The role of a central government

“The ability of the global system to dampen instability and prevent failure is nearing zero. We have neither the organizational frameworks necessary for global governance nor the precise tools of global policy required… Any chance of real global change must start at the ground level by correcting the true sources of the problem and spread virally. Resilient communities eliminate nearly all of the drivers towards global instability and mitigate the effects of instability already in the system. It’s self-reinforcing.” —John Robb

Gay marriage and guns. Abortion and school prayer. These are issues that these days can bring Americans to blows with one another. Ask either side on any of these issues and they’ll assure you that the other side is completely insane.

The basic problem is fear: fear that “they” will change the way “we” want to live. And I’ll admit, having lived in both urban and rural America: guns make no sense in the city, and same sex couples don’t make out in public in a rural village. These are two different worlds, and trying to impose the rules of one on the other makes as much sense as saying birds and fish ought to exchange habitats.

But here’s the real problem: because power is held nationally, both groups want to impose their will on the other, fearing the other will impose its will on them.

Imagine for a moment that each community could set its own rules about most things. Take gay marriage, for example: any community could allow gay marriage.  Doubtless many wouldn’t.  But homosexuals who lived in the latter community and felt strongly about the issue would likely move to the former. (There aren’t a lot of gays on the frontier, but there are a few.)

Some will argue that this solution isn’t fair, but consider an analogy: there’s no synagogue in my town. Jews who feel strongly about living near a synagogue aren’t going to live here. My neighbor, however, is an ultra-orthodox Jewish rabbi; he teaches Old Testament at the local Methodist church. It’s worth it to him to make accommodations in order to live where he wants.  With respect to gay marriage, we’re talking about a political environment in which one community’s restriction or non-restriction of a certain activity has no effect on any other community’s treatment of that activity.

Likewise, if guns are restricted in some communities but not in others, people who feel strongly will choose their community accordingly. The issue with local gun control is transience: people in Los Angeles have the ability to drive to Las Vegas and buy a gun and be home the same day. So local gun control doesn’t work. But reduce transience, create cohesive communities where people know each other and live their lives together, and local gun control would make more sense.

Our nation’s current polarization stems in part from a desire to standardize laws at the national level– something our founders would have found objectionable.  We struggle to agree on divisive issues on which there is no national consensus.  I propose that we cannot standardize all laws nationwide (worldwide?) without infringing on the rights of those who disagree with us.  Most people choose to live among people with similar views, so community-level regulation makes sense.  Here’s a rule of thumb: if you want to paint your house purple, don’t buy in a Homeowner’s Association that says you can’t.  It’s that simple.

Clearly, though, there has to be a limit to how much a local community can restrict the rights of others. Where that limit is has to be determined by some combination of democratic and judicial action.  Can a community eject a minority group from its midst? Restrict a group’s right to own property?  Institute slavery? Some form of oversight and enforcement is needed, and that means a central government.

In addition to protection of rights, Adam Smith postulated in 1776 that certain necessary functions cannot be adequately provided by the market– and some cannot be provided by the community, either.  Roads and bridges between communities, national standards of weights and measures, and even certain environmental policies (especially as they relate to those who live downstream) will need to be addressed at a level higher than the community.  And there’ll be some judicial wrangling as the balance of power shifts.  Where exactly is that line where a community infringes on its members’ rights or the rights of another community?

There remains a role for central government in our community-based future.  Still, the Principle of Subsidiarity ought always to be invoked: “a central authority should have a subsidiary function, performing only those tasks which cannot be performed effectively at a more immediate or local level.”  What those functions are will be determined as geography, societal complexity, and environmental challenges dictate.


  1. “Yeah, if you don’t like the laws, just leave!”

    I did! And people do all the time, choosing their communities to find like-minded people. That’s why HOAs work. That’s why LA has gun control and SLC doesn’t. I mean, get real! Can you implement a single set of laws nationwide (worldwide?) that will satisfy everyone? Hardly. That’s called imperialism– and that’s what both Dems and GOP have been trying to ram down our throats for a couple of generations now.

  2. So, you don’t like big government, and you think if I’m not happy with the state of the things I should get out?

    Please explain to me why you get to speak for “the left” as opposed to the GOP, Grover Norquist, or somebody else who might actually agree with you? You’re a terrible leftist.*

    *meant with all due respect. I always enjoy your pieces, though I can’t say I really agree with them 😉

  3. Hi UJ, Sue here again, pointing out the difference between “Bob” and “DJ Mitchell”.

    “DJ Mitchell”, the author of this piece, could be described as a small-r republican — *perhaps* (but I think he’s too community-minded for that) — I don’t think he’s ever been a leftist, terrible or otherwise.

