As I became more involved in politics at a local level a few years ago, I was faced with questions I had never thought about before. I’ve been following national government for years and have very definite ideas about that. The federal government should be strictly limited by the Constitution. It should do no more and no less. As stated by the Tenth Amendment, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”
That grants considerable liberty to state and local government. In fact many would be horrified by the strictly religious nature of many a jurisdiction of the time. This leads to a more philosophical question. What are the reasonable responsibilities of a local government? It has considerable latitude within the framework of state and federal law and would have a lot more if the Constitution were properly observed and its principles carried forward by the states.
A local government must of necessity be concerned with the mechanics of day to day life in a way that higher entities need not be, but I remain convinced that sound principles of government will work at all levels. It should provide protection and keep the peace. It probably must to some extent be involved in the management of local infrastructure, but should stay out of the way as much as possible.
However, I also recognize that this kind of government only works when the people as a whole are of good character. If they refuse to function within the law and with proper respect for those around them, then it becomes necessary to have more authority in the hands of the government. John Adams said of the US Constitution, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” This is why there are some truths we cannot ignore, no matter how offensive they may be to a small segment of the population.
What does this mean in practical terms? I am still left with questions about what the local government should and should not do. I suppose one answer would be whatever the citizens decide that it should do. This is reasonable, but can we reach a point just as we have at the federal level when government has grown beyond the control of its citizens? When this happens, it is our right and responsibility to regain that control. Local municipalities regularly commit acts of tyranny every bit as egregious as those perpetrated at the federal level, less frightening only because they lack the overwhelming power of the Big Brother state. When they act in concert as in the case of New London, Connecticut one begins to lose hope. In this case the High Court ought to have done its job and protected the rights of the individual.
Citizens also may abuse their power. For example, zoning gets misused to assert the rights of one group over the rights of another. I understand the desire to keep some sort of order. Honestly I’m glad the city can keep my neighbor from tearing down his house and replacing it with a porn shop, but the question needs to be asked whether I should have the right to tell him what to do with his property. How is it that my rights are more important than his? Let’s consider something a little less controversial. I once attended a birthday party at a restaurant featuring a large outdoor deck with a mariachi band and Aztec dancers. The restaurant backed right up to a residential neighborhood. From our seats on the deck we could look right into someone’s pool in their back yard. I suppose if the owner of that house were the partying type he was in a prime location. He got free entertainment every night. I just kept thinking it must be a terrible annoyance to the people who live in that neighborhood to have that kind of noise going on all the time.
I don’t know who came first, but whose rights should the city protect? Whose rights are actually in question? We have defined a lot of things as rights that are not rights at all. There may be a question of what is right in this situation, but is there a question of rights? Should not government be a defender of what is right?
Is it right for a city to force a resident to modify his property because his neighbors don’t like the way it looks? I suppose one may argue that the home owner has a responsibility to maintain the standards of the neighborhood in which he has chosen to live as a courtesy to his neighbors. He may in fact do financial harm to them by lowering the value of their properties. Is it right for them to force him to do so, even if it will cause him harm?
These are some of the questions I ponder as I watch my own city government in action and contemplate my level of participation in it. I have not even touched on the monetary issues. I suspect that if its functions were reduced to those essential to the maintenance of the city and the rest were left to private enterprise, there would be far fewer monetary questions to address and we would enjoy even better service.
I would like to know what others think about these things. Your comments are welcome on the blog or on Facebook.