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HB 71 support consistent with conservative principles

My colleagues at the Baton Rouge Advocate raise an issue concerning appropriateness of state government intervention particularly according to conservatism, a concept easily understood if cognizant of the scope and purpose of government as defined in America and conservatives’ views on where in the act of governance optimal policy-making occurs.

Referring to HB 71 by state Rep. Thomas Carmody, which passed the House after two hours of contentious rhetoric, the editorial page shows confusion over the issue. Presently, state law mentions nothing about how local governments may deal with objects such as monuments related to military entities and events. In that vacuum, New Orleans through its representative institutions has removed three related to the Confederacy and has plans to cart off one more.

The bill would change the imputed process as it currently exists – the governing authority brings up the issue of removal or other alteration and may decide whether to make any changes – so that a local governing authority would bring up the issue in the form of a plebiscite where the voters in that jurisdiction decide. To this, the Advocate opines, “For the Legislature’s self-proclaimed conservatives, who are supposed to champion limited government, to meddle in how local communities manage their monuments is the height of hypocrisy.”

That sentence contains two mistaken views, one concerning the relationship between state and local governments and the other in comprehending how conservatives define “limited government,” that leads to the erroneous charge of “hypocrisy.” The former requires knowledge of the philosophy behind the organization of power and relationships among different levels of government in America, while the latter demands an uncaricatured comprehension of conservatism.

Political debate about federalism typically follows the Constitutional imperative establishing two levels of governments that gave some exclusive powers (in the document) to each while granting some shared powers (through subsequent judicial determination) as well. Thus, each level has some degree of independence from each other and work to do different things.

Unfortunately, very often discussion about state-local government relations mistakenly assumes a similar arrangement. Rather than the co-equal status afforded in the Constitution for the federal and state governments, local governments exist fully as creatures of a state government. States entirely choose whether to have these, the forms these take on, and what powers to delegate to these. This principal-agent relationship causes local government to serve as means by which the state implements its policy, which may or may not include autonomy, by the state’s choice, for local governments to make policy on the state’s behalf.

So, to argue that when the state wishes to make policy regarding disposition of objects under local government jurisdiction is “to meddle,” this misunderstands the fundamental relationship between state and local government. By definition, the state can’t “meddle;” making this kind of policy is in its purview. The state has the complete right to determine the process by which changes can come to these objects.

This brings up the optimal way in which to shape the process, which the Advocate presumes to analyze using a conservative lens on the basis of “limited government.” To conservatives, “limited government” means giving the institutions of government the most minimal power necessary to achieve a societal objective, which also will determine the appropriate level of government to pursue the objective. On an issue-by-issue basis, this can vary considerably.

For example, in matters of defense conservatism would argue that the federal government must be given an extraordinarily large latitude of powers, for only this level can achieve adequate protection and it must have often very intrusive powers to do so, i.e. instituting a military draft. By contrast, conservatives rightly maintain that a function such as education rests in the domain of states, and with a lesser degree of intrusiveness; for example, a state may compel education up to a certain age, but that the form of this should employ as much choice as possible that does not mandate attendance at a government school. Generally to conservatives, the more limited the power, the farther down the hierarchy of governance the power should reside.

Thus, to achieve limited government, conservatives wish governance to occur as close to the people as possible, as the people, all things equal, best know their own preferences and best act in their own best interests. This preference equates to the “principle of subsidiarity” (a uniquely American invention actually borrowed from Roman Catholicism – although these days a number of Catholics seem to ignore it, if not flout it in their rhetoric concerning political issues). Thus, least preferred in placing authority to do something is in the federal government, followed by states, then local governments, and finally by direct rule.

But, of course, things are not equal. The vast majority of issues in governance do not lend themselves to popular governance, as almost every member of the public does not want to involve themselves in these out of time constraints and lack of interest. This decision-making environment on these kinds of issues likely would lead to poor choices to achieving societal objectives; thus, a division of labor is created where a very small set of volunteers who pledge to devote the time and effort to make these decisions offer themselves for election to rule indirectly on behalf of everybody else, who then offer supervision through occasional elections.

So, conservatives argue a polity must make two basic decisions, all on a principle of subsidiarity, for any given issue: whether direct rule should occur, but if indirect rule would produce wiser policy-making then which level of government should make policy and which should implement it. Like any issue, military object disposition lends itself to such analysis.

To remind, direct rule likely produces good policy when the issue in question is something over which the typical person has the willingness to understand its nuances, which largely is a function of his level of interest in the issue at hand. Whether to bring down a monument readily fits the bill: with very little effort someone can figure out what the object conveys and very likely the imputed meaning (which may differ from person to person) is something formulated long ago in the person’s mind. It is entirely reasonable to expect the typical person can make an informed decision about keeping or junking a monument.

Therefore, to a conservative it’s entirely consistent to think that, on issues like this where appropriate, optimal governance occurs through plebiscite. Since we govern optimally where the appropriate level of decision-making occurs, HB 71 improves governance since it places properly the locus of monumental decision-making, in the hands of the people in proximity to the objects. There’s absolutely nothing hypocritical about it for conservatives.

“Limited government” does not refer to an automatic preference of not letting a first-order government tell a second-order government how to conduct a decision-making process. It’s built upon placing the appropriate amount of decision-making power at the appropriate decision-making level. HB 71 unambiguously does the latter.

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