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Why Gavin Newsom Can’t Use His Good Ideas About Local Governance

Gavin Newsom has some good ideas about local governance which he can never put into practice.


Two pieces to read: Chris Cillizza wheels out that old “dissolve the people and elect another” media trope of the ungovernable nation. And Jon Ward has an interesting piece on why Gavin Newsom’s Citizenville view of local governance is gaining appreciation on the right. Well, scan the first one and read the second.

Citizenville‘s central premise is that government can be better, more relevant, more engaged with the public by embracing technology — and getting out of the way.

“Top-down, bureaucratic, hierarchical government [is] choking our democracy,” Newsom writes in the book. “We need to allow people to bypass government … to look to themselves for solving problems rather than asking the government to do things for them.”

“Government is the ultimate monopoly,” he writes at another point. “And monopolies, as any economist will tell you, often breed complacency and a lack of innovation.”

Instead of competing with the Facebooks and Googles of the world for tech talent — a competition the government, with its stale bureaucracy, is sure to lose — Newsom proposes collaboration.

“Government doesn’t have to come up with new killer features on its own,” he writes. “It has to step aside and let others come up with them.”

I’ve noted in the past that the right should absolutely adopt the language of localvores to reposition the message of federalism and talk about devolution of power and a government that works for the people in ways voters can understand. The best policy is locally grown and handcrafted by your community and neighborhood, made for you and by you, not by far off interests in bureaucracy or business. But there’s a problem for would-be change agents like Newsom, demonstrated by one-time would-be change agents like Obama who once decried the Washington system of lobbying and special interests: that a taxpayer-funded jobs cartel, fueled by the social policy biases of the left, prevents any such reform from happening.

Smart politicians on the right should absolutely adopt a push for “open source” government and shifting power to the local level, but such an approach is completely inconsistent with the goals of the modern left. Think about what “open-source government” reforms would do, in practice, and you’ll realize immediately the problems it would create for the Democratic coalition: eliminating public employee unions, Davis Bacon, and shipping protectionism; public school teacher tenure and zoning restrictions; restrictions on energy extraction from public lands; agriculture subsidies; block granting the entire existing welfare apparatus; and that’s just for starters. The number of protected classes you’d have to take on with each of these steps makes the whole thing simply impossible.

The typical media frame of both parties is that Republicans are uncaring heartless people motivated by personal greed while Democrats simply want to help everyone who needs looking after. But this battle over governance illustrates why neither frame is accurate. For the former, they want decisions about who’s in need devolved to the lowest level, where mass redistribution is not the name of the game and civil society can step in. For the latter, everybody’s equally in need, but some people are more equal than others. The political protection racket is a very good one, especially when it involves government employees in well-paying jobs they can never lose.

The reason such a nation appears to be ungovernable isn’t because of the nation, it’s because the coalition would be hurt by real forward-looking reform. This eliminates the ability to even tackle the basic math problems of things like social security or pension reform – because the protected classes like things just the way they are. As Kevin Williamson notes:

“Good government is a constable — it keeps the peace and protects property. Parasitic government — which is, sad to say, practically the only form known in the modern world — is at its best a middleman that takes a cut of every transaction by positioning itself as a nuisance separating you from your goals. At its worst, it is functionally identical to a goon running a protection racket.”

Of course, that protection racket is maintained not thanks to the actual issues involved – not thanks to what people believe about pensions or public unions or teacher tenure – but because of the political dominance of the governing cartel, the organizing force of the protected classes, and the loyalty oath demands of social policy leftism. Just think about what the executive order concerning contractor discrimination the president released this week indicates: that if you want to do business with the government, your sexual theology must conform to what the president thinks is the ‘right side of history’. Soon it will be those entities receiving federal grants, or tax benefits, or other religious exemptions under the law. When all policy is directed by culture war from Washington, there is no space for the sort of disagreement which locally grown policy allows, and everything becomes a test of who does not want to wear the ribbon.

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