Smoke in the Kitchen? Call Up the Army?


police army commando special task force
Photo by Somchai Kongkamsri on

Our multi-level system of government is complicated—with townships, villages, school boards, cities, counties, regional planning agencies, states, and the federal government. Above that level, there is a semi-organized system of international treaties and organizations to handle problems that are too big for any one nation–like the Law of the Sea.

Each level has its role and the system usually works to deliver what we need, where and when we need it. We expect the federal government to maintain an army that protects us from foreign invasion. But we call the local fire department when we smell smoke in the kitchen. We know the guys in the fire department would not be much use repelling an enemy invasion, no matter how many hunting rifles they could muster, and the army is not going to put out our kitchen fire. There is a practical role for each of these levels of government.

Sometimes, it goes wrong. The individual rights of African-Americans were systematically denied for a century in the name of “states’ rights,” so the federal government had to step in as the guarantor of every American’s civil rights. On the other hand, many believed the federal government overstepped its role in trying to reform local school systems with the Bush Administration’s No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 and it was subsequently repealed and replaced.

The heritage we leave for the next generation of Americans and their life chances partly depend on us making the right decisions about which jobs we assign to each level of government. I thought two recent articles from the Progressive Policy Institute did a good job exploring that issue.

The most topical is Democratic candidates should talk flexible federalism by Dane Stangler. He writes that the 23 Democratic candidates for president are mainly proposing massive new federal programs at a time when most Americans distrust the federal government and it is hamstrung in starting new programs by partisan deadlock and huge budget deficits. Furthermore, many of the initiatives they are discussing like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal could better be handled in cooperation with state or municipal governments rather than a “one size fits all” national program. Overlooking the contribution that state and city governments can make is puzzling because 15 of the 23 candidates have experience at those levels. It is a thought-provoking article.

A more general article on the problem of putting government functions at the proper level is Going Local: Progressive Federalism in the 21st Century by Will Marshall. This article puts our division of governmental responsibilities in an historical context from the 19thto the 21stcenturies and includes five reasons why today’s progressives should  focus less on the federal level of government and more on the state and local levels.

The Progressive Policy Institute is one of my favorite think tanks because they are not tied to either the left or right wings of our politics. It came out of the New Democrat movement in the 1990s with a free enterprise and pro social mobility orientation. They look at each issue in a logical way that, in their words, is “radically pragmatic.” The articles are both a quick read and it is worth poking around in their website to see some of their other unconventional policy ideas.


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