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David Reynolds | Why Washington fails us

Before we go any any further let us make it clear that our title is not directed solely at our current president. Or his administration. Or the Democrats who control Congress. Past presidents, administrations and Congresses – of both parties – have been guilty of the same crime.  And what is this crime? Guilty of acting centrally, while knowledge is dispersed locally.

What does this mean? It means that the major decisions made in our Nation’s Capital are made far above the level where information and experience meet. Not sure of this? Check today’s news.

I, too, was guilty of thinking I knew more than those in the field just because I could see the Washington Monument outside my office window. An example. Back in the 1970s I was doing the Interior Department budgets for wildlife refugees, fish hatcheries and national parks. But I never laid foot on 98 percent of these magnificent places – places where the truly knowledgeable and dedicated employees work. Another illustration. There was an afternoon at the Labor Department when just two of us redid the department’s budget because no one else was interested in coming in to work on a Saturday.

So what? No problem if you can live with poor decisions. It is why central planning does not work. It is why there is no longer a Soviet Union. It is why those Western democracies which have put their feet in socialistic waters have eventually had to pull them out.

The U. S. is beginning to learn what all those other countries across the pond have found out. That being charged to decide does not infuse you with a monopoly on wisdom.

Wisdom and knowledge in any society, particularly that needed to run an economy, does not flow up corporate and governmental ladders. It resides not at the top, but at that level where it can do the most good, the level where products are made and services are rendered.

Conservatives like to credit the success of our economy to free markets, to the spirit of competition ingrained in capitalism. They are right, but they tend to overlook the magic of federalism.

What is this magic? Ideally, a federal nation is divided into sufficient number of units to allow the governed and the government to be on equal footing. Equality always improves relationships.

Switzerland seems to be where federalism works best. This small republic is governed by 26 states called cantons comprising 2,889 municipalities. As a result there are few topdown orders from Berne and the country runs like a finely tuned cuckoo clock. Yet, most Swiss citizens do not know the name of their president! For it doesn’t matter. Shall we tell the White House?

Or take Canada. Our friend up north would not be alive if it were not for federalism. French-speaking Canada would have been able to kill off a unified country long ago.

Now ask yourself about the good old US of A. Are we getting away from the benefits of federalism? Can one size fit all for the United States? Of course not. That is why our fifty states and their countless localities serve to take the sting out of Washington’s misinformed decisions.

In this area we have three governments. That’s our preference, in spite of the fact that economies of scale do not support our two independent cities. But we seem to be willing to pay a little more in taxes in order to bring government closer to home.

So here is my proposal to further strengthen federalism. Instead of watching the president appear on television every night, telling us everything from how to prevent swine flu to what kind of cars to buy, we will have other programs to watch. From Richmond we will have the live workings of the General Assembly. Call it “The Midwinter Doldrums Show.”

But the real payoff would be cable televising our city council, board of supervisors and school board meetings. Other communities do it. Comcast has Channel 18 dedicated to bringing government and other local affairs into our homes. And W&L has the expensive electronic gear and is buying more this summer. The university and Lexington would be doing more than strengthening their ties and bringing the community closer together. The two would be bringing us a taste of democracy, up close and personal.

So let’s get on with the show! Let’s forget Washington. Let’s practice federalism!


– Column by David Reynolds