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Conservatives faith in local government misplaced

Conservatives’ faith in local government is misplaced: The closer government is to the people, the more government is controlled by special interests.

Conservatives faith in local government misplacedBY PETER SCHEER — In America today, conservatism’s one clear fault line, cutting across cultural and socioeconomic schisms, aligns conservatives based on their views about the relationship between government and its citizens.

On one side are born-again libertarians, like supporters of perpetual presidential candidate Ron Paul. Believing that governmental power and personal freedom are always and everywhere inversely related, born-again libertarians are hostile to government at all levels: national, regional and local. (And don’t get them started about multinational entities like the IMF.)

On the other side of the line are mainstream conservatives, by far the larger group, who are selective in their anti-government animus. Mainstream conservatives, exemplified by Mitt Romney, don’t hate all government. They fear and loath the federal government, which, in their view, can do nothing right, while they simultaneously favor, even wax nostalgic over, state and local governments, which, purely because of their smaller scale and proximity to individual citizens, can do no wrong.

This division is illustrated by the debate over President Obama’s health care reform. To Democrats, health care is a national issue that can only be managed by forcing all providers, consumers, employers and third-party payers (insurance companies) into a single national market, with the feds creating uniform standards and policing all participants.

To born-again libertarians, any government mandate is anathema: citizens should be free both to forgo insurance and to suffer the consequences of their stupidity. (Ron Paul has been nothing if not consistent in this regard, saying during one presidential debate that hospitals should not be forced to rescue critically-ill citizens who opt not to purchase health insurance.)

Conservatives also oppose the federal mandate — the requirement that all citizens have insurance, whether individually or through their employers. However, their argument against it is not that government in general is without authority to force citizens to buy insurance, but that the federal government has no such power.

This is how Romney rationalizes his opposition to Obamacare with his authorship of “Romneycare” in Massachusetts, which, like the federal program, mandates citizen participation in the state-managed health care system. It is also the ideological tap dance of the Supreme Court’s conservative justices.

They have questioned whether Congress infringes state sovereignty by dictating that citizens purchase medical insurance. By implication these same justices are saying — and may, in fact, rule later this spring — that, while the feds lack power to impose the disputed mandate, state governments do not. State governments, according to this view, may do whatever they wish in the healthcare arena.

Conservatives’  blind faith in state governments is naive in the extreme. Sixty-five years ago, this deference to state government, championed then by another Republican presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater, ignored the tenacity and insidiousness of racism in state legislatures and judiciaries (and not only in the South). Today, this faith ignores the corruption in state governments across the country.

By corruption, I don’t mean the hard crimes of bribery and extortion — although there’s no shortage of those, as revealed again and again in undercover investigations mostly conducted, notably, by the FBI (not state and local police, who tend to look the other way). I’m referring to the soft corruption of legislators and regulators who are bought and paid for by special interest groups, which are able to operate openly and with impunity at the state level.

The truth is that state legislatures and regulatory agencies are sewers compared to Washington, D.C.; Washington is an Athenian idyll compared to Sacramento (or Albany, Trenton, Boston et al).

Washington may have the highest concentration of lobbyists in the world, but their comings and goings are observed by the largest concentration of national and international news media in the world. In Sacramento, by contrast, the press corps, never big in the best of times, has been decimated by cutbacks in staffing levels at all the major news organizations.

While special interests in Washington are well represented, well funded and not shy about wielding influence in the legislative process, they are also held in check by competing special interests. The predations of Wall Street investment banks are countered by Main Street banking interests. Hollywood’s campaign for laws to stop online movie-pirating is offset by the high-tech industry’s fear of increased regulation of the internet. Big Pharma is neutralized by generic drug manufacturers. Health insurers, forever seeking higher rates, are blocked by Fortune 500 corporations that have to pay their policy premiums.

