Individual Liberty Over Localism

A response to the National Review article "Let Liberal Cities Do What They Want."

As a town councilman in conservative central Virginia, I have to say my colleagues are nice people, but I don’t trust them to create new regulations and new taxes. As liberty minded conservatives operating in a federalist system of government, we all have our roles to play to make the republic work as the founders intended.

The U.S. Constitution, which is the bedrock of federalism, does not mention local governments, because it was assumed localities were to serve under laws of state governments. Local governments are not equal to the state, they are not sovereign localities, they are not a city-states, they are not laboratories of democracy because none of those local definitions exist under the US or state Constitutions. Local governments are creations of the state tasked with certain responsibilities that would be inefficient for state government to administer, such as local budgets, police departments and coordinate services such as water and sewer to name a few.

The state legislature is where philosophical policy is debated and developed. Local government is the application of those philosophies. If a state government decides to increase or decrease a local government’s policy making authority, it is the state’s prerogative to do so.

Everything in the debate about state preemption is about state sovereignty. State sovereignty not only applies to the 10th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, but it also applies to its local political subdivisions. Whether the state legislature is controlled by Republicans or Democrats is irrelevant. The state sets the agenda for its own destiny and its localities are to follow suit by doing the best job they can do with what powers they have been lent by the state.

“Local control” is a construct of politically motivated lawmakers seeking to subvert the responsibility of state government. The political Left sees “local control” as a tool to pass unpopular laws stripping liberty from individuals. The political Right uses “local control” as a way avoid taking responsibility on regulations and taxes at the state level. At the end of the day, “local control” is still about control when we should be about protecting individual liberty and the rule of law.

The U.S. Constitution was created to protect individual liberties, and state constitutions were created to affirm their commitment to protecting individual liberty. Today those liberties are under attack by government at every level. Whether it be federal agency overreach, state growth management plans or local nimbyism using local governments to deny property rights. This is why every level of government should be moving us closer to self-governance, not further away.

While it is believed that most federal and state politicians are owned by lobbyists, local officials also have their own issues. Most local officials are pragmatists to a fault and are easily swayed by government staff, municipal leagues and/or the loudest voice of nimbyism. Most do not have the policy staff to dive into big issues with long reaching ramifications of regulatory and tax policy. Let’s not pretend that because they are local they have some virtuous ear to the ground. I have sat through many a council meetings where decisions were made based on relationships and not principles, meetings where staff drives the policies to benefit the government and not the taxpayers.

Governments at every level are risk averse. This is typically the driving force in stripping away individual liberty. However, individual liberty is hard work. It’s messy and sometimes people are not self-governed enough to handle it. That is why our form of government exists—to be the referee, not the nanny.

The time has come for conservatives to have a proper perspective of local governments. The states are the heart of our republic. Localities serve a purpose within the confines of state government. They are one in the same but distinctly different in their functions. It is proper for states to reign in or dispense authority to local governments, but at the end of the day, it is the state which decides. Any other way of governing will cause a Constitutional crisis, and to date, the courts have continued to uphold the states sovereignty over its localities.

The advice conservatives should be giving to localities is focus on your job. Balance your budgets, keep taxes low, eliminate debt, make local government as transparent as possible and at all cost, protect individual liberty.

This article is a response to the National Review article “Let Liberal Cities Do What They Want” from July 13.