After a lifetime, or what seems like two, of listening to the big government/small government “debate,” it may be time to redefine the issue. As much as anything, that is because neither party produces a smaller government. One side supports a stronger national safety net. The other supports a bigger military. Either way, the results in terms of budget size and government employees remains about the same. Both sides want reductions in the other side’s agenda. And both sides are reluctant to tell voters they have to pay for what they want.
Here is a modest suggestion. Let’s shift administration of domestic programs as much as possible to local communities, what Thomas Jefferson called elementary republics. And, since the 50 States have become targets since 9/11, let’s make the National Guard, local citizen-soldiers, the backbone of homeland security.
This suggestion is less radical in the 21st century than it might have been in the 20th, but things have changed. Americans clearly want more control over their lives than in decades past. And the nature of defense and security has changed as well.
Rather late in life, Jefferson came to believe that the nation’s founding neglected to explicitly create a venue for individual citizen participation, what republicans throughout history have called civic virtue. Founding a republic, it was necessary for citizens to exercise their duties as well as protect their rights. When citizens want to avoid jury duty, taxes, and as much as possible, uniformed service, we are no longer a republic.
Education is still primarily a matter for local school boards. Health care is delivered by local doctors, nurses, and hospitals. But local communities, “elementary republics,” could assume much more of the responsibility for administering national programs for social services, environmental protection, local security, and a host of other government programs. Federal resources can be allocated, as customary, according to per capita and need formulas, taking into account the particular circumstances of local communities.
So long as we are one nation and one national community, we will have a national government, governed by elected officials. But, if local citizens are willing to take the trouble to participate in local decisions, there is no reason in the world why they cannot administer national programs according to their own local needs.
At the very least, it might help us move on from a stale big government/small government quarrel which is getting us nowhere. What all of us want is effective government…and citizens who care.