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Ballot measure to subdivide CA assumes smaller government is closer to voters. But it’s also closer to special interests.

Tim Draper, the legendary venture capitalist  (Tesla, Baidu, Yahoo), also dabbles in politics—albeit at a much lower rate of return. His latest foray into the political arena is a ballot initiative to subdivide California into six states of roughly equal size.

This proposal faces serious hurdles, not least that the federal government would say no, even if California voters, against all odds, endorsed Draper’s mini-Californias idea. By raising the state’s US senator count from two to twelve, Draper’s initiative would dilute the political clout of all other states proportionately. To say they would resist such a change is likely an understatement.

But let’s put practicalities aside. The theory behind Draper’s ballot measure is that subdividing California creates smaller state governments—and that the smaller and more local the state governments, the more politically accountable and the better managed they will be.

“What I’m proposing here is to bring us closer to our government,” Draper said at a press conference in Silicon Valley. “We are all better off with more local government — local government is more efficient, it’s more effective, it represents us better.”

Belief in the virtues of smaller, more local government—and a corresponding distrust of the federal government–have deep roots in American history. These values reflect the constitution’s veneration of state sovereignty and states’ rights. They also reflect the abiding faith that local government, because of its closeness to the people, is inherently more democratic (with a lower case d).

But America’s long-standing faith in local government is misplaced. Fifty years ago this faith ignored the tenacity and insidiousness of racism in state legislatures and city halls (and not only in the South). Today, this faith ignores the corruption in state and local governments across the country.

By corruption, I don’t mean only criminal acts of bribery and extortion — although there’s no shortage of those, as revealed again and again in investigations 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 politicians who are bought and paid for by special interest groups.

Local government, although closer to the people, is also closer to special interests.

Washington, DC may have the highest concentration of lobbyists in the world, but their comings and goings are scrutinized by the largest concentration of national and international news media in the world. In state legislatures and city halls, by contrast, the few available journalists are seriously outgunned, with the result that public officials and lobbyists are able to work together in secrecy. That enhances the influence of special interests, from  local developers to public employee unions.

While special interests in the nation’s capitol are well represented, well funded and not shy about wielding influence, they are also held in check by competing special interests. Wall Street investment banks’ special pleading is 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.

At the state and local level, however, 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, county or city, are dispersed too broadly to generate effective opposition, even though those costs, cumulatively, may be crippling to a local government.

This is why public  employee pensions in Los Angeles, Stockton, San Jose and many other California cities are unsustainable, yet pensions for federal government employees are not. This is why public school teachers, local banks, ultility companies and police are able to dictate their legislative agendas in city halls and state capitols, but have far, far less clout at the federal level.

Not that the federal government–Congress, the bureaucracies and the White House–are a model of democratic enlightenment. Hardly! Transparency, it turns out, is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for good government. And the checks and balances of the federal system sometimes produce only gridlock.

But Draper’s far-fetched proposal to balkanize the golden state is not a solution. The down-sizing and localizing of government tends to give special interests greater power, not less.

Peter Scheer is executive director of the First Amendment Coalition. This column reflects his views only; it does not necessarily reflect the views of the FAC Board of Directors. 






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One Response to Ballot measure to subdivide CA assumes smaller government is closer to voters. But it’s also closer to special interests.

  1. Richard Knee March 26, 2014 at 2:47 am #

    The size of government is not nearly as important as the competence, intentions and integrity of the people in it.

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