.

    I agree with the principle of subsidiary, but here in Wisconsin local control is largely a matter of legislative grace. The counties are by definition an arm of the state gov’t establish to carry out state policy. So are towns. Cities and villages have some local control but it is very limited under the state constitutional and statutory framework.

    This holds true from a financial perspective as well. The state funds a large portion of the local gov’t’s budgets.

  • Joe

    Tom — they answer to your questions is yes and no. The relationship between states and local municipalities depends on the constitutions and laws of the states.

    I agree with the principle of subsidiary, but here in Wisconsin local control is largely a matter of legislative grace. The counties are by definition an arm of the state gov’t establish to carry out state policy. So are towns. Cities and villages have some local control but it is very limited under the state constitutional and statutory framework.

    This holds true from a financial perspective as well. The state funds a large portion of the local gov’t’s budgets.

  • Joe

    continued …

    This is not true in other states. I have not done a 50 state survey but my observation is that the older a state is the more local control is allowed or enshrined in its constitution.

  • Joe

    continued …

    This is not true in other states. I have not done a 50 state survey but my observation is that the older a state is the more local control is allowed or enshrined in its constitution.

  • Tom Hering

    Joe, thanks. So, true subsidiarity would require states to radically alter their statutes and constitutions – and some states more than others?

  • Tom Hering

    Joe, thanks. So, true subsidiarity would require states to radically alter their statutes and constitutions – and some states more than others?

  • SKPeterson

    Well, you can always request to have different representation.

    http://www.tennessean.com/article/20120412/NEWS01/304120043/2275/RSS05

  • SKPeterson

    Well, you can always request to have different representation.

    http://www.tennessean.com/article/20120412/NEWS01/304120043/2275/RSS05

  • DonS

    Interesting that the Washington Post is holding Republicans to what the Post asserts to be their principles. I wonder if they’ve ever done a similar thing to Democrats concerning their principles? I can’t recall such a circumstance. Oh, wait …. I guess it pays to have as your only principle the notion of taking money from people you like to vilify and giving it to your friends and supporters. And it pays for Democrats that the press generally has its ear much more attuned to Democratic talking points than to Republican ones.

    Subsidiarity is a worthy political theory that I generally support. In general, power should be devolved to the lowest practicable level of government, so that the citizens can have as much influence as possible, and government can be tailored to the particular needs of a local community.

    However, while at the federal government, this principle is coupled with Constitutional limits (at least theoretical) on its power, because the Founders wanted to ensure that the states and the citizens remained empowered, at the state and local levels the reverse is usually true. State constitutions typically grant state government authority over activities within state borders, but allow state government to delegate that authority to local governments. This means that, typically, the only issues involved in an instance of state preemption of local authority are political/policy ones. Both parties alter the relationships between state and local governments from time to time, sometimes for justified reasons, and sometimes for purely political ones. Certainly, there are times when it is appropriate for states to rein in a corrupt or abusive local government.

  • DonS

    Interesting that the Washington Post is holding Republicans to what the Post asserts to be their principles. I wonder if they’ve ever done a similar thing to Democrats concerning their principles? I can’t recall such a circumstance. Oh, wait …. I guess it pays to have as your only principle the notion of taking money from people you like to vilify and giving it to your friends and supporters. And it pays for Democrats that the press generally has its ear much more attuned to Democratic talking points than to Republican ones.

    Subsidiarity is a worthy political theory that I generally support. In general, power should be devolved to the lowest practicable level of government, so that the citizens can have as much influence as possible, and government can be tailored to the particular needs of a local community.

    However, while at the federal government, this principle is coupled with Constitutional limits (at least theoretical) on its power, because the Founders wanted to ensure that the states and the citizens remained empowered, at the state and local levels the reverse is usually true. State constitutions typically grant state government authority over activities within state borders, but allow state government to delegate that authority to local governments. This means that, typically, the only issues involved in an instance of state preemption of local authority are political/policy ones. Both parties alter the relationships between state and local governments from time to time, sometimes for justified reasons, and sometimes for purely political ones. Certainly, there are times when it is appropriate for states to rein in a corrupt or abusive local government.

  • Joe

    Tom — yes, some more than others.

  • Joe

    Tom — yes, some more than others.

  • http://www.oldsolar.com/currentblog.php Rick Ritchie

    I don’t like arbitrary power. Whatever level of government serves to lessen that, I’m all for it.

    Local governments are closer to us. But there are still questions about their limits. If my state government has a constitution that defines its powers more narrowly, I might want it to intervene on my behalf if my local government gets tyrannical. Besides. My city government is for a population of 189,992, which is greater than all states but Virginia and Massachusetts during the Revolution. So in scale it is already disqualified from being truly close as our Founding Fathers saw it. “Relative numbers” mean much less to me than either actual numbers which the Founding Fathers were familiar with, or political principles, which can be written into documents and defined. To favor a locality for its relative scale is neither here nor there in comparison to actual numbers or actual principles.

  • http://www.oldsolar.com/currentblog.php Rick Ritchie

    I don’t like arbitrary power. Whatever level of government serves to lessen that, I’m all for it.

    Local governments are closer to us. But there are still questions about their limits. If my state government has a constitution that defines its powers more narrowly, I might want it to intervene on my behalf if my local government gets tyrannical. Besides. My city government is for a population of 189,992, which is greater than all states but Virginia and Massachusetts during the Revolution. So in scale it is already disqualified from being truly close as our Founding Fathers saw it. “Relative numbers” mean much less to me than either actual numbers which the Founding Fathers were familiar with, or political principles, which can be written into documents and defined. To favor a locality for its relative scale is neither here nor there in comparison to actual numbers or actual principles.

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    You can leave a locale more easily than a state or the USA. So, if the ordinances don’t violate basic freedoms, just vote out the local ninnies and don’t let the state overstep its authority.

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    You can leave a locale more easily than a state or the USA. So, if the ordinances don’t violate basic freedoms, just vote out the local ninnies and don’t let the state overstep its authority.


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