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Covid-19 Response Casts Doubts on the Value of Local Control

"Why should I trade one tyrant three thousand miles away for three thousand tyrants one mile away?"

     Mel Gibson, The Patriot 

There is a common sentiment, especially prevalent among those who lean to the right, that local control is preferable to state control. Perhaps it comes from the Jeffersonian proposition that, “The government closest to the people serves the people best.” Perhaps it is an offshoot of federalism - if states’ rights are preferable to national government, then local control must, by logical extension, be preferable to state control. But is that necessarily true? 

Recent responses to Covid-19 offer a case study. While the state of Oklahoma has wisely refrained from issuing restrictions on businesses, commerce, and free movement, the same cannot be said for all of her cities. Norman’s mayor and city council have been so abusive in their policies that they face recall elections. Edmond, responding to a “surge,” acted quickly: they swiftly voted to enact a mask mandate that would start 4 weeks later - long after the “surge” had declined. Oklahoma City and Tulsa made sure their schools would be closed to the children they are entrusted to educate, right up until the national election. And then there was that little incident where Oklahoma City’s schools were only mostly closed. Unless you’re a VIP. These were all the acts of local government run amuck. 

The question then, since it’s obvious that local government does not always do the right thing, while state government can't even be counted on to consistently do the wrong thing, is whether there are advantages to local control. If your rights are being trampled, does it matter very much whether it's the mighty U.S. Government, the State of Oklahoma, or a small municipality doing the trampling? It is easier to escape the jurisdiction of a local government, but it is not significantly less intrusive to have to do so. Abuse by local government isn’t any less wrong. And if someone tries to vindicate their rights in court, a thumb is placed on the scales of justice in favor of local government, just as it would be for state and national government. They enjoy the same presumption that their actions are “right,” or at least “not wrong enough for the courts to step in.” 

Are precious individual freedoms any safer in the hands of local government? Local governments seize millions of dollars in civil asset forfeiture actions each year. Local police execute no-knock warrants. Local governments require permits to build on private land and permits to work. They abuse zoning powers. They abuse taxing powers. In short: they abuse citizens. 

Federalism is a valuable guardian of freedom - the states guard against abuse of power by the national government, and the national government guards against abuse by the states. As the national government grows, the power of the states to fulfill their side of the bargain wanes. Adding a layer of local control is not the answer. Instead of tugging against the power of either the state or the national government, local governments tend to add another layer of abuse. They frequently require citizens to ask additional permission to work, to use their land, and to run their businesses. These are burdens government should impose cautiously, if at all, at any level. The country is rife with overregulation. Oklahoma regulates to the hilt. The U.S. Government regulates to the hilt. Anything left unregulated by these two entities should remain unregulated.

A common statement by those in favor of local control is that government should happen at the most local level competent to handle it. The idea is that some problems, like national defense or air pollution, require national solutions, while others, like property crime, are best handled at the local level. But perhaps we give cities too much credit. What are their competencies? 

Oklahoma City can't even keep the traffic lights running when it rains, much less keep the roads smooth. Perhaps the solution is to limit local governments to only those jobs which require local attention. A state or national government will not do a good job making sure potholes get filled. That is something local government should surely be in charge of. Utilities, trash collection (to the extent that any government should be involved in an activity so ripe for privatization), and providing a police force and fire department are additional areas of local competency. 

Notice that none of these jobs are in any way alluring. They are uncontroversial (setting aside the current nonsense surrounding the police). They do not have the makings of a launchpad to a political career. Perhaps that is for the best. Leave the controversial policymaking to state and national officials. If local government is charged only with making sure things work, then they can also be judged solely on how well they make things work. There would be no reason for a local official to spout their political beliefs. They would be accountable for the smooth operation of the few spheres of local government influence. This would likely improve those areas, while also keeping one extra layer of abuse off the backs of the citizenry. 

We don’t need another layer of squabbling politicians. Leave that to the state and national governments. State policies limiting the power of cities to their vital functions can remove the politics and open these jobs to true public servants. Fewer politicians, more public servants, and better public service. What's not to like?

Mike Davis is a Research Fellow at 1889 Institute. He can be reached at The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of 1889 Institute.

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