The Roots of Democracy

Milton H. Mater is the managing-owner of a small manufacturing plant in Corvallis, Ore­gon. He is a Colonel in the U. S. Army Re­serve assigned to Research and Development during his annual two-week Active Duty Tours.

Since the Committee for Eco­nomic Development released its highly critical report on local gov­ernments in July, 1966, and sug­gested that the existing 80,000 local governments in the United States be reduced by at least 80 per cent, the cry for consolidating small local governments into larger units has reached new heights. Even the U.S. Chamber of Com­merce has come out for eliminat­ing local governments on the basis of greater efficiency.

Of course, I do not mean to de­fend inefficiency or corruption in any government, no matter how small, yet to hope for a govern­ment to become more perfect and "responsive" just because it is large, is to fly in the face of our own current experience with the confusing blandness of the over­powering bureaucracy which char­acterizes our oversized and ever-expanding Federal government.

The attack on local government has become so much a part of modern intellectual life that even the conservative Wall Street Journal in an "inverted think" editorial on July 27, 1967, blames too much local government for the race riots of the summer of 1967.

"This sorry situation," the edi­torial says, "of course reflects a breakdown in America’s system of government. Local governments, close to the people, are supposed to be alert and responsive to their needs. What has gone wrong?"

As if the big city governments of Detroit, Newark, and New York, where the racial conflict was most violent and destructive, could be called "local governments"!

Later in the editorial, a ques­tionable "average" statistic is in­troduced to prove the point:

One sizable difficulty is that there are simply too many local govern­ments, an average of one for every 2,500 Americans. Most of these units are so small that they cannot hope to apply modern methods to current and future responsibilities.

If indeed every 2,500 citizens in Detroit were represented in the government, I doubt that the riots would have occurred. The govern­ment would have been too respon­sive to local control to permit such a breakdown of law and order. Where in the modern United States have we had a riot in a town of 2,500 or less that hasn’t been caused by an influx of out­side agitators?

Rather than one government for every 2,500 people, the millions in New York, Newark, and Detroit have only a handful of represen­tatives, in governments dominated by a strong, politically powerful mayor who shapes the flow of city news to newspapers, radio, and television. Each mayor controls the programs for the expenditure of millions of dollars of city, state, and Federal funds, with hardly a by-your-leave from his city coun­cil. Each city council member rep­resents several hundred thousand people—not 2,500! Does such a city government even faintly represent an "average" of one government for 2,500 people? What kind of rapport can the people feel with a government so distant, so unrep­resentative and—because of the ex­travagant election promises and claims of the big city politicians—so lacking in credibility?

Democracy in Turkey

The political pressure and edi­torials for more dilution of local control and for the removal of gov­ernment still further from the people who must pay for it, bring to mind a thought-provoking in­cident which occurred in 1962 when I was taking my two weeks of Active Duty as an Army Re­serve Officer. I was assigned to an installation at Redstone Ar­senal at Huntsville, Alabama. Dur­ing this time I was fortunate enough to share an apartment in the Bachelor Officer’s Quarters with a young Turkish Officer who was with a group attending classes on our American missiles. After a week of breakfast chats during which he learned that I was an American businessman during the other 50 weeks of the year, he became quite informally friendly and discussed Turkish political problems which were in a particularly hectic state at that time.

One evening Gursel came in with two of his Turkish friends and asked if they could speak with me seriously for a little while. These were well-educated men and, I gathered, members of important Turkish families with connections in government and industry. When I nodded, he asked me quite bluntly, "How can we make democ­racy work in Turkey?"

The question took me aback. How could I, an American, with practically no knowledge of his country, advise him on a vitally important subject such as this?

I knew from previous conversa­tions that he was looking for some new formula of parliamentary representation that would prevent the turmoil which periodically shook the very foundations of the Turkish political system. I had no advice or comments on parliamen­tary democracy which I felt would be helpful.

