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.