Restore the Republic

Author: Gary Hart

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.

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15 Responses to “Restore the Republic”

  1. Jeanne Tifft Says:

    Great idea but how would state and local judiciary and law enforcement cover the likelihood of venality and corruption emerging at the local level in dispensing federal money? Just asking … maybe you could flesh out your suggestion more fully. I hope so.

  2. Seth Brewer Says:

    This is the among the best ideas I have heard in a long time. I am a staunch conservative and have touted this idea among my friends for a long time. Usually to puzzled looks. It seems to me that this republic idea provides more flexibility and allows for regional cultural differences within the US. This is much better than heavyhanded federal government programs that are not as sensitive to regional differences and ideals. Suppose programs in your state or city make you unhappy. Well, no biggie, because other states/cities may have a program in place that does suit you. You can move if you want. But with a huge federal program, where can you escape? I think that the differences across our great country are what make us special. I have no problem with many of the programs that democrats believe in, but I think much of the more aggressive laws would be better suited at the local level, rather than at the federal level. The Health Care Bill (almost law)is a prime example of this.

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  4. Publius Says:

    Mr. Hart, your ideas regarding the National Guard would help resolve the conflict of gun ownership and participation in the militia directed by the Second Amendment. Speaker Pelosi mentioned the famous quote of Tip O’Neill, that “all politics is local” in her speech last night. If civic duty was connected to citizenship, participation in the militia, and promoting the general welfare, many of our current problems from crime to the environment could be tackled. The concept of “sustainability” can best be achieved at the local level primarily because each community is as unique as each individual. I concur with your analysis, local civic participation is the first necessary step if the desire is to limit an oppressive national government. What you are suggesting is direct democracy, not a representative republic.

    The bigger question – in my mind – is how can you engage a population jaded by divisive and partisan politics. Perhaps, Washington was prescient, realizing that the source of faction are political parties. This is consistent with your thesis as construe it, direct democracy would eliminate the need for party affiliation.

  5. Jeff Simpson Says:

    This is a novel idea that runs against the grain of many large, top-down agencies. Perhaps this idea might catch on if a wave of bank and insurer break-ups occur first.

  6. Jeffrey Abelson Says:

    Citizens actively participating in political decision-making in their local communities is the key not only to finally solving a range of vexing problems in a sustainable way, but to revitalizing democracy itself — by revitalizing a sense of what it means to be a citizen rather than a spectator.

    But this will not come about in a meaningful way just by the federal government handing over responsibilities to state and local governments. The people themselves must call for it and demonstrate they’re ready and willing to assume their civic duty.

    The good news is that there is a movement afoot that can catalyze and accelerate this process if it were scaled up and better funded. It goes by many names, but at root it’s about professionally facilitated citizen deliberation forums — where ordinary citizens (without politicians present) deliberate on an issue together, informed by nonpartisan study guides, explore the various trade-offs of various solutions, and strive to reach a near consensus view on an action plan — which they then take to policy makers.

    When citizens participate in such events, amazing results occur. Not only do they often produce action plans that 80% can sign off on (rather than a polarization-prolonging 51%) — but the experience itself is intoxicating, and therefore self-perpetuating — especially when policy-makers are then brought into the conversation and held to account to act on the citizen voice.

    Once bitten with this sense that “my voice actually can make a difference,” a new kind of citizen is born. We all have so much cynicism burnt into our civic DNA, we desperately need personal demonstations that stepping up is worth the effort.

    So while you paint a vivid picture of an ideal end game, others are working to build the ball park that will enable the real players to get in that game. But scale is necessary, and that means money. There have been hundreds of successful events over the past decade, more than enough proof of concept — yet neither the national government nor major foundations have yet been willing to provide the kind of funding support required to expand these opportunities nationwide. I wonder why that is.

  7. Bob Says:

    Perhaps I’m missing something, but what exactly would be gained by moving the problem to a different venue? A large percentage of state governments are already unable to fund and manage the increasing number of responsibilities that have trickled down from the feds over the past three decades. The anti-government movement has been even more effective at the state and local level with the tools of petitions and referenda. This proposal looks essentially like the biggest unfunded mandate (or perhaps non-mandate) ever. That could possibly jolt some states toward a new level of functionality – but you can bet on millions of people falling through the moving (or disappearing) safety nets.

