Op-Ed

Goldberg: To heal government, go local

The best solution to our current mess might be disempowering the national elite and allowing more decision-making at the state and local levels.

U.S. Representatives

Representatives walk down the House steps to leave for the Christmas holiday on Dec. 20, 2011. "Pushing government decisions down to the lowest democratic level possible -- while protecting basic civil rights -- guarantees that more people will have a say in how they live their lives," writes Jonah Goldberg. (Michael Reynolds / EPA)

The bleating about broken government and partisanship continues. Why can't those boobs in Washington agree on anything? We're constantly told that the way to fix the country is to dethrone the left and right and empower the middle. Handing things over to these middling mincers and half-a-loafers — Americans Elect, No Labels, the "gangs" of six or 14, conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans — is supposed to be the answer to all of our problems.

But what if the real compromise isn't in forcing the left and the right to heel? What if instead the solution is to disempower the national elites who think they've got all the answers? Federalism, the process whereby you push most political questions to the lowest democratic level possible — to states, counties, cities, school boards — has been ripe on the right for years. It even had a champion in Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) still carries that torch.

Federalism is simply the best political system ever conceived of for maximizing human happiness. A one-size-fits-all policy imposed at the national level has the potential to make very large numbers of citizens unhappy, even if it was arrived at democratically. In a pure democracy, I always say, 51% of the people can vote to pee in the cornflakes of 49% of the people.

Pushing government decisions down to the lowest democratic level possible — while protecting basic civil rights — guarantees that more people will have a say in how they live their lives. More people will be happy, and the moral legitimacy of political decisions will be greater.

The problem for conservative and libertarian federalists is that whenever we talk about federalism, the left hears "states' rights," which is then immediately, and unfairly, translated into "bring back Bull Connor."

But that may be changing. In an essay for the spring issue of Democracy Journal, Yale law professor Heather K. Gerken offers the case for "A New Progressive Federalism." Her chief concern is how to empower "minorities and dissenters." Not surprisingly, she defines such people in almost purely left-wing terms of race and sexual orientation. Still, she makes the very compelling point that the current understanding of diversity — including minorities as tokens of inclusion — pretty much guarantees that racial minorities will always be political minorities as well.

"While the diversity paradigm guarantees racial minorities a vote or voice on every decision-making body, it also ensures that they will be the political losers on any issue on which people divide along racial lines," she writes. "Racial minorities are thus destined to be the junior partner or dissenting gadfly in the democratic process. So much for dignity."

Allowing local majorities to have their way, Gerken continues, "turns the tables. It allows the usual winners to lose and the usual losers to win. It gives racial minorities the chance to shed the role of influencer or gadfly and stand in the shoes of the majority."

She's right, and not just about her favored groups. For instance, Mormons (not a group Gerken highlights) are a national minority. But they are a Utah majority. Hence, Utah takes on Mormon characteristics. It's no theocracy, but it is more representative and distinctive. In areas where Latinos or blacks are the majority, what's so terrible about having institutions that reflect their values?

And, let them all live by their mistakes as well. In San Francisco, which Gerken touts as a haven for "dissenters," they translate their values into law. I think much of what passes for wise policy in San Francisco is idiotic, but it bothers me less than it would if Nancy Pelosi succeeded in making all of America like San Francisco.

I don't see eye to eye with Gerken on everything, and I suspect she would be reluctant to push some decisions downward — for instance, the "safety net" (the county of Galveston, Texas, for example, opted out of the Social Security system).

Still, I'm delighted her essay has received respectful treatment on the left. A left-right federalist compromise would make America a happier, freer, more prosperous and interesting country. It would also dethrone those in both parties who think they know what's best for more than 300 million Americans.

jgoldberg@latimescolumnists.com

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