Chapter 3: “County Rights”
3.3 Local Sovereignty: How to Get it Back
We have seen now how America was originally settled with nearly all governmental sovereignty vested at the local level. This was the legacy of Christian culture, and the better part of it. Early Americans did not have to worry about their wealth and freedom being voted away by alleged representatives far removed by hundreds of miles and two or three levels of government. We have also seen that this ideal of freedom has been lost gradually over time at many junctures, and always in the name of something like “the common good”; but more importantly, we have seen that these several creeping tyrannies were enabled and empowered by that one main instance of centralizing power, force, and money at the federal level—the Constitution of 1787. Nevertheless, whatever the causes are ultimately, it is easy to see that we today have nowhere near the freedom of our ancestors. The question, now, is how to get back to that level of freedom.
In this section, I intent to discuss the new mindset we need, some hurdles to overcome, and some practical actions to take toward restoring local freedom and local sovereignty. By “local sovereignty” I mean freedom of local governments from the dictates of higher levels of government. We must return to local control, and free local institutions from the bands and shackles of the federal and state machineries that entrap locals with grant money, encroachments on power and local decisions, licensing, and regulations. By the similar phrase “local freedom” I mean freedom of individuals from the same encroachments and impositions by their own local governments.
Obstacles to Local Sovereignty
First, there are many hurdles in the way of gaining this freedom. The enemies of freedom have always been those who stand to profit from the public coercive systems. These people—either for the sake of some form of prestige or money (or both)—will consistently scheme and legislate to benefit themselves. These lusts exist at every level of government, but also in the hearts of individuals. So, the remedy for restoring freedom to the local level will mean confronting the many, many ways in which both individuals and government leaders have entrenched themselves in public funding based on taxation. Whether this manifests in publicly-funded construction contracts, public education, exorbitant pensions for public employees, union privileges, grants from higher governmental agencies, or a myriad of other versions of the same evil, the path to freedom means stopping these appropriations and redistributions of money, and derailing the long train of abuses of individual freedoms resulting from the alliance of the plunderers who want the money and the elites who think they can plan our lives better than we can and that they have a right to do so.
The problem ultimately is as much personal and individual as it is political. In this regard, the local and state levels are microcosms of the larger plundering going on in Washington, D.C. right now (with the exception that state and local governments have the formal inconvenience of having to balance their budgets); but local government themselves are a reflection of the lusts and corruption that local individuals choose to allow. Local governments often suffer under corrupt officials, constantly seeking to borrow more money, and constantly seeking grants from State and federal governments. But often the people themselves either agree with taking, taxing, or borrowing more money, or they are oblivious to it and don’t care.
So here’s the hard truth: if you agree with the appropriations (but perhaps you say “only at the local level”), then you’re complicit in a corrupt system that stretches all the way to Washington. Don’t talk about freedom and fiscal responsibility when you make multi-million dollar exceptions for yourself, your business, your industry, your union, your police and fire, or your local schools. Obama’s not the problem; you’re the problem. Until you address this problem, you have no moral authority in regard to people doing way over your head. On the other hand, if you are merely oblivious to the problem or don’t care, then you’re still culpable and complicit by your complacency—and you can bet that the liberals and statists just love you for it, for it helps them get their scheme across with less opposition. It’s been said that the only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing. I agree, although I would add that anyone who sits there and does nothing can’t be considered a good person to begin with. We need to confront both corruption and complacency, which is to say we need to wake up and take responsibility, take action.
Knowing that the problem begins with the individual heart and stretches all the way up to Washington, we’ll need to confront all levels at the same time. But we must concentrate our energy and focus on the areas in which we’ll have the greatest effect—ourselves and our local governments. We have already addressed vitally-needed personal lifestyle adjustments in education and the welfare State. We have emphasized the “don’t take the cheese” principle in those areas for individuals. Now it is time to focus on that concept at the level of local government. We must work to avert all public expenditure, debt, and taxation in local government, as well as all accepting of grants from higher governmental bodies. This is the first step in returning to anything like true local sovereignty to America—her counties must be free of strings attached to all higher agencies.
