Our long tradition and institutional practice of federalism, of layers and levels of government with varying portfolios and degrees of sovereign authority, is both a blessing and a curse.
The curse is obvious whenever a problem or issue transcends relevant jurisdictional boundaries. Think of the struggles over water rights and water flows between the states of Georgia, Alabama and Florida. Because the water flows from Georgia to Alabama to Florida, Georgia has advantages that it can pursue, thumbing its institutional nose at the needs and concerns of its neighbors downstream.
Similarly, if a factory whose production activities produce a rather unpleasant smell is sited on the easternmost edge of a city where the winds generally come out of the west, that city need not be too concerned about the stench . . . but the communities to the east certainly will be.
So our system has layers of authority, some of it designed precisely to empower a government higher up the federal hierarchy to correct the injustices that might otherwise arise at lower levels when public decision makers weigh the benefits to their own constituencies more highly than the cost to others.
But these injustices do not have to arise.
Municipal and county leaders can think beyond their own boundaries. While their authority may not extend across their jurisdictional lines, their influence often does. That influence, whether it takes the form of encouraging locals to ignore the effect their actions will have on neighbors, or to consider that effect, will have much to do with the quality of life in their region.
Of course, real regional success requires that more than one local leader, more than one city, one county, think beyond the narrow limits of their electoral constituencies.
How, then, can we keep the fate of our communities in our own hands, with due attention to the rights and interests of all? Here are three things to remember:
- Remember that we need to agree on what to do; we do not need to agree on why we should do it.
Different leaders may have different priorities; so may different communities. My concern may be reducing crime; yours may be the nurturing of the next generation. These different concerns could lead us to a common commitment to partner on youth programs after school and in the summer. Working together, we may be able to serve the youth population better, satisfying your constituents’ concerns about the next generation and my constituents’ concerns about juvenile crime.
- Remember that the benefits of a collaborative initiative need to be shared in a reasonable and fair manner; they do not need to be shared equally.
If my crime rate doesn’t move, but yours drops 25%, that’s a problem. If juvenile crime drops in my city by 15%, while it drops in yours by 25%, that’s a win for both of us. As long as we can see a reasonable benefit to our own constituency for the investment we are making, it shouldn’t matter that the benefit for another community is somewhat greater or less.
- Remember not to underestimate the character of our own constituencies.
We have become accustomed to thinking of politics in so-called “real” terms, meaning that all political debates are understood simply as struggles over benefits and burdens. From this perspective, rhetoric about doing good is just meaningless window dressing.
But politics really can be about something more than self-interest.
Residents without children have been staunch advocates for more investment in K-12 education, not because it will reduce crime or increase the likelihood that their Social Security will be funded in the future, but because they care about kids and about those kids’ future. Farmers and landowners have promoted measures to protect against the pollution of waterways and springs, not because they hoped some of the money so invested would flow their way, but because they love the natural wonders of this state.
It’s not all about self-interest. Sometimes, people actually care.
The best political leaders have the ability to remind us of who we aspire to be, call us to our better selves, and invite us to give more than we receive for a noble purpose. Precisely when the challenge our society faces is bigger than the boundaries of a city, when taking on the challenge best can be done when we focus on the progress we can make against it, not the profit to ourselves, we need leaders who see a bigger picture and speak of a bigger vision.
When our leaders can call us to our better selves, we can transcend boundaries and look beyond parochial interests. We can get things done. And, truth to tell, we all will be better for it.