However, as I sat back and pon­dered my answer, the thought came to me to find out just how deep the roots of Turkish democ­racy went. I mused over the be­ginnings of our own democracy which sprang nearly full grown from our English heritage. I thought of the "Mayflower Com­pact" and our own sturdy New England and Eastern Colonial ex­perience and the states which grew out of it. What kind of demo­cratic heritage did the Turks have, I wondered?

"Let me ask you some questions about the political life of your country outside of your great cit­ies," I began. "How do you govern yourselves in your small provin­cial towns and villages? For in­stance, are your policemen local men, hired and paid for by the town?"

The answer was, "No. They are sent to the town from Ankara, the capital of Turkey."

"What about your judges?" I asked. "Are they elected by the local citizens of a town or of a geographical area like our coun­ty?" (I showed them the county boundaries on an Alabama road-map.)

The answer was, "Oh no, no, no!"

I then asked, "How are your tax collectors appointed? Are they elected by the people of the vil­lage?"

This was an even more shocking thought. "Oh no," they answered, "they are sent from Ankara. If they were elected by the people of the village they could never collect any taxes. The people would not pay them. They would have no respect for them."

Freedom to Vote "Yes"

It turned out that the same was true for all officials whom we re­gard as essentially local people, elected by their peers to carry out the laws of the land. It also turned out that the only semblance of democracy which they had was a vote for the President and a vote for a representative in parliament who was chosen for them by a po­litical party and whose election was by some kind of proportional representation system, so that the people hardly knew who their own parliamentary representative was.

I then explained to them how our towns and counties operate on a strong local control basis. I ex­plained that democracy existed on the principle of electing officials at the lowest level, as well as at the highest, and then giving these lo­cal officials even more respect and cooperation than we give to a Fed­erally appointed official from a dis­tant capital.

I suggested that they spend some of their time in the United States visiting small-town city halls and county courthouses to ob­serve how our democracy works. Perhaps they could take these American ideals of local democ­racy back to Turkey with them and start what we call a "grass roots" movement toward local con­trol.

The Case for Home Rule

I think of my discussion with these earnest young Turks when I read of the C.E.D. report calling for the abolishment of our county units in favor of consolidated supragovernmental units; I think of it when I read of proposals in my own state of Oregon to permit the Governor to appoint judges rather than elect them on a local level; it is brought to mind when I contemplate the activities of the Internal Revenue Service which sends mysterious men from one area of the United States to other far-off areas, to make sure that we send our money to Washing­ton for local redistribution by other faceless men — men empow­ered to haul us, under arrest by nonlocal law officers, into tax courts ruled over by judges for whom we never voted.

Are we moving closer to the un­workable Turkish system of non-local government?

I am concerned over whether or not our democracy can stand up under these assaults on local self-rule by prestigious groups who seem to confuse bigness with effi­ciency and efficiency with democ­racy. If we permit these assaults to succeed, can our democracy truly exist in workable form with­out a strong commitment in the minds and hearts of our people —and can such a commitment be maintained when the people are moved still further away from con­trol of their government? A re­cent news story told of a national poll which disclosed that only 54 per cent of the people questioned knew who their congressman was. If our town and county "units" are trimmed down by 80 per cent, as has been suggested, these "units" would be even fewer and further away from us than our 435 congressmen are today. What an invitation to a computerized, dehumanized rule by faceless tech­nicians who would see nothing but "improved efficiency" in a George Orwellian "big brother is watch­ing you" type of society!

As for me, I’d rather pay in money for the bumbling ineffi­ciency of our overlapping, respon­sive local governments close to home than pay in loss of freedom to some far off, "highly efficient computer" to which I would be just another punch card to be used or discarded — for the "good of the State."

Related Articles


{{}} - {{relArticle.pub_date | date : 'MMMM dd, yyyy'}} {{}} - {{relArticle.pub_date | date : 'MMMM dd, yyyy'}}
{{article.Topic.Topic}} {{article.Topic.Topic}}