The Roots of Democracy
JANUARY 01, 1968 by MILTON H. MATER
Milton H. Mater is the managing-owner of a small manufacturing plant in Corvallis, Oregon. He is a Colonel in the U. S. Army Reserve assigned to Research and Development during his annual two-week Active Duty Tours.
Since the Committee for Economic Development released its highly critical report on local governments in July, 1966, and suggested that the existing 80,000 local governments in the United States be reduced by at least 80 per cent, the cry for consolidating small local governments into larger units has reached new heights. Even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has come out for eliminating local governments on the basis of greater efficiency.
Of course, I do not mean to defend inefficiency or corruption in any government, no matter how small, yet to hope for a government to become more perfect and "responsive" just because it is large, is to fly in the face of our own current experience with the confusing blandness of the overpowering bureaucracy which characterizes our oversized and ever-expanding Federal government.
The attack on local government has become so much a part of modern intellectual life that even the conservative Wall Street Journal in an "inverted think" editorial on July 27, 1967, blames too much local government for the race riots of the summer of 1967.
"This sorry situation," the editorial says, "of course reflects a breakdown in America’s system of government. Local governments, close to the people, are supposed to be alert and responsive to their needs. What has gone wrong?"
As if the big city governments of Detroit, Newark, and New York, where the racial conflict was most violent and destructive, could be called "local governments"!
Later in the editorial, a questionable "average" statistic is introduced to prove the point:
One sizable difficulty is that there are simply too many local governments, an average of one for every 2,500 Americans. Most of these units are so small that they cannot hope to apply modern methods to current and future responsibilities.
If indeed every 2,500 citizens in Detroit were represented in the government, I doubt that the riots would have occurred. The government would have been too responsive to local control to permit such a breakdown of law and order. Where in the modern United States have we had a riot in a town of 2,500 or less that hasn’t been caused by an influx of outside agitators?
Rather than one government for every 2,500 people, the millions in New York, Newark, and Detroit have only a handful of representatives, in governments dominated by a strong, politically powerful mayor who shapes the flow of city news to newspapers, radio, and television. Each mayor controls the programs for the expenditure of millions of dollars of city, state, and Federal funds, with hardly a by-your-leave from his city council. Each city council member represents several hundred thousand people—not 2,500! Does such a city government even faintly represent an "average" of one government for 2,500 people? What kind of rapport can the people feel with a government so distant, so unrepresentative and—because of the extravagant election promises and claims of the big city politicians—so lacking in credibility?
Democracy in Turkey
The political pressure and editorials for more dilution of local control and for the removal of government still further from the people who must pay for it, bring to mind a thought-provoking incident which occurred in 1962 when I was taking my two weeks of Active Duty as an Army Reserve Officer. I was assigned to an installation at Redstone Arsenal at Huntsville, Alabama. During this time I was fortunate enough to share an apartment in the Bachelor Officer’s Quarters with a young Turkish Officer who was with a group attending classes on our American missiles. After a week of breakfast chats during which he learned that I was an American businessman during the other 50 weeks of the year, he became quite informally friendly and discussed Turkish political problems which were in a particularly hectic state at that time.
One evening Gursel came in with two of his Turkish friends and asked if they could speak with me seriously for a little while. These were well-educated men and, I gathered, members of important Turkish families with connections in government and industry. When I nodded, he asked me quite bluntly, "How can we make democracy work in Turkey?"
The question took me aback. How could I, an American, with practically no knowledge of his country, advise him on a vitally important subject such as this?
I knew from previous conversations that he was looking for some new formula of parliamentary representation that would prevent the turmoil which periodically shook the very foundations of the Turkish political system. I had no advice or comments on parliamentary democracy which I felt would be helpful.
However, as I sat back and pondered my answer, the thought came to me to find out just how deep the roots of Turkish democracy went. I mused over the beginnings of our own democracy which sprang nearly full grown from our English heritage. I thought of the "Mayflower Compact" and our own sturdy New England and Eastern Colonial experience and the states which grew out of it. What kind of democratic heritage did the Turks have, I wondered?
"Let me ask you some questions about the political life of your country outside of your great cities," I began. "How do you govern yourselves in your small provincial towns and villages? For instance, are your policemen local men, hired and paid for by the town?"
The answer was, "No. They are sent to the town from Ankara, the capital of Turkey."
"What about your judges?" I asked. "Are they elected by the local citizens of a town or of a geographical area like our county?" (I showed them the county boundaries on an Alabama road-map.)
The answer was, "Oh no, no, no!"
I then asked, "How are your tax collectors appointed? Are they elected by the people of the village?"
This was an even more shocking thought. "Oh no," they answered, "they are sent from Ankara. If they were elected by the people of the village they could never collect any taxes. The people would not pay them. They would have no respect for them."
Freedom to Vote "Yes"
It turned out that the same was true for all officials whom we regard as essentially local people, elected by their peers to carry out the laws of the land. It also turned out that the only semblance of democracy which they had was a vote for the President and a vote for a representative in parliament who was chosen for them by a political party and whose election was by some kind of proportional representation system, so that the people hardly knew who their own parliamentary representative was.
I then explained to them how our towns and counties operate on a strong local control basis. I explained that democracy existed on the principle of electing officials at the lowest level, as well as at the highest, and then giving these local officials even more respect and cooperation than we give to a Federally appointed official from a distant capital.
I suggested that they spend some of their time in the United States visiting small-town city halls and county courthouses to observe how our democracy works. Perhaps they could take these American ideals of local democracy back to Turkey with them and start what we call a "grass roots" movement toward local control.
The Case for Home Rule
I think of my discussion with these earnest young Turks when I read of the C.E.D. report calling for the abolishment of our county units in favor of consolidated supragovernmental units; I think of it when I read of proposals in my own state of Oregon to permit the Governor to appoint judges rather than elect them on a local level; it is brought to mind when I contemplate the activities of the Internal Revenue Service which sends mysterious men from one area of the United States to other far-off areas, to make sure that we send our money to Washington for local redistribution by other faceless men — men empowered to haul us, under arrest by nonlocal law officers, into tax courts ruled over by judges for whom we never voted.
Are we moving closer to the unworkable Turkish system of non-local government?
I am concerned over whether or not our democracy can stand up under these assaults on local self-rule by prestigious groups who seem to confuse bigness with efficiency and efficiency with democracy. If we permit these assaults to succeed, can our democracy truly exist in workable form without a strong commitment in the minds and hearts of our people —and can such a commitment be maintained when the people are moved still further away from control of their government? A recent news story told of a national poll which disclosed that only 54 per cent of the people questioned knew who their congressman was. If our town and county "units" are trimmed down by 80 per cent, as has been suggested, these "units" would be even fewer and further away from us than our 435 congressmen are today. What an invitation to a computerized, dehumanized rule by faceless technicians who would see nothing but "improved efficiency" in a George Orwellian "big brother is watching you" type of society!
As for me, I’d rather pay in money for the bumbling inefficiency of our overlapping, responsive local governments close to home than pay in loss of freedom to some far off, "highly efficient computer" to which I would be just another punch card to be used or discarded — for the "good of the State."