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The sad decline of self-government

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | May 22, 2013

When I was very young, sometime in my grammar-school years, I had the habit of going with my father to the annual Town Meeting. I found it fascinating to watch as the people settled the business of our town. I believed then, and still believe today, that a New England town meeting is one of the best possible illustrations of democracy in action.

In the late 1950s or early 1960s, when I was first observing the process, the votes at town meetings would settle all important local issues: the school budget, the tax rate, the road improvements, the zoning policies. If the town needed a new municipal building, the residents approved the funding, raising their own taxes.

But so much has changed over the years! Today I live in a smaller town, but the residents have much less control over local affairs. School policies are set in Washington. Zoning decisions are still set locally—although they are carefully vetted by state officials—but state agencies can trump local ordinances. If we want a new town building we apply for state and federal grants. At the annual town meeting we spend much less time talking about what we want to do, and much more talking about how we should conform our policies to the latest federal and state guidelines. It dismays me to see this decline in local control, this growth of central planning, this routine violation of the principle of subsidiarity.

These thoughts were sparked by Anthony Esolen’s reflections on the term “self-government” in his column today for The Catholic Thing. I see much less self-government taking place in my little town today than I did a generation ago. Something important has been lost here.

Esolen makes a broader point in his column, about the decline not only of our capacity for self-government but also of a strong culture that could support an American renaissance or a Christian revival. “Perhaps we have to begin with a resigned humility,” Esolen suggests, meaning that we must rebuild a culture, step by step. His own approach is to concentrate on restoring the proper understanding of words and phrases such as “self-government.”

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  • Posted by: Defender - May. 22, 2013 4:08 PM ET USA

    Given the way the press is eager to destroy political candidates, it's no wonder more people don't run for office - including local offices. Then there is the problem of hierarchy of control (city, county, state and federal) and the host of people seeking ever higher political office, creating rules and regulations along the way. Look at just the "catholic" politicians: Pelosi, Brown, Cuomo and Biden - who wants to be like them?

  • Posted by: shrink - May. 22, 2013 3:57 PM ET USA

    Phil, you hit the nail on the head with your recollection of your father bringing you to the town meeting. Esolen is an academic, and one should expect him to know the importance of words. But the paganism today extends deeply into our emotional habits that distort our thinking. The proximate solution is not only in right thinking but in right action gotten thru emulating good habits inculcated by good fathers. Christian fatherhood will be at the center of the restoration of self-government.

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