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A Tocquevillian Response to Globalization and Community Decay:

A Nation “Alone”

We live in a world of dynamic change. It has always been thus; but now the rate is warp-speed. Change challenges tradition, culture, institutions, morality and the other fundamental structures that undergird the social, economic and governmental life of a nation. For much of history, change came from the brute forces of natural calamities and human coercion–wars by foreign powers intent upon conquest, domestic factions seeking to overthrow existing authority, or domestic governments forcing internal change through raw power. While these remain significant factors, even nations at peace are now subject to very significant upheaval. Peaceful change results mainly from market forces. Karl Marx called the capitalist, bourgeoisie system the most shattering force in human history1. A more sympathetic philosopher of capitalism, Joseph Schumpeter, called the dynamic force that moves the market, “creative destruction.” 2

As the citation of Marx implies, concern for the destructive force of capitalism dominated the politics of the left throughout the Twentieth Century. While the Schumpeter reference acknowledges some historical concern on the right too, it has not been until recently that it has become a central concern. Perhaps, it was the fall of communism that that made it safe politically to face any potential negative aspects of capitalism. Today a President George W. Bush can acknowledge the importance of the matter by placing the phrase “compassionate conservatism” at the very center of his campaign for office. In his victory address, he called this a “foundation of my administration.” 3 Yet, a conservative answer to the problem of change eating away the social capital of capitalism has not been very fully elaborated-indeed, many find compassionate conservatism in basic conflict with the libertarian-market aspect of conservatism.4 In any event, the whole subject deserves more systematic consideration.

The challenge is that the market’s freedom and destruction are the very things that create the enormous prosperity that so attracts the world’s population, even though most people are completely unaware of the interconnection. Unless old structures are swept away or at least amenable to severe modification, new ways of doing things cannot arise. That is why the market must “destroy” (peacefully) old ways and ideas to create new things more efficiently.5 The market rose in Europe, especially in England and the Low Countries, and gave them the drive that roused their own and, later, other sleeping economies to an industrial revolution that created wealth previously unimaginable. But along with the greater wealth, liberty, rising life expectancies and better living standards, some valued ways and manners disappeared. The bourgeois idea of a contract between two willing parties represented a tremendous gain in facilitating commerce, freedom and individual choice but, since that free choice often had unexpected consequences on culture,6 there was a price for the new prosperity. Yet, being human, people wanted the benefits without the costs. And it has been so ever since, as the political success of the left exploiting the costs attests.

There is a widespread fear today that the process has now spun out of control. One of the most popular theses of the day is that Americans are not only “bowling alone” but are more isolated in every part of their daily life.7 To some extent, it is easy to dismiss the concerns by noting that every age has thought its communal norms threatened but the vast array of Robert Putnam’s data cannot be dismissed lightly. He makes a very convincing case that political, workplace, recreation, community, civic and religious associational life have frayed in the United States in recent years. He uses detailed charts to measure the decline of group membership and social attachments in all these areas of American life over the 20th Century. In the critical area of voting, participation has declined by one-quarter over the past thirty-six years, and more among the young. Even that underestimates the deterioration since blacks are now free to vote in the South but were not earlier.8 More active participation beyond voting such as party membership and attending meetings has plummeted 25 percent.9 These are very significant declines in social communion.

But it is not just government and politics. Total voluntary association membership declined by almost half from the peak period in the 1960s to 1997.10 It is true that the number of associations has grown over the period but these have been small, leadership types without mass membership bases like those formed earlier, and many were created only to obtain government funds. So the number of people involved has declined. Less formal activities, such as bowling club membership, have declined an incredible 58 percent. While individual bowling activity has increased, membership in bowling leagues has declined sharply. What growth there has been has been among the elderly, who have more free time. Truly informal activities, mostly activated by women, from having friends to dinner to talking on the phone, have declined too. Social dining went from a 12 to 14 times a year average in the 1970s to eight annually by the late 1990s. The causes of these declines in communal ties have been the pressure on people’s time, especially on full-time working women, lower support for family and other socializing values among younger generations, and especially television substituting spectator involvement for face-to-face social activity.11

Half of all associational membership is religious group membership. Putnam makes it clear that religious attachment is the most important social indicator of the vitality of social life, and that it leads to most other forms of participation. Intellectuals have been claiming the “death of God” and the end of religion since the French Revolution at least. Yet, the dearth of Christian religious life as measured by church attendance in most of Europe, its continent of birth, seems to add more substance to the belief in recent years. Putnam’s data show that even the United States–long recognized as the most religiously-active fully industrialized nation–had a significant decline of membership and participation in this most crucial and central institution. Putnam documents about a ten percent decline in claimed church membership and probably even a larger decline in actually attending religious services. Catholics and non-mainline Protestant denominations have been less affected but still have declined relative to earlier levels. The increases in church activity recorded in the 1960s have now been “erased, primarily among the young” as they replace earlier cohorts.12

Yet, as Putnam concedes, even bowling is not really “alone.” It is not bowling in small, informal groups that is in decline but bowling leagues. In general, his data on small-group, unorganized activities are the least convincing, except within families. Still, even if informal activity were not in decline, such severe declines in formal membership and participation and family life would be notable. The most interesting part of Putnam’s data, however, goes largely unrecognized by the author. There clearly has been a decline in formal social activity in recent years. Yet, where earlier data exist a strange pattern emerges. While there is a decline over the current period that interests Putnam, the participation rate at the end of the 20th Century appears about equal to what it was at the end of the 19th. Voluntary association membership rates, for example, even after the decline from the 1960s, were about the same in 1998 as they were in 1898.13 When the full period for which data are available is investigated, the most interesting fact might be the exceptionalism of the 1900 to 1960 period, when participation grew so rapidly and so high, rather than the decline that took place after this peak.

