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Ne nous ennuyez pas, petite bourgeoisie (Part 1 of 2)

In many places in the U.S. it is difficult to keep abreast of all the issues that have potential to affect life, loved ones or property. I don’t live in a big city, yet I am subject to many layers of government that ought to be watched and many times countered. Assuming one is willing and capable, you could devote large chunks of time to attending meetings and speaking with or writing to officials and still miss important issues.

I’m not suggesting that you give up before you start. The net result of that would be the same as apathy, which is a huge reason why government officials and agencies too often get away with doing as they please. But anyway…

I just mean that although there’s a high probability that you can affect issues in some way if you try, the deck is stacked against you keeping up with all the governmental bodies that make rules, regulations and spending decisions that affect you. In my neighborhood, that’s the county commission and its various arms, the school board and the state house and senate. Most of us living in unincorporated areas of the county also have a vested interest in one or more of its cities, as we shop, work or travel around in them. Plus there are regional commissions, statewide agencies – probably too many to reasonably list or keep up with. I’m leaving out the federal government entirely because it’s difficult to have any input at that level and I think it’s a lost cause. Though I’ll write the occasional e-mail to a federal official, I feel time is better spent locally and at the state level.

Lesser citizenry
Hello, lesser citizens.

Even when restricting oneself to a local focus, in my area these bodies collectively have several legislative sessions per month. There are also several work sessions per month. Plus committee meetings. County meetings are held during the work day, which makes attendance difficult for the majority of citizens. The school board – which controls around 70% of our tax dollars – meets at a time that conflicts with city council meetings. Outside of these meetings there have been, by the time of their associated legislative meetings, numerous committee and related board meetings, at which issues are discussed and decisions made. The goal seems to be to have it all done but the voting by the time it gets to the “big” meeting the public is most likely to attend (or watch online, in some cases). Though the public is allowed to attend meetings of committees and lesser bodies, most people don’t. Even assuming good news coverage – lacking, where I live – citizens who don’t attend meetings only hear about some issues, which are naturally framed with the particular reporter’s perspective.

The reality is that if you really want to hear about and affect issues, being there to watch and comment when they’re being considered is best by a long shot. Every meeting I’m unable or unwilling to attend carries with it some sort of implied consent –  like letting a teenager out of the house with the car keys. You can’t be sure which ones will act responsibly when you’re not watching them.

Engraving of a meeting of the Roman Senate
Meeting of the Roman Senate (Credit: Wikipedia)

The more layers of government you have, the more difficult it is for citizens to understand and provide input into issues. As citizens leave more tasks to their governments, government size, power and spending grow. Some people are very liberal and think fairer outcomes will result from taking decisions out of the hands of the average citizen (at least until their government makes a decision they don’t like and are in a weak position to change). But I think most people are middle-of-the-road: apathetic until government affects them in a negative way.

At the other end of the spectrum you have libertarians, who recognize a natural order of human rights and responsibilities that gets mucked up in direct proportion to the amount of government involvement, because government people have selfish motives just like other types of humans. Most of us understand that less government and more self-responsibility can be messy as it sorts itself out, but we are okay with it because we prefer short-term pain to government’s persistent mediocrity and, often, incompetence.

So, if you’re libertarian, or just think that there are too many layers of government for you to get your head around, what do you do? I mean, besides adopting attitudes of apathy and resignation? Try to fight it? That’s the honorable thing to do. However, government tends to grow, not shrink. It’s like it has to justify itself by creating more complexity that only it is willing to deal with, and it doesn’t help that an awful lot of people – even many so-called conservatives – think the government should solve many of their problems. Fighters are like the myth of the little Dutch boy who plugs a hole in a dam with his finger, saving his entire community. Except there are holes everywhere, and few willing to stand at the dam all night.

I have come to believe that there’s no alternative for people like me but to start over with fewer layers. Even if every single form of government in the U.S. vanished overnight, in most areas there are too many people with enough of a government-dependent mindset to do anything but immediately start rebuilding another government machine.

In tomorrow’s post, I’ll talk about a key New Hampshire difference that gives libertarians and other small-government types a fighting chance and then some. See you then.

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