The Common Good
March-April 1998

How Shall We Govern

by Bob Hulteen | March-April 1998

In Kevin Costner's new dystopic fantasy, The Postman, the future is bleak save for the responsible individualism of the director-star.

Worthy of Note

How Shall We Govern
By Bob Hulteen

In Kevin Costner's new dystopic fantasy, The Postman, the future is bleak save for the responsible individualism of the director-star. With all sense of federalism ripped asunder, competing interests make life dangerous and dreary. But one heroic mail carrier rises up to confront the chaos. The threads of the social contract begin to be rewoven.

Those threads are truly being unwoven in our present. The current political climate encourages the devolution of the federal government by redistributing massive amounts of responsibility and power to smaller governmental subdivisions.

Good arguments, of course, can be made for this "reinvention." Massive bureaucracies operate on a scale that can dehumanize the individual.

Many in our society, from all across the political spectrum, are rushing to argue that the federal government is no longer the "forum" in which to deal with issues such as welfare and educational reform. And it is tempting to believe so.

In the early '80s, Canadian journalist Joel Garreau (of The Washington Post) made powerful arguments for a "fresh" look at national boundaries and decision-making processes in his The Nine Nations of North America (Houghton Mifflin Co., 1981). Garreau persuasively argued that, in truth, the borders of the North American continent are arbitrary and no longer represent reality. He showed that, for instance, solutions to energy shortages in the northeast regions of "The Foundry" and "New England"—where public transportation is a real option—made no sense in mid-America's "The Breadbasket" or "The Empty Quarter"—where distance precludes public transit. In this very large land, conflicting needs made public policy for the entire country impossible.

Thomas Naylor and Will Willimon's recent offering, Downsizing the U.S.A. (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997), similarly addresses the efficacy of governing a country so large and diverse. Naylor and Willimon, (professors of economics and Christian ministry, respectively) offer a condemnatory assessment of the "big is beautiful" mindset—whether in technology, business, government, or church life.

These two authors offer concrete suggestions about how to deal with issues of scale: Shrink everything. Schools should be smaller; cities and states should be made independent; shoppers should support local industries over conglomerates.

Often compelling, sometimes infuriating, the authors of Downsizing the U.S.A. bravely suggest that smaller subdivisions of government should be given the option to secede, in order to ensure peaceful dissolution. Convinced that without this movement the country will devolve anyway, Naylor and Willimon want to control decentralization for the benefit of the common good.

Public policy professor John D. Donahue sees the same problems, in many cases, and suggests a different solution in his recently published Disunited States: What's at Stake as Washington Fades and the States Take the Lead (BasicBooks, 1997). Donahue foretells that on such issues as welfare reform and legalized gambling, isolated action by competitive state governments poses a more serious risk to the common good than a complex, centralized, perhaps even intrusive, federal government.

Many reform-minded people have suggested that if the states take the lead, and consequently the federal government fades in import, solutions that more accurately represent the perspective of common people will be reached. Donahue contends that discouraging the American sense of commonwealth will do little to increase the efficiency of government or rehumanize its programs. The magnitude of numerous problems requires a commensurate solution.

Persuasive arguments can also be made from a different vantage point. Instead of shrinking the role of the federal government, the scope and authority of metropolitan governments could be increased within the current federated system. Accountable and legitimated elected bodies that coordinate for the good of a metro region, as opposed to dozens of competitive subdivisions, would effectively attend to issues of urban sprawl, inequities in education, and job transfers to exclusive suburbs.

Myron Orfield, a Minnesota state legislator, has for years advocated for a metropolitan-wide government. In Metropolitics: A Regional Agenda for Community and Stability (The Brookings Institute, 1997), Orfield envisions a redistribution of opportunities for many within a metropolitan area: The increasingly common interests of core cities, first-ring suburbs, and low-tax base, middle-class suburbia offer a winning coalition that could slow the underwriting of infrastructural support (such as freeway and sewer construction) for exclusive, high-end commercial and residential suburbs.

Limited housing choice, rooted in poverty, is a central concern to Orfield. Exclusive suburbs mandate low-density construction as a means to hide discrimination. As insidious as red-lining, legislating single-home construction on large lots restricts the types of housing (rental is not feasible) and the density (urban sprawl taxes family farmers out of existence).

Although Orfield uses the Twin Cities as his primary base of data, his model is transferable. Modern technology has made access to the information shown with his instructive maps widely available. Metropolitics, both the book and the movement, is an integral source of information for efforts to develop plans for fair housing, redevelopment, land use planning, and transit reform in urban America. With reliable material like this, perhaps Costner's future will remain in the realm of fantasy.

Metropolitics is available from Amazon.com.

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