Putnam points to the importance of the late 19th Century as a period when participation began to flower. He credits the Progressive movement for spurring this growth through its secular gospel of social uplift and progress through experts guiding a powerful, centralized state. But he does not go further to wonder if this had any role in the subsequent decline. Note, again, that it is large, organized social activity–primarily political participation and social gospel, mainline, religious participation–that clearly have been in decline throughout the 20th Century. Is it possible that progressivism oversold the possibilities for social reform through activism and the national government and that, afterwards in the wake of the failure and disappointment, participation declined?14 But why would local, traditionalist and religious institutions and families suffer participation declines also, even if at a lower rate? Perhaps because, when their charitable functions were displaced by state action, people no longer thought their efforts were required–and no rational person expands effort when it is for naught.15 Clearly, Americans and peoples throughout the world have become disillusioned with the national state. With the fall of the ultimate national social-service state, communism, a reaction has set in against the whole progressive idea.16

The Market and Globalism

Progressivism was socialist in the sense of using national government planning and expertise to solve social problems as one basic theme but it was very capitalist in another interesting aspect. Progressivism was as opposed to local institutions as it was favorable to central or national solutions. Local institutions were “parochial,” rather than rational or scientific. One of progressivism’s main ideas was the consolidation of local units into larger, “more efficient” units. Such innovations as larger representational areas for legislators, consolidated school districts, unified municipalities, and consolidated county governments were as important as state preemption and national direction. In each of these cases, they proposed the “capitalist” idea of “efficiencies of scale.” That is, the success of mass production for automobiles, household goods and manufacturing generally “proved” that larger production units run by “scientific managers” produced goods more efficiently. Savings could be garnered by scientifically breaking a productive or an assembly process down to smaller, more routine tasks and then combining them in ever larger, continuous process organizations to create efficiencies of scale that resulted in greater production, wealth and prosperity. The progressives reasoned that if size and expertise helped the private sector, it should work in government too.17

This idea of rationalizing production through large scale captured the imagination of all–progressives, socialists, communists, fascists and capitalists. Everyone got into bigness. The first place to suffer regret was the private sector. It turned out that larger was not necessarily more efficient. Large corporations began a massive decentralization movement in the 1960s, which cumulated in the 1980s and has not abated until this day. To some extent, it was the shift from manufacturing to a service economy, but even manufacturing switched to smaller internal units with more autonomy. It turned out that by century’s end, large private firms of over 500 employees posted a net loss of 645,000 jobs, while smaller firms produced the 11.8 million net new jobs that represented prosperity in the United States.18 One of the reasons that Europe lagged was its much greater dependence upon large, more bureaucratic firms. Government took longer to learn the limits to large size,19 but the collapse of the Soviet Union convinced most that there were huge costs to government centralization, bureaucracy and large size. That the market was superior to government became a cliché. In the U.S., after the success of Ronald Reagan almost all Republicans gave at least lip service to the power of the market and privatization of services. By the beginning of his second term, even President Bill Clinton was forced to proclaim the era of big government was over.20

If anything, the market today is viewed as being too efficient and productive–at least in the more prosperous nations. It is not efficiency of scale that is the motive force of this market, however, but its freedom to innovate and especially the free flow of information. Schumpeter’s view that the essence of capitalism is creative destruction has largely won the intellectual debate.21 The good news is that capitalism has no peer in creating new products and wealth. The bad is that it destroys old forms and institutions in the process of doing so. This is in contrast to government where bureaus are never destroyed and are even labeled “immortal.”22 Peter Drucker saw this as one of the great benefits of the private sector market: growth required elimination of past failures and no one loved businesses enough to be concerned when they passed away.23 The problem is, beloved institutions are threatened by the market too. As a result, global efficiency is now viewed by many, especially in the West, as a threat. In a global economy, no one national state any longer even has the might to do so, even the powerful United States. No one is in control of the destruction.

Thomas Friedman’s incredibly influential book, The Lexis and the Olive Tree, makes the case most effectively. Being a reporter for the liberal New York Times, one who thinks that Republicans are “mean spirited” for not believing government or the International Monetary Fund can solve many social problems,24 he was credible making the case. He conceded that the market and even creative destruction are critical if most of the world is to rise from crippling poverty. He even gave Ronald Reagan some of the (mixed) credit for “one of the key turning points in American history” when he fired the air controllers and proved that management did not have to be cowed by efficiency-inhibiting labor unions, even in critical industries.25 When such an intellectual said the market was the only way to create the wealth and commerce necessary to obtain even the minimum necessary for a decent life, especially in poorer nations, this carried weight among intellectuals, who always lean left and are suspicious of the market.26 When Friedman said there was no choice: there is a world market and a nation must either join in the free trade regime or decline, who could gainsay it this side of the outright blind?27