    As noted before in this forum, DJ’s background as I understand and definitely over-summarize it, this: * was born and raised in rural New Hampshire among the grumpy Yankees, * moved to sprawling, urban, industrial Los Angeles for the typical 70’s-80’s boom-bust wild ride, * received advanced degree in theology from Loyola Marymount (though he’s a Buddhist), * worked for a number of years as a peace worker with Sarvodaya in Sri Lanka, * returned recently to his roots, in a way, by moving with his wife to quite rural Utah to embrace farming. He returns to Sri Lanka occasionally at Sarvodaya’s request to help implement a peace plan for which he is a primary author. He’s quite concerned about global warming, overpopulation, and the overconsumption of the world’s resources by the West, which he blogs about at

    He brings his own view of politics, conflict and law, resulting from this life experience, to this forum. I don’t think that Bob necessarily agrees with his points? And that said, Bob may also be, as you said, a terrible lefty, he’s been purged for marrying a CPA, after all. A lawyer, that would have been okay, they can get you out of jail after the protest. But a CPA? They just count the capitalist loot.

  4. Bob, you’re right– there are activities that are (and should be) univerally considered criminal. I won’t get into the heroin issue, as I tend to think criminalization is a right-wing capitalist conspiracy fomenting huge amounts of cash profits. But I would certainly agree that violence, revolutionary or otherwise, has no place in society. (Yes, I’m a Gandhian.) The issue of enforcement becomes problematic– what if a small group or even an entire community refuse to bend to the consensus of the larger whole? At some point, the needs of the many outweigh those of the few. Piracy and banditry, for example, cannot be tolerated.

    Ultimately, in the absence of anarchy (which I do not support), someone’s toes get stepped on. But that’s what a judiciary is for: to weigh these issues and decide how far a consensus can impose on the rights of others.

    Sue, thanks for the bio. I waved the Manifesto around when I was young, but then I got out and saw the real world. From that point on, my views began to change. I surely no Marxist– but I argue that the change Marxism advocates is no longer radical, nor is it appropriate to the challenges we face as a planet.

    UJ: I don’t speak for the conventional Left, nor am I a Republican (capitalized or otherwise). I advocate what has become a radical, peaceful, and powerful force for change in many places in the world: community-based government. That’s a position you won’t see on any conventional political platform, Left or Right. And the main reason is this: there’s no power to be had.

  5. Here is the flaw with your analogy (the Jew and the gay):

    The Jew that feels strongly about his religion and stays in a non-Jewish community still has the protection of law. If someone attacks him because he is Jewish, tries to fire him from his job, or bar him from visiting a friend in the hospital because he is Jewish, he has the force of law on his side. Because religion, in general, is a protected class. Gay people in the same situations DON”T have protection of law. In fact, in many communities, they have laws explicitly calling out that they do NOT have the same rights as someone that “chooses” a Jewish “lifestyle”.

    The gay rights movement isn’t about special rights; it’s about equal rights. How would you feel if you had no legal rights where you lived? How about if you moved to a new community to get legal rights, only to have those rights stripped away a few months later by a religious group from another state throwing millions in false advertising to influence the sheeple? You’re basically arguing it’s ok to treat gays the way the early Nazi party treated gypsies. If they don’t like the local laws, they can just move. And local communities should be allowed to make laws regulating how their community works. (Can’t wait for slavery to re-assert itself in the south, with that logic.)

    While I agree some things (like gun control laws) are a harder egg to crack, since their use IS different in rural and urban settings, basic human rights are not. The fact that you can’t tell the two apart, and indeed argue they’re the same, shows a profound lack of logical thinking.

  6. You’re arguing that gays have NO rights? I think you need to get out more. Every human being, even the non-citizen, has basic rights in this country (though they’ve been steadily eroded by those who argue security is more important than freedom).

    Gays do not have the right to marry in all communities because there is no consensus. That consensus is unreachable at present because we haven’t yet addressed the underlying issue– that Church and State are not separated in this regard. Our language doesn’t even distinguish between sacramental marriage (which cannot be regulated by the State) and civil marriage (which must be regulated by the State). While I think that’s wrong, I also don’t see it as a cut-and-dried issue on which we should impose one view on everyone– it’s going to have to get worked out over time.

    We can find (and are finding) consensus by community– but you’re right: on the national front, there’s much meddling between communities. If communities decided such matters independently, with no expectation that it would set a national precedent, the Mormons in SLC wouldn’t care what y’all do in CA. But we’re decades away from a national consensus, and it could go either way.

