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Commentary: A good government is a small one

March 01, 2013|By Thomas Eastmond | By Thomas Eastmond

Newport Beach and Costa Mesa balance their budgets. The United States government borrows nearly half of every dollar it spends.

Why the difference?

Granted, a healthy tax base helps. But it's not the whole story. Our less-affluent neighbor, Santa Ana, was also able to make the hard choices to stay solvent.

The answer is that our local governments have kept to their constitutional roles. Recognizing that all institutions, private or public, tend to become run for the benefit of those who run them, the framers of the American Constitution undertook to keep the national government focused on specifically identified core missions, reserving most of government to state and local levels more directly accountable to the people.

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What we hire local government to do is straightforward: pick up the trash, pave the streets, keep the smokestacks a decent distance from the picket-fence districts, catch crooks and put out the odd fire. These things are either done or they aren't.

Unlike at the federal level, almost everyone contributes to the cost of public services, and so has a personal stake in seeing that government provides value for our money. If it isn't, we can tell the mayor to his face, or fire up our neighbors and replace him. The smaller the government, the greater one citizen's chance to drive change. If all else fails, local mismanagement ends at the city limits or state line. When the governed can vote with their feet, competition keeps government from becoming too burdensome.

Contrast that to the modern national government. Once focused on specific core missions, it now claims a general mandate to "grow the economy," manage education and health care, and wage so-called wars on poverty, drugs and other troubles flesh is heir to.

Yet trillions of dollars later, the business cycle still resists (punishes, actually) centralized control, and the chronic social problems persist. Those who run government programs become their own constituencies. Even proposing merely to slow the rate of spending growth elicits prophecies of doom, and so the trillion-dollar deficits keep piling up.

Local and state government isn't immune from mismanagement, as a number of California cities have discovered. Democracy doesn't guarantee good government, it only guarantees people the government they deserve. Neither is local government always the best instrument for every mission.

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