Elbow Room for Ordinary Folks


The Vermont Papers, by Frank Bryan and John McClaughry, Chelsea, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 308 pages, $18.95

Thomas Sowell closes his book Knowledge and Decisions by defining freedom as "the right of ordinary people to find elbow room for themselves and a refuge from the rampaging presumptions of their 'betters.'" Frank Bryan and John McClaughry share Sowell's conception of freedom.

Like Sowell, they emphasize that among freedom's fiercest enemies are intellectuals armed with lots of theories and presumptions about how society can be programmed to achieve someone's pet result. The Vermont Papers enthusiastically offers practical guidance to those who wish to implement a government that effectively keeps intellectuals and social planners from usurping the elbow room of ordinary folks.

Bryan and McClaughry argue that "real democracy cannot, by definition, be writ large." Their plan—they do have a detailed plan—is to radically restructure state and local governments so that participatory democracy becomes the foundation for all governmental functions. The key step in this restructuring is to downsize the basic unit of government in the state. Although their plan is too detailed to recount here, its main features can be outlined. And although their plan focuses on Vermont, the authors clearly believe that it is applicable to other states.

Bryan and McClaughry propose that the fundamental unit of state government be the "shire"—a geographic region small enough to ensure that its members share similar values and perspectives and, hence, a genuine sense of citizenship. They claim that the number of citizens in the optimal-size shire is 10,000, though the authors never explain how they arrive at this number.

Each town in a shire will hold town meetings at which citizens vote for town officers, state senators, and for (archaically named) shire "reeves" who will represent the town in the shire legislature, called the "Shire-Moot." The Shire-Moot will have all legislative authority for the shire, as well as the right to elect a shire council. The shire council, along with a hired shire manager, will administer the day-to-day business of the shire. A system of shire courts will replace the existing state superior and district courts, with shire judges elected by the Shire-Moot. Each shire will be part of a federation of shires, much as the several states in the United States are now part of a federation of state governments.

The state government has a definite place in the Bryan-McClaughry plan, but its role would be greatly reduced in scope from the role it currently plays. Significantly, "delegated powers go to the state, reserved powers to the shires…always with the presumption that power resides in the shires."

Unfortunately, the authors give no convincing reason why their ideal state government would not steal powers intended to be reserved for the shires. The evisceration of the Tenth Amendment to the United States Constitution should cause Bryan and McClaughry to ponder a bit on how exactly the shires could be protected from the seemingly insatiable thirst for power by federal governments.

Nevertheless, the authors insist that under their plan the state government will be "radically smaller" and concentrate its efforts on protecting the environment, providing certain technical services to the shires, and conducting state "foreign policy." This latter responsibility mainly involves state relations with other states and with Washington, D.C. The shire will remain the fundamental unit of government.

Bryan and McClaughry have a downright maudlin vision of the future in which human-scale democracies become sources of great citizen pride. They believe, for example, that the shire will be so important to sense of community that "once a decade, on Shire Day, a relay of young citizens who have come of age since the last occasion will carry out the ancient Anglo-Saxon custom of perambulating the shire perimeter—perhaps on snowmobiles…or on bikes, or by runners—an act reaffirming the shire's traditional bounds." Frequent, romantic gushing such as this detracts from the book's merit.

Bryan and McClaughry's book should not be read as a contribution to political philosophy. Instead, the authors seek to present a workable, politically feasible plan for decentralized state government that offers an alternative to existing state governments with their massive bureaucracies and central-planning biases. (The national government is mentioned only infrequently and in passing—although always critically.) The authors' ideological and philosophical positions form the backdrop for their blueprint of a new form of state government, but the book is not about ideology or political philosophy. It is a handbook of sorts for those who wish to implement "human-scale democracy" where they live.

But how valid is the authors' maxim that decentralized, participatory democracy ought to be the foundation of society? The answer to this question depends on what other forms of social organization are among the reasonable alternatives to the type of impersonal, centralized structures so despised by Bryan and McClaughry. Unquestionably, hands-on democracy of the type advocated in The Vermont Papers is far superior to nationwide, and even statewide, planning and intervention by huge bureaucracies. This is true regardless of whether these bureaucracies are created by an authoritarian tyrant or by legislatures in republics such as the United States or the State of Vermont.

No matter how well staffed and well intentioned legislatures and bureaucracies are, when the fundamental unit of collective decision making is too large—and, hence, distant from ordinary citizens—legislatures and bureaucracies will inevitably be buffeted about between the granting of monopoly privileges to special-interest groups and the empowering of arrogant intellectuals to impose on innocent people their newly concocted schemes for "improving" society. The radically decentralized system of government proposed by Bryan and McClaughry would surely put strict limits on the ability of government to create and sell monopolies, as well as on the government's willingness to use unwitting citizens as guinea pigs in unchecked social experiments—such as those characteristic of government-supplied education throughout the United States.

However, decentralization is not sufficient to restore government that is useful to—rather than uses—its citizens. Human-scale government is not the only alternative to centralized government.

Constitutionally limited government that reserves most decision-making powers to private citizens in their roles as consumers, entrepreneurs, workers, and volunteers also must be considered as a viable alternative. Although I'm confident that Bryan and McClaughry agree with this statement, their failure to discuss the proper constitutional limits on the power of human-scale governments is disappointing. Perhaps this failure is due to Bryan and McClaughry's correct understanding that, all other things being equal, smaller and more localized governments—because of competition from other jurisdictions—simply cannot get away with being as tyrannical and redistributionist as more centralized regimes.

But this does not imply that constitutional limitations on human-scale governments are not worthwhile. Indeed, some local governments, as currently constituted, readily run roughshod over individual freedom. As long as collective decisions are not made by unanimous consent, every person, even under a government in a human-scale jurisdiction, runs the risk of having at least some freedoms curtailed and some property expropriated. Although it seems noble to put trust in the wisdom and fairmindedness of citizens meeting in a town hall and as a Shire-Moot, constitutional proscriptions on what the local and shire governments can do might ultimately be more comforting to citizens who value their liberties and property.

The Vermont Papers is an important work, in spite of the fact that Bryan and McClaughry overromanticize the virtues of small-community life and discount the great advantages obtained by an extensive division of labor throughout society. The book will be especially challenging—and a worthwhile antidote—to the all-too-typical libertarian who ignores the fact that people do indeed attach positive value to life in a community in which most citizens share certain communitarian values. If we applaud the market for supplying individuals with their favorite flavor of ice cream, consistency requires that we applaud a political system that supplies each person with his or her preferred style of community life without violating the rights of others.

The radically decentralized system of governments proposed by Bryan and McClaughry represents a step toward, if you will, "communitarian libertarianism" in which community values are nurtured while the elbow room of ordinary people is shielded from the rampaging presumptions of their "betters." A book that goes as far as Bryan and McClaughry's in showing how such a system can be practically implemented deserves attention and admiration.

Don Boudreaux, on leave from his position as assistant professor of economics at George Mason University, is studying law at the University of Virginia.