Since that level of freedom does not yet exist, nor will it exist completely for the duration of the process of arriving at it, we must still attend as need be to State and national politics until we reach the desired position locally. We can’t take the chance of complacency at the back door where the Feds can creep in while we’re distracted with only local matters. Even when we achieve the goal locally, however, we cannot rest until surrounding counties, and then the vast majority of counties in the State have reached a similar level of understanding and practice of local sovereignty—for until a majority of counties exist that are willing to assert their freedom simultaneously against higher governments, the few that arrive at near local autonomy will always be exposed to the weaknesses attending their tiny-minority status. In other words, we’ll need a lot of free counties voicing their “nullifications” and independences at the same time, or else the federal government could simply ignore it and squash it with little repercussion. We need mass decentralized (yet legitimate) resistance so that no central authority can easily or effectively answer it. So, until we reach a time in which a growing number of America’s 3000+ counties care more about freedom than State and Federal aid, we must be vigilant in guarding our work and prayers toward that goal—for they are never safe from the threats of violence, force, defamation, and theft from above.
Solidifying the Vision of Local Sovereignty
Anyone wishing to start a truly grass-roots, bottom-up movement for restoring local sovereignty is going to face multiple levels of opposition—from the higher levels of government, from the vast mainstream media leftist-propaganda machines, from entrenched statism even in local media such as newspapers, corporate forces that use government to stop competition, and also from corrupt local officials. We must be prepared to meet all of this with truth, unwavering commitment to freedom, courage, and yet calmness, confidence, and kindness.
We also need to affirm this new vision of decentralized power. This vision must be deep and we must commit to it thoroughly. The vision of mass decentralization was actually voiced in this country at a crucial time by the famous economist F. A. Hayek. Nearing the end of World War II, he noted that western civilization was going to need to be rebuilt, and that this task would have to be done amidst an atmosphere in which Communism thrived as a powerful force, the forces and ideas behind National Socialism and fascism were still very strong, and academia was (as it still is) strongly socialist or even communist throughout the West. Hayek argued in his famous book, The Road to Serfdom, that any attempts at rebuilding along the lines of any large socialized, nationalized State would be doomed to failure sooner or later. His important conclusion was this:
We shall not rebuild civilization on the large scale. It is no accident that on the whole there was more beauty and decency to be found in the life of the small peoples, and that among the large ones there was more happiness and content in proportion as they had avoided the deadly blight of centralization. . . Nowhere has democracy ever worked well without a great measure of local self-government. . .Where the scope of the political measures becomes so large that the necessary knowledge is almost exclusively possessed by the bureaucracy, the creative impulses of the private person must flag. I believe that here the experience of the small countries like Holland and Switzerland contains much from which even the most fortunate larger countries like Great Britain can learn. We shall all be the gainers if we can create a world fit for small states to live in.1
Of course we know that his advice was largely ignored. But the vision still remains. And at this point in American history—when leftists and even many conservatives continue to praise and protect the instruments of socialism even as they are already beginning to bankrupt the Treasury and society together—this vision of decentralized power still remains the only viable expression of freedom and liberty. And that vision today remains ignored, even ridiculed, although its been untried for the past 225 years.
The vision is simple. Local governments have to take back sovereignty in every area they can, and local people need to pressure local governments to do so, and to refuse monetary handouts from higher governments, and people have to hold their local officials accountable to these goals. Local government must begin to resist the enticements, entrapments, and encroachments of the higher levels. This will eventually mean 1) local individuals will have only local government with which to interact (state governments will only deal with counties, and the feds only with states, this is true federalism); 2) representation will be much more genuine, as local officials are elected from a much smaller sample of the population; 3) government can be much more transparent; 4) local officials are much more easily held accountable; and 5) if any of these ideals fails miserably and the locality grows intolerable, it won’t be hard to move to another county that upholds your values. These are just a few of the benefits of decentralization.
There are disadvantages as well: 1) individuals can no longer enrich themselves from swollen promises paid for by taxing the national population at large or borrowing trillions of dollars indebting your grandchildren; 2) ideologues, leftists, elites, and other pests can no longer easily impose their values on 300 million people by means of only a few-vote majority in Congress and the President’s celebrity ink pens; or worse, by means of a 5-4 Supreme Court decision. This is the kind of disadvantages I can live with.
