When President Coolidge spoke to those gathered at the illustrious College of William and Mary in 1926, he reminded his listeners of what makes government function. For government to work, it must be local and accountable. Established by the earliest arrivals from the Old World, the experiences with bureaucratic authority taught the colonists that government centralized (and thereby removed from the problems it attempts to fix) never works. For this reason, as government advanced from colonial to state forms, bureaucracies had no part in the drafting, passage or implementation of state constitutions, laws and standards.
It was up to the towns, cities, counties and ultimately states to make government function. It is the cradle of true states’ rights and the basis for a genuine national unity. The one-size-fits-all approach always succumbs to its own inherent weaknesses. In the process of forming their own governments, Americans learned how liberty is only possible when the ability to make decisions is preserved at the local and personal level. Anything more and government, even in the name of compassion and efficiency, becomes inhuman, destructive and incompetent — the murderer of what Coolidge earlier called an individual’s “self-direction,” known also as freedom.
Experience has actually proven, so that Coolidge could truthfully say, “No method of procedure has ever been devised by which liberty could be divorced from local self-government. No plan of centralization has ever been adopted which did not result in bureaucracy, tyranny, inflexibility, reaction, and decline.” Liberty and local self-government cannot be separated as with a clinical incision to the body politic. This is why transforming government into the expansive, all-encompassing State it is today, whatever the intentions, always kills the liberty exercised by the individual.
The most adept planners fail not because someone disrupts the plan from its certain success nor because the plan can only work with the right kind of people in charge. The plan fails because it is inherently flawed. It attempts to liberate humanity by denying its humanness. Forced to conform to an unrealistic set of approved behaviors, government is stripped of any human quality, turning what is supposed to be the humane agency of free individuals, the “expression of the life” by a sovereign people, into “a cold, impersonal machine.” No longer the personal involvement of individuals deciding their own affairs, government perverts to infinite layers of “expert practitioners.” An unaccountable and reckless bureaucracy takes the place of local self-determination, giving and taking away freedom with the draft of every new form and the sweep of every expert’s pen.
We see states are no longer allowed to diverge from total conformity to Federal specifications, however mundane the state matter. This administration has made clear it will sue any state refusing to march in step with the arbitrary and selective enforcement of law it exemplifies. We watch as counties, boroughs and parishes are threatened to accept designated “Federal” money or else be cut off from future “favor.” We look while cities, towns, and villages are told to adopt a complete overhaul of zoning regulations by the Housing and Urban Development Department in Washington. We then stand aghast as Washington invades our most personal decisions of child-raising, employment, education, health care, retirement, and, through the institutionalization of political correctness, what we are allowed to say in political opposition and believe in religious conviction.
Coolidge, addressing the issues of housing, food, wages, hours, conditions, justice and opportunity, placed the power for addressing all these with the welfare of all the people in his state squarely where it belonged, where the laws properly placed them — with the people themselves. It is they who bear the burdens of government, who pay its costs and activate its provisions. It was for the people of Massachusetts to decide these details of their lives because they comprised its government from little Monroe to Beacon Hill. What Coolidge said of Massachusetts could be said of governments everywhere across this Union, “Our government belongs to the people. Our property belongs to the people. It is distributed. They own it. The taxes are paid by the people. They bear the burden. The benefits of government must accrue to the people. Not to one class, but to all classes, to all the people. The functions, the power, the sovereignty of the government, must be kept where they have been placed by the Constitution and laws of the people.”
The power of these truths, the “rules of action” originating from the people from whom governments are constituted, are what make bureaucracies such an affront to civilization everywhere. Lifting power out of the hands of the people directly concerned with a given issue, bureaucracies clog the proper function of government by setting up “the pretense of having authority over everybody and being responsible to nobody.” It is the assumption of control without an equal measure of responsibility that makes a bureaucracy so destructive of local self-government and, inseparably, individual freedom. Coolidge put it in even clearer terms, “Of all forms of government, those administered by bureaus are about the least satisfactory to an enlightened and progressive people. Being irresponsible they become autocratic, and being autocratic they resist all development. Unless bureaucracy is constantly resisted it breaks down representative government and overwhelms democracy.”
There are definite issues the Federal government is simply, even at its best, not equipped to handle, being “too far away to be informed of local needs, too inaccessible to be responsive to local conditions.” It has proven unworthy of few things, yet it is still given many more to manage. As Coolidge said, “It does not follow that because something ought to be done the National Government ought to do it.” Liberty diminishes in proportion to increasingly centralized control. Where freedom is concerned, it actually is a zero-sum game.
The solution, as Coolidge analyzed this problem, remains the same now. The states can help end or irreversibly enable the dysfunction of government by bureaucracy. The rights held by states are not given them to never use just as they are not given to abuse those to whom they are accountable, the people of each state. If they are unfaithful in the exercise of delegated powers, the Federal Government is thereby invited to step in and get involved. The willing weakness of local and state government only encourages the intrusion of Federal controls.
This danger provoked President Coolidge not to absorb power, but to restore the correct balance between the people, the states and national government. He did so consistently. By vetoing the double attempts to socialize American agriculture, chopping down the Federal outlay for flood aid, cutting and cutting again the size of the Federal budget, paying down the nation’s $20 billion debt, reducing tax rates across the board and fighting the Congressional urge to spend each year’s growing surplus, Coolidge left the recipe that works when Washington is governed responsibly. It remained for the states and local decision-makers to follow that constructive lead. Far too often they did not do so, working instead against Coolidge’s program.
Local self-government cannot afford, fiscally, politically, morally, to shirk its duty a moment longer. The states cannot emulate the direction they took in the 1920s and 30s. It must be the sovereign people, through their municipal, county and state governments, who stand when no one else seems willing to stand. The alternative will hasten only more of the same disastrous consequences ahead for us already.
The way lit by Coolidge forward, back toward progress and justice, requires courage but it is the only way. It means robustly asserting local and state authority, dragging Washington back to its limited and lawful sphere of responsibilities. “I want to see the policy adopted by the States of discharging their public functions so faithfully that instead of an extension on the part of the Federal Government there can be a contraction.” The march back toward a government of the people and away from central bureaucracy starts where all good governance begins — at the local level.