Yet, Friedman also found that, everywhere, the triumph of the world market was accompanied by a sense of loss of local values, of community, of the “olive tree,” the land, people and setting that make this place mine, and familiar and comfortable to my family and my neighbors. But “markets are determined by foreigners.”28 How can we trust our sense of self, our livelihoods and even our lives to foreigners? The feeling permeates not only the developing countries but wealthy ones like the United States. The largest protest, after all, was organized in Seattle. The reaction in the U.S., with its great prosperity, is not comprehensible to Friedman. Trade is so obviously needed for mutual growth that he cannot understand why Congress would not extend free trade even to Chile, except that “the AFL-CIO labor union federation has become probably the most powerful political force against globalization” and defeated it.29 Surely, the unions are clever and do not give up. Unable to win union preferences directly in the NAFTA, WTO or China trade treaties, they switched to the more appealing theme of protecting women against being forced into slavery or brothels to accomplish the same goal. Who could oppose a “sex trafficking” bill to end the worldwide traffic of “700,000 and possibly millions” of women who were forced into brothels?30 It turns out, it all depends upon what you mean by “trafficking.” Section 3 of the bill said that “trafficking in persons is not restricted to sex trafficking but often involves forced labor and other violations of internationally recognized human rights.” Other violations covered “slavery-like” practices, which included “harsh or degrading” working conditions.

There were sanctions against countries in the bill but not on trade directly nor even cutting most aid. In fact, nothing was really aimed at them because the actual target was U.S. business. Any firm that “in any way, financially or otherwise,” knowingly benefited from harsh or degrading working conditions would suffer a penalty of up to 20 years to life in the slammer. Physical coercion was not required. If children were involved, there did not even need to be “abusive practices” at all. Indeed, anyone who “shares in the profits” of the harsh and degrading working conditions “or any part thereof” would be guilty. That is how the GAP, Nike and the rest would stop trading without a change in the trade laws. Any Westerner thinks Third World labor conditions are “harsh and degrading.” With that standard and the threat of jail, any business would cave to the unions and not use cheap foreign labor. As Friedman feared, such a law would harm the very victims of the evil they supposedly were out to eliminate. If the sanctions worked against either the poor countries–where conditions were so bad that these poor women risked emigration that led to brothels and sweatshops–or the companies employing people there stopped doing so, naturally, conditions there would get worse and more desperate women would be created. More would be forced into brothels or sweatshops, only it would be in the worse conditions of the poorer foreign nation (so the sensitive in the rich nations would not have to see them). The paltry $30 million in grants and training in the law only salved the liberal conscience. There were scores of laws on the books at local, state and national levels already against the real evils. The real purpose was to protect rich union workers here from competition from women in terrible economic conditions in poor nations and to make rich U.S. corporations do the dirty work.

If anyone doubts the effectiveness of unions in frustrating market globalization, it should be noted that only one dissenting vote was cast against “the enslavement of women” bill in the House and none in the Senate, in a Republican-controlled Congress. The one who had the courage to vote against this limit to trade in poor nations’ goods was Congressman Mark Sanford of South Carolina-who had voluntarily limited his term in office and was retiring. Against both the unions and the intellectuals, Friedman concluded that ordinary workers in emerging-market nations know they must participate in globalization or perish.31 Still, he is convinced that something important is lost with the financial gain, improved sanitation, better health and the rest. The reaction to the conflict between efficiency and local values often becomes violent even though this further retards economic development. Even in the prosperous West, skills can obsolete quickly in a fast-moving global economy and new ones will need to be learned if workers are to be competitive. So Friedman remains conflicted about the market and globalism. Although he offers some ways to mitigate the problems without the disastrous effects of the labor union solution to completely block change, they seem vastly inferior to the scale of the negative affects upon community he attributes to globalization.32

Between the Market and the State

Both Friedman and Putnam pin their hopes upon local community re-flowering spontaneously. To some extent, they propose governmental remedies but they are mostly small-scale programs consistent with their belief that markets cannot be interfered with too drastically or productivity and its gains for the poor would be threatened. Putnam explicitly recognizes a large national role and Freidman suggests many additional national programs, but with only a limited additional expenditure of public funds.33 One must ask, however, not only whether these would work but, even more, whether these programs that displace local institutions do not provide the best excuse not to invest the substantial voluntary effort necessary to create the kind of institutions they would like that would work.34

Putnam recognizes that all of today’s major non-governmental institutions– Boy and Girl Scouts, Salvation Army, the churches, March of Dimes, Hull House, United Way, Rotary, Big Brothers, the Red Cross, etc.–predated the welfare state.35 But he does not draw any institutional conclusion about displacement. Friedman too supports additional local “civic capacity” to humanize the multi-national market. One cannot argue with his hope for a personal return to God but his “postbiblical” Almighty, who will make “the Internet crash just the way He did the Tower of Babel,” is a bit obscure.36 In any event, in the end, he relies upon “third way” solutions (although he rejects the term, saying there is only one way [i.e., his]) like retraining, social safety nets (enhanced by the IMF!), democratization of access to capital (in a revitalized Community Reinvestment Act!), public employment for displaced workers and even free government-provided resumes, all of which sound much like the welfare state solutions that-by his very evidence–have failed to solve the globalization problem.37

Is there no more practical way to harmonize globalization and the olive tree? Consider. If progressivism was wrong about the importance of efficiencies of scale for the private sector, it might just have been wrong about government too. In a unique move for a government agency, the U.S. Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations concluded that it had been wrong in the past to conclude that small governments could not attain efficiencies of scale. It had not considered that they could use private contracting or joint municipal operations to gain back the efficiencies.38 The same should apply to voluntary associations. Would it be possible to answer the concerns of Putnam and Friedman by returning to the ideal of voluntarism that existed before progressivism? That ideal, so well summed by Alexis de Tocqueville, was the volunteer spirit that he found to be uniquely American.39 It was no coincidence that the great voluntary institutions were created before progressivism had great effect. These were in the American tradition of using associations rather than government to solve social problems. When progressivism offered the easier solution of simply asking government experts to do it, this took away the incentive to create additional great private institutions. Why go through the effort and individual sacrifice necessary to create and support a voluntary group when all that was necessary was to petition government?