    Meanwhile, go to Batticaloa, Sri Lanka, where the issue is not whether Tamils can marry– but whether they’ll live long enough to marry without being detained or killed by one side or the other. See the kids without arms and legs. Talk to the women whose husbands have been disappeared, never to be seen again. Look at the statistics for children abducted to fight on one side or the other. Then let’s talk about the magnitude of denial of rights.

  7. Sue – No worries in confusing Bob for DJ, I was just first exposed to him with his series of essays which had a running “leftist” theme so I probably just got “left” lodged in the brain and just went with it. However I should say that I have nothing against Bob’s fraternization with capitalists, I’m what you’d call a big-L Liberal. I like Big Government and we need you number crunchers to pay for our space program 😉

    DJ – That makes much more sense. I probably just picked “left” out and started conflating it with liberal and well, the mouth will run, sorry. Unfortunately, knowing your true political leanings now and with me being such a big liberal, I’m sorry but I had to call the secret police on your hippy seditious ass. Please put your hands over your head and await retrieval. (enjoying asymptotic life btw! just subscribed)

    Woody – Minus the little fable about “the gay and the jew,” I actually totally agree with you. What you describe is what keeps me awake, the perfect nightmare of Ron Paul’s America. Basically, New York and Los Angeles separated by Afghanistan. A great many things, I think, must be pressed by the larger government, redneck opinion be damned.

  8. DJ again – Or we could also talk about the Tamil’s own death squads,violent raids, and use of female suicide bombers. My point isn’t to dilute the suffering of the Sri Lankan people at all, but rather to say that your segue way from gay rights to the Sri Lankan conflict is bullshit. The fact that somebody else in the world might have their own problems doesn’t mean that we can’t keep fighting for rights over here one tiny bit. What do you think we’re supposed to take away from that? “Yeah, you’re right, life sucks in Sri Lanka, I guess it’s cool if my stupid lame-o right to marry gets taken away.” That’s crazy talk, who actually prioritizes their life like that? I don’t think I could get out of bed in the morning carrying the cross for every last starving child in Africa.

    It really just mucks up the debate. PLEASE blog about Tamils, I would love reading something other than “Tamil Menace Strikes Again!” or some other reactionary crap. Right now the only big press covering them is the Counter/Terrorism trade rags, and as you can imagine, they’re not exactly full spectrum human narratives. However, dude was talking about gay rights, not Sri Lanka. Weak move.

  9. Sorry, but I get annoyed when Americans of various stripes (but especially Leftists) start whining about the downtrodden in America. Unless you’re talking about the homeless or the worst rural poverty (northern Maine and Appalachia), even what ranks as poverty in this country is pretty far above the world’s median. As a nation, we live in luxury on the backs of 1/2 the world. Let’s call it by it’s right name: Our lifestyle kills people.

    Forgive me if (having seen how the other half lives) I don’t take the right of homosexuals to marry as a life-threatening issue on the global stage. Something I’d like to see happen, sure, but compared to global warming, exported violence, and continuing economic exploitation (which both Left and Right participate in)– not so important. And let me be clear: if you denied ME the right to marry, I’d feel the same way– still not so important an issue.

    As to the Tamil question, I’m very clear in my posts that the Tamil people, especially the Eastern Tamils, are at the mercy of all the combatants, including their supposed spokespeople. I plan to write more about Sri Lanka in the near future on Asymptotic Life. If Bob wants a cross-post, I’d be happy to do it.

  10. DJ, you’re such a poser. I NEVER argued that gay people have NO rights. I said we are fighting for EQUAL rights, not “special” rights.

    What you were saying here is that gays getting married is a special right, that each community should decide on it’s own. Every other group gets this “privilege” to marry, and thousands of laws are written around this “religious” union. We’re asking for rights equal to any other couple that decides to commit their lives to one another and start a family. When you have one man that can marry a woman and get thousands of protections and tax breaks, and another man that can’t because his spouse is a man, does that sound like all men being created equally?

    And I did say I AGREED that the government shouldn’t be involved in marriage. But this government IS, and has been since it’s inception, deeply involved in this process. They issue licenses to allow it, and declare what they recognize and don’t recognize by issuing or NOT issuing said licenses. The other problem is that the laws for this are already on the books using the word “marriage”, and as I stated earlier, changing thousands of laws at the federal, state, and county levels is much harder than simply allowing marriage at a federal level. Period.