Imagine that: a society in which a population of 300 million is not subjugated legally by the mere opinion of a 5 people. Mind-blowing, isn’t it?
There is much more we could say in regard to this vision of freedom and liberty, but these are the basics. We will add many more aspects as supplemental articles and posts once the rest of the fundamental features of this project are complete.
Practical Measures in the Meantime
Finally, there are some practical measures to consider in the meantime: First, learn everything you can about your local government. This will take a little time, and will mean shifting the focus of your political engagements from the national to the local scene. Sadly, most people know everything there is to know about Obama and Pelosi, et al, and yet couldn’t even tell you the name of one of their local County Commissioners. This needs to be balanced, and essentially reversed. Read the headlines of the national stuff; react if necessary; but focus, focus, focus on learning the local stuff. Learn your commissioners’ names, backgrounds, beliefs, values, career history, voting records.
Learn the organization of your local government; learn the schedules of all relevant board and commission meetings. Know when they meet. And show up for important issues.
Learn how to find and obtain all publicly available information: meetings, agendas, budgets, revenues, expenditures, bondholders and financiers, contracts, projects, land use plans, rezoning efforts, constitution and bylaws—everything. You will find that information-gathering in itself will begin to breed questions. Numbers and budgets and legal memos have their own way of whispering. You may discover corruption or questionable practices your officials wish to remain quiet or hidden. You may find that a board member is working to give himself or herself special privileges for their career advancement or profit. Maybe not. But the more information you have, the more transparent and accountable the government can be forced to be.
Don’t trust “minutes” of meetings alone. As “Sir Humphrey” of the old BBC comedy Yes, Prime Minister! once wryly said, “The purpose of meetings is not to record events, it is to protect people”—”people,” meaning the government agents involved! Go for everything you can find or have a desire to get.
Second, then start a blog or website dedicated to making your local government as public and transparent as possible. You can be as detailed or selective as necessary, as long as it’s honest and open. Post everything you can. Show any clear connections, show every cent that is taxed, how it is assessed and collected, how it is spent; show every cent borrowed and who profits from borrowing against future taxation, and who holds the bond. Show how much elected officials and public employees of all sorts are paid, and what their public pension benefits look like. This is all perfectly legal. WordPress is absolutely free and easy to use. It would be great to have at least one such website dedicated to ultimate transparency in each of America’s 3000+ counties. It would better to have several in each county. Variety, choice, and competition will make them better and more effective. These would make fabulous projects for students; but really, anyone could do this, and everyone should.
Then, add video. This can be done merely on a YouTube or other video site’s channel, or better yet, embedded in a website. Record meetings, obtain interviews with officials whenever possible. Some local governments already record their meetings and post them themselves. The point is to have a clear and open public record, and get the word out to as many people, and make everything about local government as accessible and understandable to as many people as possible. This will lead, eventually, to the election of board members, judges, sheriffs, assessors, collectors, etc., who better represent a greater percentage of the population, and better represent local values; it will increase accountability; and it will help end corruption, self-serving, and waste. Taxes will decrease in many localities, choices will open up, people will be freer.
You should know that these ideas and these tactics are being upheld and implemented already with success. Some counties are beginning to assert local sovereignty against State and federal encroachments. For example, the local town of Sedgwick, Maine, recently declared absolute sovereignty over its local food supply. They were tired of state and federal regulations of local meat, raw milk, etc. So they declared their right and determination to be free of the tyranny: their new ordinance says, “[O]ur right to a local food system requires us to assert our inherent right to self-government. We recognize the authority to protect that right as belonging to the town of Sedgwick.” They considered State and federal regulations as “usurpation of our citizens’ right,” and went on to declare, “It shall be unlawful for any law or regulation adopted by the state or federal government to interfere with the rights recognized by this Ordinance.” This was applied also for “any corporation” that would try to interfere. The town argued that these claims to local sovereignty are supported by the Declaration of Independence, the Maine State Constitution, and other Maine statutes. They reserved the right even to secede completely if necessary in the face of a contest.
