Every time someone waxes poetic about the virtues of state and local government, especially in Oklahoma, I am reminded of three words.
In the early 1980s, some 230 current and former county commissioners and county contractors were convicted or pleaded guilty in a kickback scheme that remains the largest public official scandal in the nation’s history. The practice was so engrained some of the convicted seemed to think that county commissioners got their name because they worked on commission. “I swear I never took more than my 10 percent,” one of them is supposed to have said.
Far be it from me to defend the federal government. It’s big, it’s bulky, it’s clumsy and it’s not terribly efficient. Just today Sen. Tom Coburn chastised a federal agency that seems to have run out of things to do around 1988. And I don’t think anyone will argue the unhealthy influence of money in Washington, D.C. But, as national governments go, ours is not too bad. Afghanistan, any one?
The idea that local and state governments are inherently superior is just not borne out. State governments are at least as likely to give us bad government as the folks in Washington. State governments have given us Jim Crow, regressive taxes, lapdog regulators and corruption on an epic scale. Incompetence, greed and plain stupidity are as likely to show up in city hall as in Congress, and local schools boards, left to their own devices, have been known to go soft on algebra and hard on coaches who don’t play the right kids.
Lately I’ve heard many politicians say we Oklahomans would not dare damage our own water or land because, you know, it’s ours. I’ve wanted to ask if they’ve ever heard of the Dust Bowl or Tar Creek, or how the Oklahoma Energy Resources Board, which cleans up old oil and gas well sites, came to be.
In a perfect world, local and state governments would be better than national governments. They’re smaller, more agile and more knowledgeable about the people they govern.
But this is not a perfect world. In the real world, bad government is everywhere.
And so is good.