One scholarly purpose of the Claremont Institute's Center for Local Government is the revival of the serious study of local government. The Spring 2004 issue of the lively political science journal Perspectives on Political Science features a symposium of diverse voices on how the study of local government illuminates broader issues in the study of politics. In soliciting these pieces, I sought scholarship that might turn the attention of specialists in local government to profound themes of political philosophy and turn those with a love of those abiding issues to the enduring significance of local institutions.
Our interest in local government largely derives from the triumph of Progressivism. This victory manifests itself most notably in the absence of the Declaration of Independence from sophisticated political discourse. In banishing the American Founders' understanding of natural rights from national discussion, Progressivism sought to reform state and local governments. The council-manager form of local government, for example, allows the hiring of university-educated experts as the true chief executives of a city or locality, fosters the dependence of local decision-makers on appointed boards, and encourages local governments to exercise eminent domain powers, permitting seizure of private property for transference to other owners.
The overall effect of these reforms has been to distance government from the opinions and interests of the ordinary citizen. Political power has shifted away from ordinary citizens to typically leftist elites. To save limited government, Progressivism and its ideological and institutional legacies require a reexamination of American local government in order for a return to natural rights and limited government to succeed.
In this symposium, four unconventional political scientists pose diverse responses to the crisis caused by Progressivism. They represent various sub-disciplines of politics—American politics, comparative politics, political economy, and public finance.
- Stephen Elkin, of the University of Maryland, wonders whether the large, commercial republic has undermined public spiritedness. That public spiritedness is best refined through the experience of local politics and local experiences, in business, school, and recreation.
- In his impressive survey of local government practices throughout the Western world, Filippo Sabetti, who teaches politics at McGill University, would restore local government as the "starting point of constitutionalism and, correlatively, of self-governance." Throughout the history of the West, local government has served to preempt the rise of bureaucracies.
- Brian P. Janiskee, who, with me, is co-author of Democracy in California, reconsiders the Jeffersonian emphasis on a ward-republic system of local government. In noting the "restlessness … at the heart of our multi-layered federal regime," he contends that "[i]n matters of local government in America, revolution and federalism are two sides of the same coin."
- Public finance expert Steven Frates, of the Rose Institute of Claremont McKenna College, argues for quantifying government expenditures in meaningful terms to voters. Self-government requires such easily accessible information about the costs of government programs.
Together, these essays constitute a primer on restoring self-government in light of the Progressive revolution of a century ago. As indicated, the scope of such a counter-revolution is vast. Here is the opportunity to begin.