Local Government Larceny
By Philippe Gastonne - August 20, 2015

Many local municipalities experience budgetary pressure. Rather than raise taxes or cut services in response, things that are often politically unpalatable, they turn to law enforcement and courts to make up the difference in tickets and fines. Some can also increase the number of finable offenses and stiffen the penalties.

Officers, already disproportionately deployed and arrayed in so-called "high-crime" neighborhoods — invariably poor and minority neighborhoods — are then charged with doing the dirty work. The increase in sheer numbers of interactions creates friction with targeted populations and ups the odds that individual biases will be introduced.

Without fail, something eventually goes horribly wrong.

We look at the end interaction, examining the officers for bias and the suspect for threatening behavior, rather than looking at the systems that necessitated the interactions. – New York Times, Aug. 9, 2015

Charles Blow, the New York Times columnist we quote today, is no libertarian. Nonetheless, he points to an important issue libertarians should consider.

The reasoning goes like this: If we must have government at all, power should reside mostly in local governments. There the public can better watch for abuses and hold elected officials accountable for any overreach. Social theorists call this idea "subsidiarity."

Is that theory valid?

The intense spotlight placed on Ferguson, Missouri in the last year exposed a small-town government engaged in petty larceny on a grand scale. Duly elected officials supervised a police force that regularly shook down visitors and residents to generate municipal revenue. The area's demographics ensured the victims were mostly poor and black, but similar official theft occurs in white-majority towns all over the nation.

If subsidiarity worked, Ferguson's voters would have stopped this behavior long ago. They did not stop it. For whatever reason, they tolerated aggressive police tactics. Blow suggests the sheer number of aggressive police interactions created friction and ultimately the Michael Brown shooting.

Whether or not that is true, it is certainly true that local governments all over the U.S. are not nearly as accountable to voters as they want us all to believe. They serve as the training ground for politicians who rise to higher office. That's why higher levels of government are certainly no better and often much worse.

People who run for local offices often start with noble ideals. Their ideals rarely survive once elected. A little power creates a little corruption – and usually leads to more.

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