Even with all of the disincentives of the progressive state, volunteerism is still an American trait, especially when compared to other nations. Indeed, one of the real experts in the field, Everett Carll Ladd disputed that civic participation had even declined in America, based upon opinion surveys. These find levels of joining, volunteering for and giving money to civic associations to be high and stable.40 He claimed that the change so obvious to people was from things outside politics and community life–automobile mobility, television, dress and music. But, predominantly, he saw continuity-the oldest Constitution and even resistance to change in the color of money, its denominations and who was pictured upon it. People’s real attention is directed to family, church, sports, health and community standards-with family the most valued and the most important welfare institution-and there has been little decline in attachment to these institutions.41 As shown in Table 1, Americans overwhelmingly choose local institutions as the ones that solve social problems in their community. Besides the police role in keeping order, all of the most valued institutions are voluntary associations. The national government was ranked fourteenth out of fifteen institutions, barely edging labor unions, as means to solve community social problems.

Still, the voluntary sector is a shadow of what it could have been if the state had not arrogated so many of its functions over so much time. In one little example a few years ago, the state of Nebraska required that all private schools meet new supervisory requirements for students who were expelled for disciplinary purposes, forcing Boys Town into closing Father Flanagan High School. Never mind that it was among the first to provide probation supervision for youth offenders and supervised nurseries for teen-aged mothers, it did not do it the state’s way and was forced out of business.42 To compensate for millions and millions of such displacements and harassments, it makes sense that some redress might be in order. Indeed, the difference between the Ladd and Putnam data is probably that Ladd measures beliefs of Americans about what they should be doing as opposed Putnam’s figures on what they actually are doing. To translate favorable attitudes about community and volunteering into action, the incentive structure needs to be changed. Presidential candidate George W. Bush and others have proposed a tax credit for charitable contributions, where an individual could divert a small part of his or her taxes to private charities that perform welfare functions for the needy, even for those who do not itemize.43 It is a good start but not sufficient to the problem.

Organization % who say important
Local police 58%
Local churches, synagogues, mosques 56
Nonprofit organizations like Salvation Army, Goodwill 53
Friends and neighbors 51
Local parent-teacher associations 47
Local government officials 43
Community foundations like United Way 39
Neighborhood organizations 39
Local school board 38
Local business leaders 36
Local news media 35
State government officials 33
Civic or service groups like Rotary 33
Federal government 28
Labor unions 21

To really return to the pre-progressive state status quo, that idea needs to be expanded to the original proposal for the charitable tax credit.44 To have real effect in removing the incentive not to contribute to a private charity, at least two alternatives must be offered. A tax credit should give the choice of contributing welfare funds to a private charity or to the government; i.e. that a private selection be at the expense of the government alternative, or vice versa. Citizens should be given a real choice between government provision of a welfare function and a private one. This is the market, free choice approach to the solution of social problems. A certain percentage of taxable revenue would be allocated for charitable and other purposes, and the taxpayer would be able to direct whatever share he or she wanted of the former to either the Department of Health and Human Services, say, or to the Salvation Army, up to the maximum allocated percentage of his tax payment. If citizens prefer government, so be it. But if they prefer voluntary means, they should be given that choice. Since Table 1 demonstrates that citizens prefer private charity, as a practical matter this would be a great step towards supporting a renewed community and charitable life that would have the clout and resources necessary to combat the effects of globalism and other such stresses upon a vibrant social life.

A Market of Local Governments

As important as are voluntary means–as opposed to government planning–in the conservative vision of a free society, they are not enough. If well funded, families, neighborhood groups, churches, charities, informal networks, community groups, foundations, clubs and formal associations could perform much of the important work of society, but not everything. Not government, for example. One organization is given the legitimate monopoly over the use of coercion–foreign and domestic–and that government has an important function to keep civil peace. In the United States, the foreign responsibility is given to the national government in Washington and most of the domestic regulation of coercion to the states. Conservatives–not being anarchists–do not dispute government’s role. They only want to limit it to certain functions, mainly protecting from force and fraud against people’s rights.45

There is a third type of government that has none of the majesty of the national government nor even the allure and constitutionality of “sovereign” state governments. It is often overlooked by those seeking “big” solutions. Local governments are not really the “state” legally or factually, and they come in many forms. Legally, they are fully subject to state control and even elimination. In fact, they are given very little control over matters of coercion and, even when they are, it is usually under the tight supervision of the state government. With state and national governments enforcing civic and property rights restrictions over them, abuses generally are few in number. With this limited authority, local governments perform business and community functions and are more like voluntary associations than a sovereign state.46 They are subject to state regulation and have very circumscribed powers and responsibilities. Most functions of a local government could and often are performed by private institutions. A residential community association, for example, is a pure voluntary association but it performs functions identical to most local government ones.47 It is impossible to tell them apart other than the fact that the local government usually has some limited coercive and taxing powers delegated from the state. As such, local governments may be properly viewed as quasi-voluntary associations.

