NR Institute 2010 Contest

by Sam Selikoff February 1, 2010


Daniel Danta and I submitted this essay to the NR Institute 2010 contest:

Newton’s law of universal gravitation says that the force one object has over another decreases exponentially as their distance increases. Surprisingly, this idea holds true in modern-day politics. Any hope that a resident has of influencing his civic representatives is eroded the day he sends his tax dollars 2,000 miles away. While the thrust of this claim may seem to have its origins in conservatism, we claim that it is in fact axiomatic: there is no reason why liberals and conservatives cannot agree on the virtue of decentralized government power.

Imagine you’re an investor living in San Francisco, California who specializes in residential rental property. Where do you suppose you’d have the most difficulty maintaining the property, collecting rent, and keeping an eye on your manager: San Francisco, Sacramento, or Washington, D.C.? The obvious answer is Washington. It is going to be more difficult to take care of your property because it’s thousands of miles away. Even if you had the time to travel back and forth, your visits wouldn’t be as frequent, and the tenants and managers could get away with things more easily.

Now, where do you suppose you would have the most difficulty keeping an eye on how your tax dollars are spent or on what policies are put in place: San Francisco, Sacramento, or Washington, D.C.?

If you polled leftists, conservatives, liberals, libertarians, and maybe even some Marxists, they’d all answer Washington D.C. to the first question. It’s common sense. Why then is that same logic and common sense lost on modern-day liberals when they answer the second question? The idea is the same: the investor has more direct control over his property by being near to it, as does the voter over his representatives. The loosened tie between voter and politician caused by this distance is rarely denounced.

Not only does the voter lose democratic control because of the separation between himself and his representative, but centralized power also subjects him to the will of the majority. Decentralized power, on the other hand, limits the ability of a majority to impose its will on other groups. As an example, suppose that the people of New York decide to pass legislation that changes state policy on healthcare. Californians– who are uninformed about healthcare in New York – don’t have a say. Moreover, if this legislation is detrimental to New York’s well being, California’s economy is unaffected. New York pays the price: either the legislation is corrected, or people have the ability to leave (what economists call “voting with your feet”). This same principle can be applied to smaller levels of bodies politic, such as cities and towns.

This principle, however, is not present for policy passed in our capital. Federal law is written by those who are farthest away – and thus know the least – about the millions of Americans it affects. What is the result if new legislation turns out to be poor? People all over the country pay the price. Furthermore, the special interests and congressmen that are responsible for making the decision are not held accountable for being wrong.

The only way to unclench the fist of the federal government on the states’ usurped powers is to build a coalition of the Left and Right opposed to the central government. Regardless of political affiliation, all citizens should agree that centralized government power poisons the democratic process by shielding voters from the direct consequence of their decisions and by allowing special interests to impose their will on the majority.

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