“Big Government” has been characterized by those on various sides of the political spectrum as an ever-expanding bureaucracy interfering with individual rights and limiting economic freedoms. Some also believe that small government may pose a similar threat. They charge that state and local governments are guilty of intervening too much in private citizen affairs.
According to U.S. Census Bureau statistics, there are close to 90,000 local governments in the United States. The bureau recognizes both general-purpose governments (counties, municipalities, and townships) and single-purpose governments (school districts and special districts). The latter comprise the majority of newly formed governments.
A new local government now emerges, on average, once a day in the United States. “I think it gives you a fair sense of the scale of growth that warrants attention,” says Nick Dranias, director of the Center for Constitutional Government at the Goldwater Institute, a public policy think tank in Phoenix, Arizona. For example, according to the California state government Web site, “within California, there are 58 counties, 468 cities, and over 3,400 special districts, exclusive of school districts.” Dranias believes that “few [special districts] are models of limited government restrained by a system of checks and balances,” arguing that these bodies are often driven by special interests.
“The bottom line is that special districts are the major contributor to the growth of the number of local governments,” Dranias tells THE FUTURIST. “I view this as actually worse than an explosion of new cities, counties, and towns because special districts tend to undermine accountability and transparency in local government when county and municipal services are spun off to unfamiliar entities with overlapping jurisdictions, unusual election dates, and broad taxing and spending authority. They are ripe for special-interest capture, and they are often electorally immune from the general public.”
Another organization tracking local governments’ influence over citizenry is the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. The Center’s new report, “Freedom in the 50 States: An Index of Personal and Economic Freedom,” ranks all 50 U.S. states according to the amount of governmental intervention across the public policy spectrum, “from income taxation to gun control [as well as] overall respect for individual freedom.” Its authors divide these issues into three “components of freedom”: fiscal policy, regulatory policy, and paternalism (governmental attempts to control citizens’ lifestyle choices, with regard to such issues as gambling, alcohol, and marijuana).
“Government intervention,” however, is a subjective term, and difficult to quantify. The index’s authors further argue that “freedom, properly understood, can be threatened as much by the weakness of the state as by overbearing state intervention.” However, the index offers a methodology for measuring how restrictive state and local public policies may be to individuals. The study’s authors choose to err on the side of caution: Certain “hot button” issues such as abortion and the death penalty are not included in the index due to larger disagreements over what, exactly, constitutes a rights violation with regard to such issues.
According to the Mercatus Center’s index, Colorado is the freest state. New York finishes in last place.
The index’s authors have created another tool for measuring state governments’ influence on citizens that may be found at freedom.robocourt.com. This Web feature places the control squarely in the hands of the viewer: Adjust the index according to which individual liberties you value most (gun ownership? Gambling? Civil unions?) and watch the rankings automatically reconfigure themselves accordingly.
Americans feeling that their liberties are abridged by their local governments might find some consolation by taking a global perspective. The index’s co-authors, William P. Ruger and Jason Sorens, conclude that “even New York provides a much freer environment for the individual than the majority of countries.” — Aaron M. Cohen
Sources: Nick Dranias, Center for Constitutional Government, Goldwater Institute, 500 East Coronado Road, Phoenix, Arizona 85004. Web site www.goldwaterinstitute.org.
“Freedom in the 50 States: An Index of Personal and Economic Freedom” by William P. Ruger and Jason Sorens. Mercatus Center, George Mason University, 3301 North Fairfax Drive, Suite 450, Arlington, Virginia 22201. Web site www.statepolicyindex.com.