The analogy to an association is most clearly expressed in the premier local government, the municipality. In the U.S. the typical settlement pattern was for informal communities to develop and then evolve into formal incorporation as municipal corporations. Even the term “corporation” is private and they have contract-like charters. Before incorporation, these communities were in fact voluntary associations, just loosely overseen by limited-function counties to control criminal activities. In most places, most local government functions were in operation before they received any coercive functions or recognition from state authorities. Thus, for a period, they were forced to act as voluntary associations and still are in many ways today. As F.A. Hayek has written, all of Western freedom developed from the charters granted to the urban corporations of Europe in the Middle Ages, both in giving rights to citizens and in fostering ideas of freedom, contract, property and competition.48

Conservatives have historically looked to local governments as a means to deal with the “neighborhood effects” that take place when neighbors come into contact with each other in non-market, involuntary transactions.49 While not as open as true markets, local government decisions are more informed, since they are closest to the individual facts of the situation, and less abusive since they are less powerful, bureaucratic, and monopolistic than national or even state government. Indeed, conservatives view local governments as competing in a market of governments like a business, where they must offer acceptable services to attract and retain members.50 Nations and states are too large to offer most citizens easy access to alternative governments, so there is limited choice, responsiveness, or ability to exit. This fact of familiarity with and free choice between governments perhaps explains why national polls from the 1930s to the present show that Americans prefer local to either national or state government in performing most domestic government functions.51 Table 1 found the local police department the most valued of all institutions in solving social problems and local government officials ten percent more valued than state officials and fifteen percent more than national officials.

Using Government to Limit Government and Unleash Community Initiative

The one thing that local governments can do that pure voluntary associations cannot is to confront national or state bureaucracy with their own officialdom. It takes an elected or legally appointed official to effectively check another official. All governments have a similar manner of activity and even language and they are more likely to give “professional courtesy” to others of their like. As government officials, they are experts in contesting over power and they have the incentive to protect it. More practically, there is often legal protection that gives an immunity to them totally unavailable to non-governmental representatives. If the legal protection does not exist, it can be granted. In any event, local government officials can and do contest national and state decisions in a way not available to private institutions.

James Davidson Hunter criticizes Putnam’s solution to the decline in participation in America as insufficient. As he notes, Putnam finds the cause of the decline to be: the pressure of time and money created by the two-income family, the additional time commuting as a result of urban sprawl, the hours spent before the television and other electronic communication, and the replacement of civic-minded elders by individualistic youth. But, these are “largely structural and historical in nature,”52 Hunter notes. Putnam believes individual commitment can restore the lost civic-mindedness but Hunter correctly notes that only equivalent structural forces can offset existing ones. This is even more important if one assigns the primary cause of this decline to the progressives’ use of the national government to displace local and voluntary efforts. Indeed, Putnam’s data provide support for the displacement hypothesis. While participation increased during the early rise of the welfare state, it clearly leveled off after the state began to displace more functions. Indeed, as Putnam himself notes, much of the presumed voluntary activity of the modern period was generated by government funding–one could say artificially created by it. As Hunter insists, some structural or institutional solution would be required to correct such a fundamental dislocation.

Exhortations for good citizenship just will not do it. Indeed, it was the initial false promise of progressivism that political participation could provide an effective alternative to local “civic” (i.e., municipal) participation that led to the sense of powerlessness. It was not merely a sense. In fact, one cannot have the same degree of impact as one of 200 million in a nation, as one of 2,000, or 20,000 or even 100,000 in a city or town. Some central cities are recognizing that they, themselves, are too big and have so lost the community ethos. Indianapolis under mayor Steven Goldsmith tried to create sub-governmental “municipal federalism” to give some city functions to smaller community entities to revive neighborhood initiative and get the job done properly. Philadelphia created independent business districts to get “difficult” jobs like garbage collection and neighborhood clean-up done by smaller entities not tied down by union bureaucracies. It was so successful that many other neighborhoods applied for separate status and the idea spread to Washington D.C.’s Georgetown community. Indeed, the biggest idea in local government is transferring functions to private sources to save resources and better accomplish the mission.53

This movement should be encouraged. Local governments can develop community and local values through their neighborhood form. They are small enough to develop common feeling rather than have opinion artificially manufactured by elites. They can protect the olive tree. Yet, they are too limited in their scope to frustrate the benefits of globalism. If they frustrate markets too much, people can quit and move to another community. Because local governments must compete, they must be responsible. If the city must raise its own funds, it knows that money does not grow on trees. Some Santa Claus in Washington cannot find magical money from nowhere to fund everything. Under competition, priorities must be established and rational decision-making is encouraged. But, by frustrating the growth of local governments, progressivism has limited both the creation of institutions that can develop community, ones that can compete with one another to limit abuses, and ones that can get the job done.

It is clear that the progressive reforms have inhibited the growth of local governments. There are no more municipalities, townships and towns–or hardly more–today than there were in 1900, even with the incredible growth of population during this period.54 From using the strong, multi-service county to substitute for the founding of new municipalities, to municipal consolidation reforms (such as the creation of the city of New York from a score of towns and cities), to the encouragement of annexation of nearby unincorporated land, to simply making it difficult to create new municipalities, the progressive reforms smothered the creation of new local forms. Community differences were choked by the needs of bureaucratic uniformity.55 For school districts, it was even worse. While there were 127, 000 independent school districts as late as the 1930s, there are only 14,000 today.56 One of the great problems of the schools today is that an artificial commonness must be created to allow a single set of policies to cover a large number of different children. If only the degree of multiplicity that existed then were available, incalculably more choice between and variety of olive tree would exist today.

