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In Comes the State

Mises Daily: Tuesday, June 30, 2009 by

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Over the past fifteen years, I have seen the state slowly take over my local government, replacing a friendly, ineffective mishmash of neighbors with a professional bureaucracy set apart from its taxpaying masses.

Consider a friend of mine, a man who years ago served as a township trustee. Sure, he received a small salary for the privilege of sitting at the table during twice-monthly meetings — some years even wielding the gavel. However, he also had the privilege of fielding midnight calls — to wake and dress for the grim task of removing a bloodied carcass from a local road.

He had no real power, no real influence, and no real office. The township hall was the backroom of the volunteer fire station — spacious, yet sparse. None of the trappings of power existed in that functional, nondescript building. If you wanted a cup of coffee, you opened the can of generic grounds and brewed a pot yourself.

If you assume that government is essential, this is the government for you: a government where the citizen-statesman rules. Of course, you will always find power-hungry wannabes sneaking around government buildings. But where there is neither power nor money, there are no real favors to give.

It is true that the friend or political ally may have received that extra cup of coffee or benefited from the early snowplow. And those connected may have won the road-salt contract. But none of this really affected me or other township residents.

Since the trustees also held day jobs, they had little time to interfere in our lives. In addition, the township employees were few and ill paid. They too had neither the time nor desire to lord it over us. Sure, there was bickering and politics. However, it was always petty. The township went about its business and we went about ours. Not liberty, but not oppression. A nice middle ground, so to speak.

And whenever a trustee lost his seat at an election, there were heartaches and ill feelings to be sure. But there was also a sense of relief. No more burdensome phone calls. No more evenings away from the family. And more time to attend to productive activities.

The backwaters are not the place for those seeking intrigue; anyone looking for power and trouble heads to the county seat, to the state capital, or to Washington, DC. However, as an area grows — and allows (or encourages) government to grow with it — the flow of power slowly reverses course, sending currents of statism back to once-pastoral regions.

An observer may blame money, especially money from developers looking to profit in a fast-growing area. That is not the case. With development comes the growth of government. And with the growth of government comes the requisite interventions. New zoning standards are adopted, forcing developers into trustees meetings. And so the problems begin.

It is not just zoning; it is planning in general. My sleepy township slowly awoke to an influx of residents, businesses, traffic, etc. Instead of letting acting men and women with property at stake divine the future, many residents clamored for the township to guide the way.

Gradually, a completely new class of politicians began appearing in the township hall. Elections are now debates over various political visions. Instead of the man willing to throw a dead deer in the back of his pickup, the new trustee is the man who has the ability "to inspire change."

No longer are township meetings the place to hear the petty feuds of neighbors. They are now planning sessions where developers swear fealty to the omniscient class seated at the table. Future developments are no longer decided on the farmhouse porch. Developments are now decided in public and private meetings, with exactions and extractions the sought-after rewards for the game played by hosts of rent seekers — on both sides of the table.

Now, trustees believe they know best. As an example, where township residents used to be able to select from a handful of refuse companies, the trustees took it upon themselves to pick one for all of us. And they decided that we all want to recycle — and to pay for it.[1]

You might consider recycling a minor grievance. Nevertheless, it is symptomatic of a subtle turn from government to the state. The trustees believe in their own omniscience and residents have begun to agree — a belief that brings a smile to agents of the state.

I once asked a candidate for trustee how he would know the correct number of firefighters the township required. Then, I just listened. For almost ten minutes, the candidate noted how he would research and analyze that particular issue once elected. It was obvious that he did not have a clue.[2] Nevertheless, he would act and vote as if he did.

Where volunteers once protected us, we now have unionized firefighters and associated bureaucrats. The fire department expands based on studies and research, not on any market-based analysis, balancing very personal benefits with very personal risks.

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The trustees and bureaucrats plan the future based on the science of the day. They act as if they were the intended recipients of a letter written by Claude-Henri Saint-Simon some 200 years ago. In that letter, Saint-Simon envisioned a paradise governed by "men of genius." That was his utopia. Of course, history reveals a different reality.

There is a temptation to believe the state must accompany a complex society on the journey into tomorrow. Fight the temptation. Only acting men and women with their own property at stake can be trusted to make efficient decisions and bring about a tomorrow that is better than today.

And if we must have government, let it remain small and insignificant, spending its time cutting ribbons and bickering over nonsense like the color of street signs. Let the rest of us enjoy the freedom to pursue our own happiness.

Notes

[1] Amazingly, the trustees of a bordering township rejected a proposal to force one refuse company on its residents. They said that if residents want to negotiate contracts, they could organize themselves and negotiate without the interference of government. A ray of hope in a sometimes gray world, indeed.

[2] I also do not know the correct number of firefighters. And neither does anyone without a profit line.