At the state level, however, entrenched special interests always prevail because they stand to gain more from a given change in the law than the costs imposed on any competing special interests — the costs, at the level of a single state, are dispersed too broadly to generate effective opposition, even though those costs, cumulatively, may be crippling to the state.

This is why public employee pensions in California and other states are unsustainable, while pensions for federal employees are not. This is why prison guards, public school teachers, insurance companies, police and trial lawyers are able to dictate their legislative agendas in Sacramento and other state capitols, but have have far, far less clout at the federal level.

Mainstream conservatives love shifting power from the federal government to states because they believe that the closer government is to its citizens, the more responsive it is to those citizens. They could not be more wrong. In today’s America, the closer government is to its citizens, the more responsive it is to special interests (and indifferent to citizens’ interests).
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Peter Scheer, Executive Director of the First Amendment Coalition (FAC), is a lawyer and journalist. The views expressed here are his alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of FAC’s Board of Directors. A version of this article also appeared on HuffingtonPost.

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3 Responses to Conservatives’ faith in local government is misplaced: The closer government is to the people, the more government is controlled by special interests.

  1. Peter Scheer May 16, 2012 at 4:57 pm #

    Ron Redfern of the Press-Enterprise newspaper comments:

    While I agree with your argument about the conservative’s blind faith in state and local gov’t, it’s important to note that this cuts both ways. The liberals have an undying belief that the government’s role is to take care of people, particularly and primarily the federal gov’t because the people can’t take care of themselves; i.e., the political elite know better.. aka “the nanny state.”

    And while I won’t argue that there is more visibility and contention between competing interests in D.C., your glowing evaluation of the fed gov’t as compared to state gov’ts is, in truth, like comparing bad to worse. The lesser of two evils doesn’t make it any more acceptable.

    We are experiencing polar extremes politically at all levels of gov’t today and it’s messy and frustrating. However, that’s our democracy at work. It’s an ugly process but a beautiful thing to watch.

    For myself, I worry that our educational system continues to lag and that civic engagement at all levels is so low. Both are essential if our democracy is to survive and thrive… reminds me of what Justice Brandeis said:

    “Those who won our independence believed… that the greatest menace to freedom is an inert people; that public discussion is a political duty; and that this should be a fundamental principle of the American government.”

    Peter, thank you and FAC for keeping the discussion going and for “watching” our gov’t in action closely; we at the PE are working hard with you in that effort.

  2. Tom Sarbeck May 17, 2012 at 2:45 am #

    Peter,
    Thank you. I have for years spoken of bribery and extortion in legislatures. Until your letter above, I’ve never seen them named in print. It remains now to say that much of “lobbying” is bribery or the result of extortion.
    However, your stating as truth that the closer government is to the people, the more it is controlled by special interests requires some evidence. While SP for years “owned” Sacramento, initiative and referendum are more common in western states than in eastern states because, as Arizona’s pro-statehood backers made clear, they saw the corruption in eastern states and wanted a way to block it in Arizona.
    I hope you will call for a national initiative and referendum amendment to the Federal Constitution.

  3. Patty Clary May 23, 2012 at 7:57 am #

    The thought of a national referendum and initiative process is frightening! Look what it’s done to bring chaos to California, with 3 strikes, term limits, prop 13 etc. One part of an initiative may be appealing, but it’s the other bits that bring us down. I for one am not interested in being dictated to by the crowd which is so responsive to trends and advertising.

    Not much is needed in the way of hard investigation to find evidence of how special interests dominate local government. Try living in rural counties of California where government control by special interests is blatant even where local people are engaged in the process. The key is money, and with the press on the ropes it’s increasingly difficult to overcome the money factor in political races. Here in Humboldt County it’s in our faces every election cycle these days.

    The strongest argument in favor of federal government is that it levels the playing field. How can ordinary engaged members of a local citizenry hope to stand up to a multi-national corporation with a stable of lawyers and a gaggle of PR experts, and money to burn as an investment in getting its way? We desperately need federal protection if we’re to continue to have any form of democracy.

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