Recommendations and Conclusion

Formal association membership has declined significantly over the past century, although positive attitudes towards such participation have been maintained. The uncontested fact is that the number of voluntary associations and local governments has not changed much over the 20th Century even with a very large population increase. The reason why is simple. Progressivism turned to expert central government, which displaced associations, and created larger units of government, suppressing additional local ones. The more debatable fact is that associations are critical to social life and that cities are the essential and fundamental form for political, social and economic life. The reason associations are not more recognized as vital is that governments have usurped their functions. The reason large cities are stagnant or even ungovernable is they are not municipalities any longer. The reason suburbs are boring is that they only have the county but no real local governmental form that can be the basis of a vibrant community. The reason schools are bureaucratic nightmares is that they have a large geographical monopoly that allows teachers’ unions and administrators to ignore parental demands and serve themselves rather than the students. The reason legislatures are unrepresentative is that progressive-inspired large districts are too big to represent. Rather than replicate the same type of government programs that have created the problem in the first place, it is a time for fresh thinking. Here is what a compassionate conservative would do.

An Alternative Charitable Tax Credit. To offset the preference the Federal Government has given to governmental solutions of social problems since the New Deal, it is essential to present to taxpayers a fair choice between alternative ways to provide welfare for those in need. The necessary choice is between private, voluntary charitable organizations, on the one hand, and governmental units, on the other, as alternative means to provide welfare services. Private associations obviously include religious ones. Indeed, as Putnam stresses they are the most important and numerous types. They should not receive special attention but they should not be excluded either. Assuming that government will insist on some role, the way to give this choice is for Congress and the President to determine what share of national government expenditures should be allocated to welfare activities broadly defined (welfare, health, education, housing, labor, foreign aid and so forth); and then place that percentage on each individual income tax form. After calculating the tax owed to the Federal Government, taxpayers would calculate that percent as a dollar amount of their taxes due. The person would then be given the choice to designate that amount (or any portion thereof) to private, including religious, charities of their choice or to the government to spend as either wished. The individual filer would list the charities and amounts to be given to each and such amount would be deducted from what otherwise would have been paid as taxes. The taxpayer would be obligated to send such checks before the filing deadline, as with current 401(k) retirement contributions. The government would then use only the funds remaining allocated to it to fund and administer its own welfare programs. States would be encouraged to adopt a similar plan. The result would undoubtedly be a tremendous surge in funds available to private welfare organizations and a forced better use of remaining government funds.

County Decentralization Law. State laws should allow any contiguous, unincorporated area of a county, with at least–say–10, 000 population (or less in rural areas), to apply to the county to become a separate municipality (including towns, villages, etc). They could offer to provide a wide variety of services presently handled by the county or state or nation. Standards for petitioning the county would be developed by each state but should create a minimal burden for defining the area, the number of signatures within it necessary to qualify for referendum and for the resources required to operate municipalities. The specific county functions to be assumed would be listed in the proposal. To the extent possible, existing county or state property, taxes and resources should be used as the basis for municipal operations proposals. Refusals by counties to provide for a referendum within the area or, after a successful popular vote, to grant a municipal charter, would be appealable to state officials. Once created, funds (or, more properly, funding sources) would be transferred from the county to the municipality, which would assume responsibility for performing those functions not specifically reserved to the county by the state–such as administration of state courts. One suspects that many more municipalities would be created within a very few years and that, over time, proportions of citizens to number of local government would approach ones closer to 1900 than to today.

Municipal Decentralization Charter. Existing municipalities are too big and try to do too much. Bureaucracies are as bad as at the national level in many cases. When cities worked in the past, they did so by formally or informally decentralizing functions to ward politicians or other local institutions.58 Under this proposal, citizens would be encouraged to lobby for state laws to allow municipalities to sub-divide into communities with a wide range of specified functions that could be delegated to those communities. Rules for criteria for petitioning for separate incorporation would be specified by the state and appeals from municipalities from denials of incorporation would be appealable to the county. Citizens would have to petition or, where rights were changed, approve the creation of the unit.

The great benefit of local government over national is that different forms can be experimented with to see which turn out to be successful. There are a wide range of semi-governmental and private alternatives that could be chosen. Some are in wide use, such as private residential community associations–which have more members nationally than the number of people who live in central cities of over one million population.59 They range from amenity cooperatives, block-level communities, towns and villages, neighborhood zoning districts, community commercial entities, business districts, street-closing regimes and many more, only limited by human inventiveness.60 Some will succeed and some not; but that is the point. In many cases the benefits may be achieved more efficiently and with greater support utilizing more private covenanting and from the development of common law principles of nuisance than by creating local institutions in a formal sense. In any event, protections for adjoining neighbors from having their property and personal rights violated will need to be assured.

School District Decentralization Right. There is a widespread belief that the present school system does not work especially well. In the first two official international comparisons of math and science scores, the U.S. Department of Education found their schools behind most of Asia and Europe. The U.S. was tie with Bulgaria and Latvia and only led mostly underdeveloped nations. As American children advanced through school, they tended to fall further behind other nations, apparently as a result of the minimal goals sought.61 One reason advanced for the poor showing was that schools had no incentive to teach challenging courses that might offend those who would fail them. With a monopoly, bright students have no realistic alternatives and are taught down to the bottom or middle. More choice in schools might be a remedy. While many prefer an alternative that would allow a choice of private and religious schools–perhaps with a universal voucher or tax credit system–another alternative would be to create more independent school districts. To some degree, this is what the charter school movement does.62 While supporting both private and charter alternatives, this proposal would go further and encourage state officials to create independent districts around existing individual schools and separate governing boards. State law would also specify the number of citizens necessary to petition for such a new district and the majority necessary to create such districts. All rules applying to existing districts would apply to the newly created ones, although it is anticipated that more discretion would follow if not accompany such a change.