  8. Conniptionfit Says:

    No! This is NOT a good idea! My goodness, do we really want to quarter an armed military force on our own soil and task them with “Homeland Security”?? Isn’t there a Posse Comitatus issue somewhere, here? And, for pity’s sake, do we really need to contemplate the “hilarity” that wold ensue if the Homeland Security Department were to be responsible for deploying this force??. I don’t know about you, but I am familiar with the little hooligans, excuse me, young people, in my neighborhood. The very last thing I want is to sign them up with the National Guard, arm them, and then trust them with any security or police functions in MY locale! And gee, wouldn’t it be a great idea to give TEXAS it’s very own militia?? Seriously??

  9. Michael Califra Says:

    I can’t get passed the basic contradiction/irony here of aspiring to the Jeffersonian ideal of “elementary republics” at the same time the Texas school board is deleting Jefferson from textbooks. What’s wrong with this picture?

  10. Ross Warnell Says:

    Great idea, but we need to make sure we must have better citizens AND a Federal Government willing to administer “adult supervision” to the powerful interests who would subvert the process. In mythology the “wild west” was a place where “rugged individuals” could work out their own destiny. In reality it was a lawless place where literal warlords duked it out crushing anyone getting in their way.

  11. Gary Hart Says:

    Let me respond: This is not a new idea. It dates to Athens, 500 BC. and was promoted by T. Jefferson 200 years ago. Second, it is not to move problems to a different venue. It is to empower local citizens to administer national programs in ways best suited to their respective venues. Third, administration would, of course, be monitored by federal agencies to eliminate fraud and abuse. And as to the National Guard, to “Conniptionfit”, it is the successor to the militia recognized in three places in the Constitution as the backbone of homeland defense. The Founders did not want the professional military enforcing domestic laws. In the tradition of the ancient republics, they wanted citizen soldiers to do this. Thus, the Second Amendment. The 50 State National Guards are under the jurisdiction of their respective Governors unless “federalized” by the President. Texas already has a National Guard. National Guardsmen and women are duly trained under experienced officers as is the regular army. Not sure where you’ve been all these years, Conniptionfit? As to Texas, States and local school districts have always had basic control over curricula and books.

  12. Bob Says:

    Detail request 1: How would funding work?

    a) Federal funds apportioned to states and/or local entities.

    b) Federal taxes cut and states left to figure it out locally.

    c) other

    I submit that (b) is totally unworkable.

  13. Gary Hart Says:

    My response to Bob: Haven’t worked all this out, but I do believe reasonable people could work it out. We are too closely knit as a nation to leave it to the State tax systems. Our national systems of all sorts are meant to create a degree of equality, regardless of region. As we have worked out distribution formulas to 50 States, most of them per capita, I believe we could, with some degree of difficulty, work out financial distribution systems to local communities (“elementary republics”). Perhaps an ingenious graduate student might want to make this a political science PHD thesis. I’m personally much more a political philosopher or theorist.

  14. Jeff Simpson Says:

    Fiscal belt-tightening may result in some merging of state-administered and eventually state-funded domestic programs as the entrenched interests lobby for their particular earmark. As the less well-connected lose funding, some entity may step in to fill the void. Bush senior romanticized the thousand points of light (domestic NGOs helping out society’s most downtrodden, etc), and others on the right wish to privatize these do-good programs. Of course, the military industrial complex will maintain primacy at the federal funding level.

    I have a notion that there should be limits on how much a given state can be a donor and an acceptor state. Donor states are those that pay more in taxes than they receive in benefits (mostly the blue state), acceptor states receive more than they pay (mostly the red states). I would like to see a zero-sum distribution of federal spending per state based on tax contributions. That way, the state’s voters would not judge their representative based on how that person brings home more federal dollars, but rather on how popular the federal dollars that are brought in are spent. If only a few business interests are enriched at the expense of the majority of the constituents, the voters would have little difficulty in rearranging their representational priorities.

    Of course, this may be unconstitutional, as dictating how federal dollars are to be spent on a state-by-state basis would substantially curtail (or at least complicate) the current state of federal spending allocations for each state.

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