    >Meanwhile, go to Batticaloa, Sri Lanka…

    Oh wah… You know what… there will always be fighting, and war, and genocide and poor people. Even Christ said “For ye have the poor always with you; but me ye have not always.” Yes, it’s sad that there’s a genocide going on half way around the planet. But I see you don’t mention that gay and lesbian people are being hunted down and killed in IRAQ, where we’re still mainly in control. Or in several other countries, where being gay is enough to get you killed.

    Just because injustice happens somewhere else, doesn’t justify it happening HERE. Slavery still exists in several countries too, should we allow that here in the US? Ritual killing still occurs in the middle east, should we allow that to happen here too? There are starving children in India, do you flog yourself when leftovers spoil in your fridge? Using tragedy elsewhere to justify bigotry in this country is pitiful, and wrong, and you know it.

    I notice though all this, you rail against me for something I DIDN’T say, but don’t address anything that I DID say. Where’s your righteous indignation when it comes to people being kicked out of social services or being fired, or evicted from their apartments, just for being gay. Or being denied the right to make medical decisions for their children when in states that don’t recognize their domestic partnership?

    No.. Much better to pontificate about those poor people in Sri Lanka, where you have no power to do anything about it, then to take up a cause that you can affect locally, using the legal system you live in. Poser.

  11. “I notice though all this, you rail against me for something I DIDN’T say, but don’t address anything that I DID say.”

    Lot of that going around, Woody. I DID say that I agree gay people ought to have the right to marry. But they don’t and it’s not that high on my list of prioroties.

    I DIDN’T say that I ignore those countries in which homosexuals are killed. It appalls me– as does ethnic slaughter and economic exploitation. But I do love it when people believe in global community except when they might have to give something up.

    “There are starving children in India, do you flog yourself when leftovers spoil in your fridge? ” You bet your ass I do. I’ve met some of those starving children. Nothing goes to waste in our home so far as we can help it.

    As for being a poser, I feel strongly enough about global responsibility that I have worked hard to meet and understand the situation of those who really are the world’s downtrodden– including two years in Sri Lanka both in and out of the war zone. I’m proud to say that though I played only a small part, I was a member of a team that helped push through the 2002 Cease-Fire Agreement. And one of my great regrets is that we dropped the ball after the CFA went into effect– and you can see the results of that on the news pretty regularly.

    You may not agree with me, but I’ve dedicated my life to doing what I believe needs to be done. I’ve put my money where my mouth is. Why don’t you look some of the people in the eye that I have, and then decide whether marriage ranks equal with life and freedom from torture as a right that ought to demand our attention.

  12. >But they don’t and it’s not that high on my list of prioroties.

    And there’s the base of it: It doesn’t affect you, so it’s not high up on your priorities. It’s easy to ignore an issue when it doesn’t affect you personally. If you were fighting to get coverage, that you paid double for, from your health insurance provider to cover a dieing partner that would by totally covered for free where their gender different, I bet you’d be concerned. If you had to worry about what happens to you, and your home, and the children you’re raising together if your partner dies, you’d be worried. If you had to fight an extended legal battle with the estranged in-laws over custody of your children, you’d be concerned. But that doesn’t affect you.

    You want me to look into the eyes of people who live in Sri Lanka?

    I want you to try looking into the eyes of a judge as she tells you you have no legal claim to keep children you’ve helped raise for over a decade, since you were only the domestic partner, and not a blood relative or a legal spouse. Then look into your own children’s eyes and tell them that daddy loves them, but grandma and grandpa think they’d be better off staying with them right now. Try doing that after hearing the horror stories your partner told you about the physical, mental, and sexual abuse he suffered as a child, wondering if they’ll be subjected to the same thing. Try all of that, knowing you have no legal footing to gain custody. Then try living miles from them after that, with no visitation rights, knowing that if you try to visit, or move to be near the children the same court system would throw you in jail because of a restraining order, signed by an out of state judge that was told they needed to “protect the children” from an “evil homosexual”.

    It’s great that you were able to go to Sri Lanka and change things there. Bravo… But not all of us can afford to do that, monetarily or responsibility wise.

    I’m sorry, but in my case, and in MANY cases out there, having these rights IS about freedom and stopping torture. It may not be as visible as a blown off limb. There are no explosions, and the hospitals can’t identify the victims as clearly as they could in the case of a land-mine going off. You won’t see the abuse and torture going on, because it won’t be on the evening news, outside of a rare extreme case where a child dies because of it. It’s there though, with just as many victims, and just as much anguish.

    But that doesn’t affect you… not a high priority.

    It affects me. That’s why I fight for it. And having someone say it’s a trivial issue, and something we shouldn’t focus on because there are more important things to talk about…

    But it doesn’t affect you. So how important could it be?