Political District Decentralization. If a district is too large, one representative must represent so many people that neither can he have a sense of whom he represents nor can his constituents really know who he is. The American Founders proposed a representation ratio of 1 representative for each 30,000 constituents, which they had to defend against being too large. Not only is the House of Representatives closer to 1:500,00 today but most states and many local governments have worse ratios than the early national one.63 States would be encouraged to increase the size of their legislatures to create more districts, small enough to represent municipalities and individuals in a meaningful way, and to set procedures and standards for citizens to petition for smaller representation districts for municipalities, sub-communities and school districts. At-large districts, where multiple candidates run in the same larger district, should be eliminated. Alienation and dissatisfaction on the part of the citizen, in part, rests upon rational grounds. Districts can be so large, the voice of one citizen is lost. Creating more, smaller districts is a solution to that problem.

Conclusion. It took a long time for the progressive program to be imposed and then unravel, about the same duration as the life cycle of the Soviet Union. In the United States today, it is clear that alienation and cynicism about the ability of national government to perform well abound. Putnam and Friedman have well identified the problem of the decline of community. It will take time for local and voluntary communities to recover. Yes, the market does wear away traditional values and institutions. All of those who best promoted the market–from Smith, to Schumpeter, to Hayek and beyond–have recognized the danger as well as the great benefits of its freedom. Yet, it is not the market’s function to protect community–this is for associations, communities and governments. But the largest protector became the largest threat to community when the progressives used the national state to arrogate welfare functions previously performed by voluntary and local institutions. Under that displacement of function, they declined. They still are vital in many ways and, as Table 1 makes evident, most Americans think they are the only welfare institutions that really can reform social dislocation. If they were given the chance, the wealth created by the market could be used by these institutions to mitigate market affects and–perhaps in conjunction with profit-making organizations–even turn them to assets.

Regnant progressivism–whether in liberal or “moderate” or “third way” or socialist guise–has one solution. Do more of the same national government, expert-led, one-size-fits-all, welfare-statism that has led us to the current alienation. Continuing to do the same thing after it repeatedly has failed is one definition of insanity. Progressivism does not work. It is time to give another alternative a chance. Yes, it takes a structural solution to solve a structural problem but national government bureaucracy and expertise are not the only alternative, and they have not been able to solve the problems after a century of trying. More liberty is another solution. As de Tocqueville taught, revitalizing voluntary associations, with access to real resources and creating a multiplicity of quasi-voluntary local governments with real powers are alternative solutions to the problems of community and globalism. Both involve millions of activists who can revive a working sense of community. They deserve the opportunity to prove they can work, as they did before the welfare state displaced them as the humane solutions to these perennial human social problems.

Dr. Donald J. Devine, Grewcock Professor at Bellevue Univeristy, vice chairman at the American Conservative Union, an adjunct scholar at The Heritage Foundation, and a columnist at The Washington Times, is the former director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management and former associate professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland.




