September 26, 2011

Small Solutions vs. Small Government?

Right now I'm reading Eaarth by Bill McKibben. It's an interesting book, if not rather depressing, about how global warming has changed the world irreparably, and how we should go about living on our now kinda freaky planet. I'm in the habit of assuming that if it cites reliable science it's probably written by a liberal, so I was surprised when the chapter I read last night included a critique of big government that would have made any Tea Party member proud.

Ok, granted, it was better argued than most Tea Party arguments. His point was that a strong central government was useful when we had big national projects to accomplish - building the land grand colleges, the interstate highway system, putting a man on the moon. Now, we don't have so many big national projects, and we have a lot of issues that might be better solved at the community level. I think that's not a bad idea. There was an article a while ago in the Daily Beast about local communities being improved by smart small-scale reforms in everything from law enforcement and criminal justice to education and health care. Programs like that, rooted in the needs and resources of a community, might be more efficient and successful than the big government programs it's so popular to criticize nowadays.

And yet...

Take, for example, Texas. Texas has pretty much the worst health care in the country. All of the small community leaders in the state could do their best to provide good care to their community, but Texas would still probably have pretty awful health care without some major incentive to change, which, given that their governor seems pretty damn satisfied with the situation, seems unlikely to happen.

That's where I feel federal government programs are important. It's not fair that someone in Texas is more likely to die of any number of things than someone in Massachusetts, when we as a country could have the resources to look out for everyone. Small-scale community solutions are great, but they seem to me to leave a lot of gaps in care and resources for people who need them, and that to me is unacceptable. Maybe our current system of trying to smooth those disparities isn't the most effective, but I think it's better than the alternative of not having anything to try to fix regional inequalities. (Also, sometimes communities screw up. See the Alabama judge who wants to make criminals go to church or else face jail time. Uh... just no.) So, while I appreciate that small-scale programs have a lot of potential to be awesome, I'm not ready to jump on McKibben's critique of big government just yet.


AJ said...

I think we still have those big national projects, or at least the potential for them, but we aren't as clear about them, and they aren't treated as such. As you alluded to, healthcare reform should be one of these national projects.

Allegra Hawksmoor said...

Small government is't just an idea that's popular on the far-right, it's one that's popular on the far-left as well. I mean, I'm an anarchist so I absolutely believe in the deconstruction of the state. Of devolving power to the individual, and to their community. Without reading the chapter you're talking about, it's impossible to say which side of the political coin that this guy is coming from, but it's not necessarily a left/right issue at all.

Now, as far as the distribution of resources goes...

I'd argue really strongly that a devolved society is by necessity a more unequal one. Like the society that we live in at the moment, it all depends on how things are set up. As far as my take on anarchism goes, for example, the devolution of power to an individual and group level HAS to be accompanied by other changes in the way that we organise ourselves. Especially in things like gift economics and greatly increased co-operation.

The idea is that people have the power over their own lives, and a voice in their own communities. Each community uses the resources that it needs, and everything else is gifted to others that need it, too. So, in that way, resources are more evenly distributed.

Without knowing exactly WHY Texas's healthcare system is so rubbish, I couldn't tell you how it'd work in that exact situation, but you get the idea, anyway.

Katie Casey said...

Yeah, I've heard far-left arguments for decentralized (and/or no) government too, but they rarely come up in American politics!

I'm really conflicted about that general idea. I mean, I do really think communities should have more power to do things that work for them and use their own resources. (Having read a bit further in the book, that's kind of what the author was getting at, too - a giant industrial food system doesn't do us much good as various ecological problems get worse, so community-based resources are more sustainable.)

But the way we talk about it in the United States tends to be more "States' rights! Federalism!" which in practice seems to mean a lot of states are really douchey to their citizens. Whenever we talk about "small government" in the United States that's what it seems to mean, and that I can't get behind...