Sunday, October 18, 2020

1889 Institute: Covid-19 response casts doubts on value of local control

Covid-19 Response Casts Doubts on the Value of Local Control
By Mike Davis

Is local control better than state control? Conservatives tend to prefer state control over national government; isn’t local control a logical progression?

Recent responses to Covid-19 offer a counterargument. While Oklahoma mostly refrained from onerous restrictions, the same isn’t true of her cities. Norman’s city council was so abusive they faced recall campaigns. Edmond responded quickly to a surge, swiftly passing a mask mandate that would start a mere 4 weeks later. Oklahoma City and Tulsa have closed schools to the children they are entrusted to educate. Except that Oklahoma City’s schools were only mostly closed. These are the acts of local governments run amuck.

If local government doesn’t always do what’s right, and state government can't even be counted on to consistently do what’s wrong, what are the advantages of local control? If your rights are trampled, does it matter how big the government doing the trampling is? It isn’t any easier to beat a city in court: all levels of government enjoy the presumption that their actions are “right,” or at least “not wrong enough for the courts to step in.”

Are individual freedoms safer with local government? Local police execute no-knock warrants and initiate civil asset forfeitures. Local boards require permits to build and work. They abuse zoning powers. They abuse taxing powers. In short: they abuse citizens.

Federalism is a valuable guardian of freedom - the tension between the power of states and national governments keeps both in check. Since local governments exercise a portion of their state’s power, allowing local policymaking does not further this goal. Instead of tugging against the power of the state or national government, local governments frequently add another layer of abuse.

A common formulation is that governance should happen at the most local level competent to handle it. Perhaps we give cities too much credit. What are their competencies? Oklahoma City struggles to keep traffic signals working when it rains.

One solution is limiting local governments to only those jobs requiring local attention. A state is too big to get to every fire or to find all the potholes that need filling. These duties are not alluring or controversial. They will not launch political careers. This is by design. If local officials are charged only with making sure things in their town operate smoothly, then they can be judged solely on how smoothly things in their town operate. This focused effort and accountability would improve areas under local control.

We don’t need more squabbling politicians. State policies limiting the power of cities to their vital functions would remove the politics and bring back true public servants. Fewer politicians, more public servants, and better public service. What's not to like?

Mike Davis is a Research Fellow at 1889 Institute. He can be reached at The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of 1889 Institute.


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