Democracy & Disobedience
Partnerships with Local Bodies
I have argued that elected legislatures, not appointed experts, should make important value decisions. But in practice Congress can only set broad policies at the national level; it lacks the time and local knowledge necessary to devise the best plan for each specific circumstance. A promising strategy is to ask local groups to design legislative solutions appropriate for their own problems. Congress and state legislatures could then enact these agreements into law.
Something similar was attempted during the War on Poverty, when the federal government established Community Action Agencies, local democratic bodies that issued rules and managed some public resources within their areas. But where board members were chosen by voters, Community Action agencies began to look much like traditional city councils, except that turnout was unusually low in their elections. The alternative was to choose members by non-traditional means, finding the kind of "authentic" community representatives who might not win formal elections. In some cases, this meant choosing established leaders (ministers, association presidents, and the like) to serve ex officio. But often, as writer Tom Wolfe noted, militancy was treated as evidence of authenticity. "If you were outrageous enough, if you could shake up the bureaucrats so bad that their eyes froze into iceballs and their mouths twisted into smiles of sheer physical panic... then they knew you were the real goods. They knew you were the right studs to give the poverty grants and community organizing jobs to. Otherwise they wouldn't know."
This was no way to improve accountability or to encourage widespread participation. To make matters worse, Community Action boards competed with existing elected bodies that should have been forums for democratic self-government.
Intractable disputes about representation arose because Community Action boards were expected to vote on policies. Thus their decisions might well change if one extra neighborhood representative, professional politician, minority member, welfare recipient, or expert gained a seat on the board-perhaps at the expense of someone else. Today, however, local institutions could be reconceived as deliberative bodies, whose main function is to discover consensus solutions to local problems. These solutions would have no legitimacy unless every relevant group participated and endorsed the results. Thus it wouldn't matter exactly how many participants were associated with any particular group or interest. In fact, no one would have to be excluded from a deliberative body, except perhaps for bad conduct. In a legislative body, a requirement of consensus would be disastrous, since legislatures must make decisions even when people disagree. But this doesn't mean that seeking consensus outside of a legislature is useless. On the contrary, voluntary deliberation can change minds, refine opinions, and occasionally generate plans that all participants will choose to bind themselves to. Such agreements can make a legislature's work much easier.
Consider a recent example. In the arid West, economic conflicts about water use are exacerbated by differences in ideology and culture among such groups as miners, ranchers, urban consumers, environmentalists, hunters, and Native American nations. To make matters worse, watersheds are sensitive systems that cross state lines; water use or pollution in one place affects everywhere else. Thus each watershed is vulnerable to the behavior of all who own, use, or regulate any part of it. From the outside, battles over land use in Western watersheds often look so contentious that no resolution can be reached until the federal government acts forcefully, perhaps using armed agents to administer its unpopular regulations. But actually all the interests involved are harmed by conflict and would benefit from a consensus, if one could be reached. With this in mind, at least 76 local groups across the West have convened completely voluntary meetings of interested parties, known as "watershed partnerships." Anyone who wants to join is invited; anyone who disagrees with the group may opt out without fear of becoming bound by its decisions. But those who choose to participate can work out significant mutual agreements to which they may voluntarily bind themselves. Landowners and corporations can promise to curb unpopular behavior, environmental groups can waive their rights to sue, and government agencies can manage public lands and resources according to the desires of the group. For instance, according to the University of Colorado Natural Resources Law Center, a management plan for the Upper Carson River in Nevada and California was signed by "government agencies, the Washoe Tribe, state assembly members, local community leaders, ranchers, conservation groups and homeowners associations." A recent and much celebrated example of stakeholder negotiation, the Quincy Library Group, may be particularly instructive. According to a local journalist, this negotiation began as an informal discussion among "sport fishing groups, conservation clubs, wild river clubs, timber companies, county commissioners, land and trails trusts, Women in Timber chapters, the local Audubon Society, and even one person ... who describes herself as a 'Quincy resident and independent thinker.'" They met in the Quincy, Calif., public library because libraries forbid shouting. Ultimately, they developed a management plan for the surrounding national forest, presented it to Congress, and saw it become law.
This process could become commonplace. Once local groups had developed generally acceptable and detailed plans, Congress could order federal agencies to enforce them. Instead of asking administrators to pursue ill-defined values, laws would mandate compliance with specific agreements. Federal officials would participate in developing these plans and would articulate the national interest in local debates, but ultimately Congress would decide the law. It would also be the responsibility of Congress and state legislatures to decide which groups and individuals must consent to a plan to make it a "consensus" document. A particularly thorny problem arose in the Quincy Library case when national groups objected to a locally generated agreement. A possible solution is to press such groups to participate in local discussions through their chapters. Dissent by a chapter would certainly refute a claim to consensus, and thus leave legislatures to do their normal job of weighing arguments and interests and making decisions. But any agreements that did win consensus (as defined by elected legislatures) should quickly become law, and stakeholders should be encouraged to seek consensus through local deliberation. As a beneficial by-product, we might see growth in civic participation, because local self-government teaches (in John Adams' words) "the habit of discussing, of deliberating and of judging public affairs."
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Last Modified: 08/26/04
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