16 July 2013

Local/Decentralised Power and the Regional/Corporate Override

Checks and Balances is a concept we all learned about in our high school civics class. This Separation of Powers was a key concept in the mind of the Founders and framers of the new republic. By breaking up power into many pieces and distributing it among different bodies, no one person or group could garner too much power. Everyone would be accountable and if someone did manage to grab power there was both a process and a timetable that could take it away from them.

Starting with the Federal government and working down from there, the American tradition has been to break up and segment power. If there’s a need, create a specially tasked committee that can focus on that specific problem. As our society has grown more complex, the need has arisen to create committees and regulatory bodies to deal with infrastructure, policy, the judiciary, business etc…

In addition with the complexity of our society it's necessary to task people that are trained or educated within the specific area. The people can be represented in the Congress and the Presidency. These people will help to establish overall policy but in terms of the day to day administration, very few people in the congress are qualified. No one president or senator can really be an expert on commerce, transportation, the military, foreign policy, treasury and currency issues, health policy etc… It’s impossible. So there are a multitude of technocratic experts and bureaucrats that actually make the government work.

Though many who go into these fields exhibit sociopathic and certainly megalomaniacal tendencies, they are checked by the limitations of the bureaucracy and the fact that (in theory) they’re accountable to other parallel structures as well as higher levels of the bureaucracy going all the way up to the state governor or in the federal system…the president.

Unfortunately it doesn’t work because as I’ve mentioned above the bureaucracies become self-serving institutions that lose sight of their task or mission and end up pursuing self-justification. Government jobs pay well enough but compared to the private sector they often lack any real lustre. While there are definitely some true-hearted people that want to do good and serve society, many are in fact substandard or at best mediocre performers. Some are looking for security, a steady job and a pension. Others are indeed lusting for power. I’ve encountered all types as I’m sure many readers have as well.

The philosophical principle behind bureaucratization is a good one. Break up power and have local bodies that can deal with local problems. But in practice because of the sinful nature of man…and some additional problems, not only does it not work, it can become an absolute nightmare.

One factor that exacerbates this is what I’ve identified as regional government. This may sound strange but maybe you’ll see where I’m coming from.

Just the other day I brought my son with me to work. I’m remodeling an office space in the downtown of a rural county seat. On a regular basis I have to deal with the folks at city hall. I’ve taken my son in with me and I point out the police and fire department, the parking division, the tax office, the water office, and then (after getting our post 11 September Patriot Act clearance) we head downstairs to the building and zoning department. On the way we pass the public works office.

And as you might imagine as we walk and drive around we talk about things and he’s picked up on all the redundancy. There’s the city works offices with their plow trucks, salt piles etc… and then there’s the state level depots with all their equipment and stockpiles. There are also individual townships with all of the same. There are local tax offices, city tax offices, and of course county and state tax offices. There are the local police, the county sheriffs, the state police and the occasional FBI agents coming into town. There’s the county lockup, state and federal prisons, sometimes within a relatively short distance of one another. Then there’s the local district magistrates, the county courts, state courts, federal courts etc…

Again, the principle is a good one. No one tax official or judge can take too much power, though some certainly do. But in addition to the dispersal of power comes not only all the bureaucracy…but everything that goes with it. There’s another office, another secretary, computers, file cabinets, vehicles, forms, desks, chairs, electric and heating bills, lawn care, snow removal, parking lot repaving, roof repair, furnace replacement, carpet, Christmas parties…etc…etc…[i]

Not only does this amount to a stunning waste of money but it creates a culture of security and stagnation. This is why when I visit government offices I seem to notice the same people are always talking in the hallway drinking coffee, always happy to talk your ear off…leaving you in an awkward position. You’re thinking, ‘would you please shut up and sign off on the form so I can get back to work’ but you don’t dare push them because if you irritate them they can throw not only speed bumps but roadblocks in your path. It can be even worse in small towns because last names carry great weight and in other cases if you’re not properly ‘known’ then immediately there is great suspicion and an almost automatic downshift in speed and attention. At times I have been so maddened by it that I’ve literally refused to do business in certain towns…just because I can’t stand to deal with them.

The idea of local government is often destroyed by the imposition of state laws and regulations. I’ll give an example.

In my state, the Uniform Construction Code was introduced in 2004. Prior to this, decisions were made locally. In the town in which I’m now working I would go down to the local office, file for a permit and the local official and I would talk about what I was doing. He would visit the site a few times and we would work out the best way to be safe and practical. All my electrical and plumbing work was done according to national codes and basic standard practices with regard to things like carpentry. The decisions we made were with regard to design.

What kind of firewall was needed to isolate a first floor commercial space from a second level residential? Things of that nature.

