Changing State Government
NOTE: The opinions and commentary expressed in this essay are those of the author and are an exercise of free speech. They do not necessarily represent the views of Free State Project Inc., its Directors, its Officers, or its Participants.
Changing State Government from the Bottom Up
by Joseph A. Swyers
Joe has been a member of the Leadville, Colorado city council since January 2000 and is a former member of the Libertarian Party. He owns a small retail store and is a past adjunct faculty member at Colorado Mountain College.
Our free country is broken because Americans have increasingly become a culture of ever more dependence on government and of using government power against one's neighbors for nearly any issue great or small. It may be an innate characteristic of humans to use power to the maximum extent they can get away with.
In America the abuse of power has been predominantly enabled by the state governments. Power has been gathered by the federal level because the states have permitted it by abdication of their states' rights. The states have directly used power against individuals, families, and communities. And the states have given or mandated ever more power to local governments -- which, in turn, have often used that power to the maximum extent permissible by state statute. Often they tax to the statutory limit and impose all the building, planning & zoning and other codes that statutes permit (this I know because we are doing it).
How can a relatively small cadre of liberty-minded activists begin to reverse this trend? Such small groups are effectively marginalized to ineffectiveness at the federal level. This is also the case in most, if not all, states. Top down attempts have not worked. Liberty-minded people have been unable to win and persevere in state or federal offices which could enable a top-down approach to work. Winning one or a few seats in a legislature of dozens or hundreds of representatives or senators results in marginalization of liberty-minded legislators. The few who make it that far find their efforts vastly outweighed by not only other legislators but by immense, entrenched, control-minded bureaucracies. Even the smallest of state governments presently are generally too big for a relatively small cadre of liberty-minded people to successfully influence except by voter initiatives and expensive campaigns to pass those initiatives.
Voter initiatives have been often successful where they are permitted by state statute. In those states where voter initiatives are not permitted, how do liberty-minded activists get that freedom? The legislatures are quite unlikely to give away their power and risk being undermined by voter initiatives. And a voter initiative to gain the ability to have voter initiatives is the proverbial chicken and egg or Catch 22. Thus perhaps only states which already have a voter initiative process should be considered by the FSP.
Attempts at a state level, whether by initiative or by the legislature, to restrict government at a state or local level are met with fierce resistance by state and local governments. As we've seen with Colorado initiatives, fear mongering by community 'leaders' and their supporters is common. Sheriffs, police chiefs, fire chiefs, chambers of commerce, city councils, school boards, and county commissioners are enlisted by their state-level organizations and by each other's organizations to fight such initiatives. Often the only initiatives that survive such a full court press are tax limitations because taxpayers will nearly always vote for lower taxes (but not fewer services -- regardless of these conflicting goals).
Because of the entrenched power of local government leaders and the voters who listen to such leaders' advice, and because of the addiction of people to laws that tax and regulate their neighbors, I propose a bottom up solution to change this culture of dependence and abuse of power at the grassroots level.
Some of the proposed repeals or revisions of codes, laws, and taxes at the local level may seem too minor for political parties to bother with. But the pervasive effect of such laws upon individuals, families, neighborhoods, communities, and small businesses and other organizations that these depend upon is underestimated by those who focus on state and federal governments. Furthermore, for the reasons detailed above, changing such laws is far easier at a local level than jousting with state or federal governments. A small cadre of liberty-minded activists can make substantive changes on local boards, whereas their few numbers are marginalized at state and federal levels.
Activists can start with repealing planning and zoning codes and many of the other codes which restrict individual freedoms and compromise property rights. Then help neighbors and voters adjust to each others newfound freedoms to build or remodel or to start businesses. Such minor-seeming freedoms as enjoying fireworks or not cutting one's grass or working on a car in the driveway can begin to change the habit of worrying about a code enforcer looking at one's property.
Local governments can re-instill a sense of property rights and individual freedoms. They can make it clear to neighbors that a person's property line is inviolate. They can restrict local agencies to helping people rather than being code enforcers which people are reluctant to let into their homes. People can regain a sense of trust in local police, ambulance and fire departments. People should not have to worry about calling the fire department or an ambulance or letting a police officer come into their home to help them. Because they are ill or injured or have a fire and need help should not also get them subsequently arrested for what they may have in their home -- the mere possession of which does not injure anyone.
Often 'property values' are cited by voters, owners, and neighbors as a valid reason for such local codes. Why should government be partners in real estate speculation? Local governments should instead defend people's freedom to possess and use their property. The respect and defense of property lines extends in both directions. As long as a person does not force nuisances or harm upon one's neighbors they should be able to do what they want, as they want, on their own property and in their homes.
Local governments can affect enforcement even of state or federal laws by interceding and defending the private property line as inviolate. They can restrict the defacto trespass by any agency upon private property to arrest people, confiscate property or impose restrictions when people on that property are harming nobody but perhaps themselves (victimless crimes).
As people at a local level become more used to basic liberties they will become more adamant about their personal and private property and their individual freedoms. As more individuals and communities learn they can depend on their local governments to stand with them in defense of their private property rights and individual freedoms, then ever higher levels of government will be persuaded by voting majorities to also defend such rights and freedoms. Larger cities and counties will come around as a majority of their neighborhoods and towns demand liberty-minded changes to municipal and county ordinances. The state legislators from those areas will then champion such freedoms in their legislatures - or else pay for it at the local polls back home in their districts. A majority of legislators will be able to change the state laws and even override a governor if necessary. How far a state can go in telling the feds to leave their people alone remains to be seen. But, again, heavy-handed invasive federal law enforcement can be severely compromised if the state and local police refuse to help or insist on helping their own people instead. At least it is a beginning -- which is more than the top-down approach has yielded.
September 25, 2002
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the Free State Project, its Officers, or Directors.