Beware 'Grass-Roots Tyranny'

By Bill Steigerwald

Any citizen who has run afoul of a zealous township zoning officer knows local government can be just as dangerous to liberty as the federal government. What most people don't realize is that local government has been growing exponentially in size, scope and power.

Clint Bolick is all too familiar with what he calls "grass-roots tyranny." An attorney, he spent much of the 1990s working for school choice and defending property owners in Pittsburgh and elsewhere from eminent domain abuse with the libertarian Institute for Justice, which he co-founded.

His new book, "Leviathan: The Growth of Local Government and the Erosion of Liberty," details how freedom of speech, economic freedoms and private property rights are endangered by the very level of government that we often feel the most but monitor the least.

Bolick, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, is president of the Alliance for School Choice in Phoenix, which organizes support for school choice programs for economically or otherwise disadvantaged kids.

Q: Just how big is local government?

A: Local government now dwarfs the size of the national government. Starting in the 1960s, it began to surpass the size of national government and it is now roughly 50 percent larger. So when Bill Clinton said "The era of big government is over," he was wrong. It just moved to the suburbs.

Q: You say it is "voracious, far-reaching and recklessly deployed" -- how so?

A: Local government has gone beyond the types of services that we ordinarily expect, like police, fire, schools, snow removal, to take on all sorts of powers. (L)ocal government is operating services that were never imagined, such as water-slide parks and other recreational facilities that are properly private-sector activities. The streamlined local government that provided basic services is really an obsolete notion.

Q: But we always hear local government is better than federal.

A: Right, and I think generally speaking that is true. The trouble is, most people don't pay attention to their local government. Turnout in local elections, whether for bond issues that can seriously raise our taxes or school boards that affect the quality of our children's education, are abysmally low.

Q: What is the gravest threat to individual liberty posed by state and local governments?

A: The greatest threat is what I would call "the invisible governments." The hugest growth in recent years is in the form of special districts and regional authorities that are not even elected bodies, and most people don't realize that they exist. They are supposed to provide specific services, like water, or electricity or transportation, but these governmental entities have the power to tax, to issue bonds and to confiscate property. There is no one watching over them.

Q: You are also talking about school boards?

A: Definitely so. It's hard to imagine a governmental entity that has more power over the lives of real people than school boards. And yet in many school board elections, you'll see a 10 percent turnout. That makes school boards very susceptible to capture by special interest groups like teachers unions.

Q: Is this growing power of local governments something liberals and conservatives, and not just libertarians, should be equally worried about?

A: Absolutely. Oftentimes local governments violate civil liberties in ways that liberals would find offensive. Oftentimes they impose social engineering schemes that conservatives oppose.

Q: What's an example of how zoning can do harm to individual freedoms and cause trouble?

A: Zoning can be used to exclude people with moderate means from communities. Minimal lot sizes and other restrictive zoning efforts raise the price of homes and often place them out of reach for middle- or lower-income people. So zoning is a legitimate government power than can be abused. ... We probably would not have to subsidize housing for the poor if we were more careful about what types of zoning we allow, because it is zoning that dictates the price of housing.

Q: What about metropolitanism? It almost sounds like you are arguing in its favor.

A: No. On the contrary, I think that although some services probably could be provided more efficiently on a regional basis, what we have seen in recent years is that local government has grown bigger, and the larger the local government, the less responsive it will be to the needs of individual citizens. So the blurring of city lines and the adoption of powers by regional governments that often are mysterious to the average citizen is, I think, an alarming trend.

Q: How do you fight this "grass-roots tyranny," as you call it?

A: In a couple of ways. People need to pay as much if not more attention to their local politicians as they do their national politics. Your local school board member and zoning commissioner probably have a greater impact on your life on a day-to-day basis than the president of the United States. The more sunshine we can put on local government, the better. Beyond that, though, when local government violates people's rights, people need to take their local governments to court and show that they will fight back. The court system often acts as a restraint on the overzealousness of local government.

Q: And privatization and homeowners associations and things like that are ways to supplant local government control?

A: That's right. Government should be looking for ways to privatize services rather than to expand the behemoth of local government.

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