With the introduction of the Uniform Code, that man no longer works there and the office which once was a part-time position is now inhabited by four people. And yet not only can I no longer get an answer to a phone call, I can’t get any answers at all.

All of those common sense decisions now have to be determined by architect or engineer. I certainly know how to repair a ceiling a joist, but now the property owner has to pay hundreds and often thousands to have drawings done up that show me what? Scab a board on with some construction adhesive and use a good number of proper size screws?

Normally conservative Christians are clamouring for State Rights v. the Federal government. I’ve come to the conclusion that the state can be just as much of an imposition and equally a destroyer of localism and local autonomy.

In rural towns, with old dilapidated buildings, the imposition of state building codes and other laws have basically turned the downtowns into wastelands. It’s almost impossible and certainly hyper-cost prohibitive to fix up these old buildings. We used to be able to do it…using local standards and common sense.

Now it’s virtually impossible. The state as a regional means of checking federal power has actually just made our situation worse. In the end the people in the state capital are just as removed from local realities as the people in Washington DC.

People find it strange that in Britain they basically have Local Councils and the Parliament….essentially no regional bodies. Some might argue their country is a lot smaller than the United States. I would agree and I think a major problem America has is that it’s far too big.

This problem of regionalism is not restricted to the realm of construction. Similar problems are occurring with regard to schools and a combination of bureaucratic culture and state regulation has proved a formula for fiscal disaster.

In states like New Jersey the combination of state regulatory requirements and the absurd number of school districts has strangled the state. Just think about the fact that the average superintendent makes well over $100,000 a year. With about 600 school districts…that’s staggering. And then when you add all the staff and their benefits and their pensions...

Just recently we were driving through a nearby town located in a county of under 100,000 people. I noticed this large building…. ‘What’s that?’ I thought. It was the administrative offices for the school district. It’s a pretty rural county with only a handful of schools. Why do they need all of that? Why is it that children growing up in old rural (often 1 room) schoolhouses were more educated and literate than today’s crop? Obviously there’s a lot that could be said there, but from the standpoint of bureaucracy, cost, regulation etc… what’s it all for? They’re failing, and the level failure is to say the least…astonishing.

Now when you add in factors like litigation and liability, the costs quickly escalate. Not only do the individual bureaucracies have to worry about being sued but in the complex networking of private-public partnerships there are a host of tangles and traps. The city I mentioned above with the quadrupled bureaucracy is not qualified to do most of the required inspections. They have to subcontract this task to someone who drives from over an hour away and makes out pretty well I might add. This person actually wields vast power and there’s a reticence from all parties to challenge his overreach and sometimes ignorance. In the end we’re often dealing with pseudo-science or very obtrusive regulations like the Americans with Disabilities Act which often adds (and certainly has in the case of my present project) thousands to the cost of the project.

The insurance industry doesn’t want the lone city official making decisions about fire codes, structural issues, egress, hardware, signage and lighting. The insurance industry wants uniform standards. They want things spelled out so they can appeal to data in a courtroom. This is also why virtually everything we buy has to pass through the Underwriter’s Laboratory or some other insurance industry racket.

While the law and lawyers do serve a valid function within society there are many that are certainly parasitic and ultimately cancerous. Their activities while sometimes holding people to account all too often lead to stricter regulations and safeguards. And all too often the insurance industry and their lawyers are the ones actually writing many of our laws. This is true with the building codes and certainly our traffic laws and automobile standards. They are not our good neighbours and we’re not in good hands. These sectors represent some of the most poisonous elements in our society that have essentially removed most of our local and personal freedoms in order for them to maintain profitability. And frankly they own most of our legislatures who at times seem to exist only to do their bidding.

The government maintains a fiction of holding the bureaucracy in check by its commitment to the private sector, often in the form of public-private partnerships. But sadly this only worsens the bureaucracy and causes many private companies to function very much like government agencies. State regulations disallow these entities to adhere to or accommodate local custom. In the end the ‘market’ isn’t allowed to work anyway. Instead the government contract is basically the safeguard of monopoly. Profits are privatized and losses are socialized…passed on to the public through the raising of rates. This is all approved by the regulatory bodies which in addition to being another bureaucracy are governed by laws that are usually not in the public interest and are committed to never allowing the true forces of the market to work.

As one famous vocalist said, “We’re caught in a trap,” and we certainly can’t walk out.  But as I’ve mentioned I find it ironic that many of the people I know who are so critical of one or more of the aspects I’ve mentioned are themselves intimately tied in with or dependent upon the system they’re critiquing.

Even those of us who are against it, find it difficult to escape all contact and interaction.


1 comment:

Eliyahu BenYsrael said...

Good observation that State level government can often be as ineffective, and cumbersome as the federal. It's human corruption, not the form of governance, which gives bad results.