1. Karl Marx and Frederick Engles, “The Communist Manifesto,” in Carl Cohen, ed. Communism, Fascism and Democracy, 2nd ed. (New York: Random House, 1962), p. 92.
2. Joseph A. Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, 3rd. edition, (New York: Harper & Row, 1950), p.83.
3. The Washington Post, December 14, 2000. p. A22. Also see, Marvin Olasky, “What Is Compassionate Conservatism,” Heritage Lectures, July 24, 2000.
4. Dana Milbank, “Needed: Catchword For Bush Ideology,” The Washington Post, February 1, 2001, pA1. For Bush’s libertarian, anti-big government side, see The Washington Post, October 27, 2000, p. A12.
5. Schumpeter, Ch. VII.
6. F.A. Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960), Ch. 3.
7. Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000).
8. Ibid., pp. 30-33.
9. Ibid., P. 45
10. Ibid., pp. 54-55.
11. Ibid., pp. 61, 54, 132, 94, 98, 200-1, 246, 284.
12. Ibid., pp. 66, 67, 72, 75-80.
13. Ibid., p. 54.
14. It is interesting that national welfare democracy does not help the poor, its intended beneficiaries, while property rights and the rule of law do. See the forty year study, David Dollar and Aart Kray, “Property Rights, Political Rights and the Development of Poor Countries in the Post-Colonial Period,” The World Bank, October 2000.
15. Charles Murray, In Pursuit of Happiness (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988), pp. 273-279; and Donald J. Devine, Does Freedom Work? (Ottawa, Illinois: Caroline House, 1978), p. 154.
16. Only 28% of Americans have a “great deal” or “quite a bit” of confidence in the federal government, compared to 70% for the military and 59% for small business (or 20% for the national media or 17% for the entertainment industry).”American Opinion,” The Wall Street Journal, December 14, 2000, p. A12.
17. Herbert Croly, Progressive Democracy (New York: Macmillan, 1914), pp. 241-244, 399-405.
18. “Small Business Answer Card,” Small Business Administration, 1998, p. 1.
19. Ludwig von Mises, Bureaucracy, ( New Rochelle, N.Y. Arlington House, 1969) had predicted it long before.
20. State of the Union Address, 1996. George W. Bush made opposition to “bigger, more intrusive government ” a major theme of his campaign, The Washington Post, October 27, 2000, p. A12. Also see, David S. Broder, “Return to Reaganomics,” The Washington Post, February 6, 2001, p. A17.
21. Thomas L. Friedman, The Lexis and the Olive Tree (New York: Random House, 1999), p. 11.
22. Herbert Kaufman, The Administrative Behavior of Federal Bureau Chiefs, (Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 1981).
23. Peter Drucker, Innovation and Entrepreneurship, (New York: Harper & Row, 1985), p. 259.
24. Friedman, p. 435.
25. Ibid., p. 373.
26. F.A. Hayek, “The Intellectuals and Socialism, ” Studies in Philosophy, Politics and Economics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967), pp. 178-194.
27. Friedman, pp. 236-237, 362-363.
28. Ibid., p. 192.
29. Ibid., p. 337.
30. “A Victory for All Women,” Office of Congressman Chris Smith, May 9, 2000; and H.R. 3244.
31. Friedman, ibid., pp. 363.
32. Ibid., pp. 297, 446-449.
33. Ibid., pp. 297-297, 442-468 ; and Putnam, p. 413.
34. See Murray, ibid. and Devine, ibid. for the displacement thesis.
35. Putnam, pp. 386-387.
36. Friedman, p. 473.
37. Ibid, pp. 442-468, esp. 444.
38. U.S. Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, The Organization of Local Public Economies (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1987), pp. 18-21, 32-33, 55.
39. Alexis deTocqueville, Democracy in America, (New Rochelle, N.Y.: Arlington House, Heirloom Edition, n.d.) II, 2, V, p. 114. Also see, Richard C. Cornuelle, Reclaiming the American Dream (New York: Random House, 1965).
40. Everett Carll Ladd, The Ladd Report on Civic America (New York: Free Press, 1999).
41. Everett Carll Ladd, “This Century Has Seen Extraordinary Change-Most of It Outside of Politics,” The Public Perspective, February/March, 1999, pp. 1-2.
42. The Washington Post, March 21, 1997.
43. “Bush: Limits Set on Faith-Based Plan,” The Washington Post, January 31, 2001, p. A4.
44. Devine, Does Freedom Work?, p. 112.
45. Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (New York: The Modern Library, 1937), IV, 9, p.651; Devine, Does Freedom Work?, Ch. 2.
46. Devine, Does Freedom Work?, pp. 56-59.
47. U. S. Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, Residential Community Associations, Private Governments in the Intergovernmental System (Washington, D.C. GPO, 1989).
48. F.A. Hayek, The Fatal Conceit, The Collected Works of F.A. Hayek, ed. W.W. Bartley III, vol. I (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), p. 33.
49. Adam Smith, V, 1, 3,1, p. 689; Hayek, Constitution of Liberty, p. 341; and Milton with Rose D. Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962), ff. p. 30. Progressives, on the other hand, have many solutions but they either assume the national state should do it or, more often, never even consider what level of government should act: e.g., Eric Cohen, “Small Politics, Big Issues,” The Weekly Standard , November 6, 2000, pp. 24-27.
50. Charles M. Tiebout, “A Pure Theory of Local Expenditures, ” Journal of Political Economy, (October, 1956), pp. 416-424. Also see James M. Buchanan and Gordon Tullock The Calculus of Consent (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1965), pp. 113-114; and Donald Devine, “A Free Market in Government,” National Review, October 27, 1989, pp. 40-41. Cf. The Organization of Public Economies, pp. 38-39.
51. Donald J. Devine, The Political Culture of the United States (Boston: Little Brown, 1972), 167-172.
52. James Davidson Hunter, ” The Weekly Standard, August 29, 2000, p. 35.
53. See, William D. Eggers, “City Lights: America’s Boldest Mayors,” Policy Review, Summer1993; William D. Eggers and John O’Leary, Revolution at the Roots (New York: Free Press, 1995), esp. pp. 81-82; and George W. Liebmann, “A Contrast to Regionalism: Reversing Baltimore’s Decline through Neighborhood Enterprise and Municipal Discipline, Calvert Issue Brief, May 2000.
54. U.S. Census Bureau,Historical Statistics of the United States (Washington, D.C., 1975), p. 1086 calculated 36,500 in the 1930s verses 37,900 in 1997.
55. Donald Devine, Restoring the Tenth Amendment (Ft. Lauderdale, Florida: Vytis, 1996), Ch. 8.
56. Historical Statistics, ibid., and U.S. Census Bureau, Statistical Abstract of the United States (Washington, D.C., 1999), p. 309.
57. Jane Jacobs, The Life and Death of Great American Cities, (New York: Vintage Books, 1961) and Cities and the Wealth of Nations, (New York: Random House, 1984) make the case for the proposition.
58. Edward C. Banfield and James Q. Wilson, City Politics (New York: Vintage Books, 1963), Ch. 9-10.
59. Residential Community Associations, p. 1 and Statistical Abstract of the United States, p. 46.
60. George W. Liebmann, The Little Platoons (Westport, Conn.: Prager, 1990), Ch. 4.
61. Kenneth J. Cooper, “Americans Just Above Average in Math, Science,” The Washington Post, December 6, 2000, p. A2.
62. Nina Shokraii Rees, School Choice 2000 (Washington, D.C.: The Heritage Foundation, 2000).
63. Restoring the Tenth Amendment, pp. 147-151.

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