Commentary: A good government is a small one

Newport Beach and Costa Mesa balance their budgets. The United States government borrows nearly half of every dollar it spends.

Why the difference?

Granted, a healthy tax base helps. But it's not the whole story. Our less-affluent neighbor, Santa Ana, was also able to make the hard choices to stay solvent.

The answer is that our local governments have kept to their constitutional roles. Recognizing that all institutions, private or public, tend to become run for the benefit of those who run them, the framers of the American Constitution undertook to keep the national government focused on specifically identified core missions, reserving most of government to state and local levels more directly accountable to the people.

What we hire local government to do is straightforward: pick up the trash, pave the streets, keep the smokestacks a decent distance from the picket-fence districts, catch crooks and put out the odd fire. These things are either done or they aren't.

Unlike at the federal level, almost everyone contributes to the cost of public services, and so has a personal stake in seeing that government provides value for our money. If it isn't, we can tell the mayor to his face, or fire up our neighbors and replace him. The smaller the government, the greater one citizen's chance to drive change. If all else fails, local mismanagement ends at the city limits or state line. When the governed can vote with their feet, competition keeps government from becoming too burdensome.

Contrast that to the modern national government. Once focused on specific core missions, it now claims a general mandate to "grow the economy," manage education and health care, and wage so-called wars on poverty, drugs and other troubles flesh is heir to.

Yet trillions of dollars later, the business cycle still resists (punishes, actually) centralized control, and the chronic social problems persist. Those who run government programs become their own constituencies. Even proposing merely to slow the rate of spending growth elicits prophecies of doom, and so the trillion-dollar deficits keep piling up.

Local and state government isn't immune from mismanagement, as a number of California cities have discovered. Democracy doesn't guarantee good government, it only guarantees people the government they deserve. Neither is local government always the best instrument for every mission.

Yet although some things are best done at the national level, not everything can or should be. During the 2012 election season, promoters of expanded central government touted the public sector's role in furnishing roads, education, and police and fire protection. That public role certainly exists. But these public goods are provided efficiently precisely because they are provided locally by governments accessible enough to be kept accountable, in a competitive environment where failures are highlighted by contrast to the next jurisdiction over.

Washington, D.C., was once considered a backwater among cities. It's supposed to be. America's seat of government was intentionally located outside an established city to keep the capital from resembling monarchical London, Paris or Vienna lording over the provinces. Now, eight of the richest 12 counties in the country cluster around the District of Columbia, full of six-figure functionaries, lawyers, lobbyists and other barnacles endemic to imperial capitals.

Local government lacks the pageantry that has come to decorate government at the federal level. There are no marble columns, no State of the Union spectacles, no Marine Band playing "Hail to the Chief."

This is a good thing. A small-r republican government should never get too High Church, pretending to carry more deep meaning than the institution of government can deliver. The Republic's roots, and most authentic expression, are in the familiar faces addressing the City Council twice a month.

As more and more of our public life is monopolized in Washington, this needs to be remembered.

THOMAS EASTMOND lives in Newport Beach.

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