That Sedgwick, Maine ordinance is currently being used as a model to resist federal regulation in many other municipalities. These will certainly lead to court battles and possibly intimidation from higher governments, but the fact that they exist and people are advancing them shows that the vision for local sovereignty is growing and can be implemented. The fight is only begun, but it has begun.
This is true in other areas as well, as some local counties and even States have declared that they will not honor Obama’s Health Care Act, but have declared it null within their jurisdictions. Some States have declared all federal firearm laws null and void within their boundaries, for guns or ammo manufactured there. There are at least a dozen or more areas in which States currently are nullifying Federal laws. And as this precedent becomes more prevalent in States, it will only make moral sense to extend it to counties. Local sovereignty, county sovereignty, will grow more viable as well.
This is, after all, the foundation of American freedom: the first American declaration of independence was not that of 1776, but was written by a single county. Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, formally declared independence from Great-Britain on May 31, 1775, saying that “the Authority of the King or Parliament, are annulled and vacated.” They proceeded to set up an interim government all by their lonesome, until (as they expected) the rest of the Colonies should catch up.
Cases of local freedom—individuals asserting control over corrupt local officials—are occurring as well. In one case, a small town council in South Carolina had very quietly been paying itself an extremely rich pension package. When a few local business owners found out, they were outraged. At least one council member was opposed, and the businessmen approached him with a plan. They then showed up impromptu at a council meeting with video camera running. They got them members to confirm the terms of the rich package, and then asked for a show of hands on the council of all those who disapproved of it. The lone honest member of the council jetted his hand high, and the rest were caught on video exposed. The businessmen then simply thanked the council and left with the video. The council was so scared that it called a recess and chased the inquirers into the parking lot, trembling, asking what there were going to do with the video! They knew good and well.
In a similar case, a seventeen year-old kid exposed the appointment of a school superintendant whom a school board tried to rush through because he would be a big spender on behalf of the district. By simply showing up at both the interview process and the board meetings with a digital recorder, the corrupt thugs were caught, and were trembling in fear.
Another local contact of mine has been fighting these kind of battles for several years. He’s watched his community deteriorate with a combination of Federal Section 8 housing and corrupt local investment trusts, much of which came about only after an influx of “free school lunch” programs and Title 1 status gained for local public schools to receive massive federal aid. There is much to discern and sort out here, but the bottom line is corrupt local fat cat officials using government grants to empower and enrich themselves. And they are protected by liberal politicians above them, for several reasons. My contact said he started attending board meetings to record what was said. Very early on, one of these fat cats approached him with suspicious questioning and threatening demeanor—essentially threatening to wreck his career. The man is now very paranoid, because he has seen how deeply the corruption goes in his area, and how serious some of the insiders are about keeping it that way. There is work to be done here.
Another man wrote me telling how he won a seat on his local commission because the local conservatives were raising taxes and spending like crazy. He simply took a strong “TEA-party” stand against spending and corruption, and he was elected—despite overwhelming opposition from the local papers, labor unions, and even the local Chamber of Commerce. The local Chamber opposed him because it was dominated by big businesses that favor big-government for their corporate welfare. In other words, the local Chamber itself was corrupted by the forces of wealth redistribution. It had taken the cheese, and was now entrapped. My friend won the election nevertheless, but still faces an uphill fight against complacent and complicit officials, and, as he put it, “the grip that federal grants place on local units.”
There are some successes out there. But there are currently many challenges. One of the good things about seeing how deep and real the challenges are is that we realize how much more entrenched, powerful, and worse it must be at the higher levels, certainly in Washington, D.C. The nature of the problem is exactly the same; it’s just magnified at the national level. If we can’t dismantle tyranny locally, you can forget it happening in D.C. But this is what is encouraging about the successes we’re seeing: we in fact can have an effect locally, and many people are. There is a lot of work to do, and a lot of hill to climb. It will take time. But remember, we are planning for our grandchildren. It is time to start, get busy, and get a steady pace of reform.
It begins with people caring about the problem. It advances when people get focused, study, and explain the problem. It succeeds when they take action on the problem. This is county rights in action. It will only work when you get involved. For people can only be free if they will be responsible and courageous.
- Friedrich A. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom (The University of Chicago Press, 1972 ), 235–6. [↩]