"Local liberty is a rare and fragile thing...Among all liberties, that of townships, which is established with such difficulty, is also the most exposed to the invasions of power... [T]he strength of free peoples resides in the local community. Local institutions are to liberty what primary schools are to science..."
—Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America
Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859), that most prescient of all foreign observers, noted that once governments deny people the right to exercise their common sense on modest matters, it is absurd to think they can exercise control over grand matters. This is precisely the situation Americans face today. Our most fundamental liberties are threatened by incoherent national legislation and stifling bureaucracy but even more by local government. From once having been the "primary schools" for the college of liberty, local institutions are perhaps its greatest enemy.
Local Liberty will explain how the transformation came to be. Each issue's articles and commentary will explore the vices and virtues of local government today, notably here in southern California but also throughout the nation and around the world. Our concerns include the traditional ones of the friends of freedom and limited government: property rights, zoning, eminent domain, regulation, and taxation. But we will also explore dimensions of urban life such as public architecture and the critique of contemporary urban planning offered by the "new urbanism." We aim to enhance not just private life but local public life as well.
In doing so, we will offer specific examples of violations of liberty and common sense; and how a free, self-governing people can overcome these injustices with their own thoughtful actions. Given the willfulness of contemporary government, is it any wonder that many business people, youth, and new Americans find it easy to scoff at the laws and any sense of obligation? Isn't it easy to see why our neighbor city council members, acting as a redevelopment agency, could condemn their fellow citizens' property as "blighted" and seize it for "public use"—this being arbitrarily defined as what increases the locality's tax revenue? Are we any freer today from what The Federalist denounced in the debate over the Constitution as "the outrages of faction and local prejudices, and...schemes of injustice"? The Founders succeeded in creating what philosophers had only speculated on—a constitutional government, powerful as it needed to be, but limited by the consent of the governed and the obligation to protect natural rights. Defenders of this vision fought to preserve it in the face of struggles over slavery and in the growth of governmental power throughout the twentieth century. The Founders established an "empire of liberty" largely in response to the defects of state and local government. Today, we must use that largely discarded and ignored wisdom to restore state and local governments to their vital function in creating self-government. We mean especially the Founders' principles of constitutionalism, representation, and separation of powers. This is the true meaning of political principle and sober judgment—to be led by the need to protect and enhance the conditions of freedom.
The erosion of local liberty occurred largely as a direct consequences of the Progressive movement, which arose in the late nineteenth century and proposed a wholesale reform and nationalization of political life. It blossomed in politicians such as Woodrow Wilson and thinkers such as John Dewey, who were aided by a corps of journalists, activists, and politicians at all levels who vowed to change the meaning of America. A variegated movement, Progressivism was an explicit attempt to alter the relationship between the people, and the government and Constitution. For The Federalist, "the reason, alone, of the public...ought to control and regulate the government." For the Progressives, the desires and demands of the majority, as they understood them, were to be continually satisfied, making government power infinitely expandable. Thus, Progressivism sought to remove the restraints on governing, by claiming to stand for non-partisan reform. Polling could replace deliberation. Government would henceforth be scientific, university social science experts would be deferred to, and the need for elections would decrease. The remaining elections permitted would take place under the mantra of campaign finance reform. Progressivism's most evident success has been at the local level, where city managers and their staffs have replaced democratically elected strong mayors.
The Claremont Institute, the publisher of Local Liberty, exists to "restore the principles of the American Founding to their rightful place in public life." Such a restoration is impossible while the wholesale violation of these principles on the local level remains. Our scholarship, publications, testimony, lectures, and internet postings all aim toward that great revival. For example, the Institute has just published the invaluable monograph, Faith-Based, Not Bureaucracy-Bound, How Religious Institutions Can Fight Government Regulations. We make this guide to fighting government regulation free to churches, synagogues, and all other religious institutions. But we are not content with mere paper pronouncements, as essential as these are. If a legal crisis is serious enough and of constitutional interest, we litigate. The Claremont Institute's Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence is a vital partner with the Center for Local Government in filing briefs on constitutional issues, including those involving local government. We have taken cases involving the Boy Scouts, school vouchers, and governmental regulation to the Supreme Court, and, thanks to our efforts, the cause of liberty has won.
Return to the Winter, 2003 edition of Local Liberty