  13. Yikes, what a convoluted argument!

    You think health care access affects only homosexuals? I’m not eligible for my wife’s plan, and last summer my insurer jacked up my rates to 85% of the average income for our county. And they weren’t embarrassed about it, either. I think that’s criminal– but not so high on my list of priorities that I’m out protesting about it. I was denied financial aid in my last year of college despite a 3.96 GPA because of age discrimination– but I don’t even count that among the issues I’m concerned with.

    I looked in the eyes of a judge who sentenced a friend of mine to 36 years to life for getting in a fight with another drunk outside a 7-Eleven store. She said the law gave her no choice. Another criminality, and far worse than whether he can get health insuurance or marry. It really makes me angry– barring a miracle in the appeals process, he’s going to die in prison. But on the scale of global priorities it’s a pretty small issue.

    My uncle, who was like a father to me, had to hide the fact that he was homosexual or the school he taught at would have fired him. That’s not right– but again, on the scale of wrongs it doesn’t even come close to the top.

    I live far better than 3/4 of the world’s population– and my household income is above the national median of $31K. Today. Tomorrow may be different– and when I started working overseas regularly, it WAS different. I had no assets and little income– I worked in exchange for room and board. At the time, lots of people told me, “I wish I could do that.” They could if they wanted to, but cable TV was a higher priority for them. They wouldn’t even have to travel that far– I’ve helped build schools in Tijuana, and there’s plenty of work to be done there too.

    You argue that if it doesn’t affect me I don’t care about it. I disagree. And if you think equal right to marriage is an issue worth risking your life for, go for it. For me, though, I don’t see too many issues in this country that compare with the injustice of real poverty. And yes, after getting warned by the LTTE that I was asking too many questions, I’ve stopped doing field work. But that doesn’t mean it’s dropped on my list of priorities.

  14. Half my brain is saying “stay out of it,” and the other half is urging “perhaps it’s agree to disagree time.”

    It just seems kind of silly (to me) that two principled & passionate fellows are disputing. Neither of you would put a penny toward, nor vote for, nor support in any way, curtailing the civil rights of any group.

    I believe that we all have a specific purpose, and wait for that proper employment like a drawer full of tools. “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few,” as Jesus said. It’s a good thing to be stirred up and filled with a fire for the business of Justice.

    The questions I ask myself don’t have so much to do with Comparative Causes 101, but more along the lines of “Am I doing enough? What can I do more? Where can I help?”

    I also know that Susan can’t Save the World. I can only do what I can only do. And one of those things is to donate money to World Vision, which is sent to development projects outside the country. These projects are focused on sustainable development and improving the living standards of children and the entire community.

    One piece of good news is the Chikwina/Mpamba project in Malawi just installed solar electricity in 13 schools – a first for them. They also report they are now “food secure,” have been able to build more permanent houses that don’t leak when it rains, and have greatly reduced infant and maternal mortality. Small steps that perhaps will help lead to real change over time.

  15. Sue, thanks for bringing us back on topic. Your support of World Vision is just one example of how we as individuals can (and should) do what a central government cannot.

    In the era of nationalism, wealth concentrated not so much along class lines but in nations. No national government worth its salt will donate money to anyone unless it was in their national interest (and if it was, they wouldn’t care much about how effectively it’s spent). It’s nice to develop higher incomes as long as they spend it on products made in your country. It’s nice to develop recources if you can buy them on the cheap. And you can send in an army if there’s oil to be had or influence to be peddled. Sell them antiquated weapons on credit and get payments for eternity. Otherwise, let the people rot– they’re obviously lazy or they wouldn’t be so poor. (And yes, both capitalist and communist governments have been guilty of this behavior.)

    When Sarvodaya in Sri Lanka clashed with its increasingly conservative donors during the Reagan/Thatcher era, the classic example of that clash was a British aid rep who, when touring a village project, asked one of the villagers to “demonstrate the spritual nature” of the work going on. I actually heard one donor rep (also British, coincidentally) say, “If we can’t measure it, we don’t care about it.” Which means that such things as democracy, happiness, and even quality of life are pretty much irrelevant. Another (an African-born natruralized American) called the language spoken by the majority in Sri Lanka a “dead language”– even though it’s spoken by about 16 million people.

    These and other governments, who were the major donors back then, came in with a model and a set of statistics to be met. Some of their reps truly cared about the welfare of the people, others didn’t. But the bosses back home pretty much cared about numbers they could put in their reports.

    Caring is an individual action. Governments and corporations don’t have the capacity to care. Only individuals do. And Sue is right: no one of us can save the world. But together as communities we just might.

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