The president of the little village in West Michigan where I was born and raised (Spring Lake, population 2,360, sal-ute!) no longer wants to be village president. The obvious solution to this conundrum seems to have eluded the 84-year-old Joyce Verplank Hatton. Rather than resign the office, President Hatton has decided to take the road less traveled by, asking the citizens of Spring Lake to dissolve the village, at which point 150 years of independence would vanish into Spring Lake Township.
The arguments for dissolution are exactly what one would expect to hear from those who confuse efficiency with conservatism: The village and the township duplicate certain services; one taxing body is better than two. The political editor and columnist for the Rockford Register Star has made a similar argument for years: Rather than calling for the dissolution of the city of Rockford, however, Chuck Sweeny has advocated dissolving Rockford Township and letting the city and Winnebago County pick up the pieces.
The arguments of both Mrs. Hatton and Mr. Sweeny fail on their own terms. Studies of municipal governments have found that bigger is rarely more efficient, much less better. Cities have tried for decades to cope with the rising cost of municipal services by increasing their property tax base through annexation of surrounding unincorporated areas; but in the long run, the additional cost of the services they provide to the newly annexed areas more often than not outweighs the increased revenue. Small, it turns out, is not just beautiful but frequently more efficient. And reasonable scale is much more likely to encourage economy, a word rarely used today in its older sense of the careful management of resources. A $500 increase in a household budget of $50,000 is potentially a crisis that forces a family to make hard choices; a $40 billion increase in a federal budget of $4 trillion is nothing more than a rounding error.
Fewer than 100 days into his first term as governor of California, Ronald Reagan declared in a speech to the California Republican Assembly that “That government is best which remains closest to the people,” but, he warned, “almost daily the Goliath that is the Federal government moves to gather more power unto itself and to minimize the functions of both the Congress and the states.” It is significant that Governor Reagan placed in opposition not only the states and the federal government but Congress and the federal government. The greatest danger, as he made clear in the rest of the speech, came from the expansion of the executive branch. The real locus of power is not found today in Congress, as the Framers intended, but in the unelected bureaucracy, which reports to the president. Yet despite the fact that Republican candidates from Governor Reagan on up to Donald J. Trump have railed against this state of affairs, they have done little to reverse the growth of Goliath, preferring instead to harness his power for “good” once they find themselves sitting on his shoulders. None of President Reagan’s many battles with Congress stemmed from a refusal by Congress to curtail the powers of the executive branch at his request. Nor, I predict, will any of President Trump’s.
Those who clamor for efficiency and consolidation at the local level are often also alarmed by the monstrous size of the federal government, but the growth of Goliath is, as Governor Reagan saw, a natural outcome of the destruction of the government “which remains closest to the people.” Dissolve the Village of Spring Lake, and the next call will be to get rid of Spring Lake Township and roll all government functions into Ottawa County. (Already, neither the village nor the township has a separate police force; both are patrolled by the Ottawa County Sheriff’s Department. This is justified in the name of efficiency, even though the Village of Spring Lake had its own police department for most of its existence, and the village budget has never been higher than it is now.) More than half of the population of Winnebago County resides in Rockford, and another 20 percent or more fall within a dozen miles of Rockford’s borders. Why stop at the dissolution of Rockford Township government—what is the point of the Winnebago County board? (In questioning various taxes for county services that duplicate city ones, Mr. Sweeny has already essentially asked that question.)
The answer lies in subsidiarity, in Governor (but less so President) Reagan’s principle that “That government is best which remains closest to the people.” But that requires people who wish to govern themselves rather than to be governed; to practice economy rather than to demand services and “entitlements” while whining about taxes and fees. It means taking care of your family first and looking out for your neighbor next, and working together with your fellow villagers or citizens for the common good of your town, which includes not giving up your birthright to govern yourself for the promise of a mess of pottage thrown together by a highly paid yet inefficient line cook named Goliath in an expensive cafeteria in Springfield or Lansing or Washington, D.C.