[O]ur biggest obstacle to achieving a larger civic vision is the sad lack of over-arching governmental leadership, vision and collaboration among Hamilton County’s 10 municipal governmental bodies, and the county government steered by the County Commission.
— Harry Austin, former Times Free Press editorialist
By David Tulis / Noogaradio 1240 AM 101.1 FM
You know your hometown exists on maps. It has colored lines on that piece of paper delineating its border from the county next to it. More than that, your town is an idea. Chattanooga is a construct of the lives of all its inhabitants. It is their projection of the city, entwined with their personal narratives, a storyline taken into account (somehow) by an all-seeing eye, or by a poet’s imagination or a journalist’s or historian’s tale. Is Chattanooga the indiscernible and incalculable sum of all our private lives in the city, visible only to God, who knows all things?
Don’t think that I am suggesting that well-informed people should avoid the generalization. An observation by a writer such as former Times Free Press editorialist Harry Austin has great value, as might a study about the health of city residents in May 2013, published by Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies. Indeed, Mr. Austin joins 14 other local people at Benwood Foundation’s website to argue for personal and public visions of Chattanooga.
But Mr. Austin does more than esteem Chattanooga. Writing at the Benwood Foundation blog he writes about a concept called “community change” and insists: “Obstacles hinder larger vision” (Feb. 28, 2014).
He offers more humdrummery in the direction of better organization of the state, better efficiency among the state’s agents in city and county municipalities, more “wisdom, vision and leadership of our elected leaders, and their use of public powers and the public purse.” His vision of what the city draws from the pool of observations about what the city and nearby municipalities in many ways are. They are not sub-stewards of the sword, maintaining justice of property and life and the liberty of residents in their exercise. Civil governments are commercial actors, enablers and funders of charity, ministers of body and soul. They believe that the exercise of force, power, law and compulsion is potentially salvific; they view the state as a grace, and its ministry as a positive blessing. Civil authorities believe, in short, that salvation is by law.
The power of organization
Mr. Austin and his friends in Chattanooga’s political and cultural establishment go far imagining vigor and life residing within the realm of power. You and I see death and judgment in the use of power, but they see life. “Local government is an organic system,” he declares. “Though many citizens, non-profit entities and businesses seek to improve countywide education, workforce development and smart land use planning for future growth, the actual result largely hinges on the decisions of local governments for collaboration, key funding and implementation.”
In other words, the private sector is OK, but government is better. Government doesn’t just bring up the rear, it is the parade. Contradicting Mr. Austin is the former prime minister of the Netherlands, Abraham Kuyper, who says society is organic; government is a mechanical device placed painfully atop it to impose lawful violence to retard the effect of sin, a great malice from the fall that arose in man’s breast.
The statist view discounts the free market and the power and genius of its people. It calls for organization, and sees lack of progress and “a stagnant status quo” in terms of mayoral leadership. If the civil magistracy is at the center of one’s conception, one’s measure of life in a city certainly will be in terms of whether Mayor Ron Littlefield was better or worse than Bob Corker, who serves the U.S. government in Washington, D.C.
“Hamilton County’s listless County Commission, moreover, stubbornly resists leadership — and county-wide tax equity,” Mr. Austin complains, “toward consolidation of elemental county-wide services, or even wise land-use planning in the unincorporated areas of Hamilton County.”
Social planning still has faithful
Centralization and unification of power bases is an undying dream of progressives and the well-intentioned who insist on a total plan, a unified grid of commercial government. The people will live better if they are served by larger, more efficient consolidated government. Vaster government, it is alleged, will be responsive and will be able “to achieve a forward-looking future,” presumably with cost savings.
A free market and noogacentric estimation of this sort of program is as follows: The city and county have been subject to the experiment of a planned factory society for at least 140 years. The system is exhausted. Humanity is stifled, belittled, infantalized, impoverished and hopeless. Could we give the free market a chance, and let individuals sort themselves out into their productive lines, callings and professions?
In a free market, in local economy, we have much better prospect that under the exhausting paradigm under which Mr. Austin labors. Insisting more of the same from the national economy total state planning system, is to stall any transformation.
A rather stark, black and white view, David. It’s either the free market or the oppressing government. Market forces are like fire: Often it burns nicely to keep us warm, but it can burn out of control, or refuse to catch.
Yes, governments have a tendency to overreach, but regulation is absolutely essential. Just ask the folks in Charleston how lack of regulation worked for their water supply, to cite one recent example. You are obviously for privatizing benefits. Are you also for fully privatizing costs? Assuming so, how would you assure people who generate costs fully pay them? You leave no civic space for citizens to function outside the market and the government. You are as guilty as Mr. Austin of attempting to dictate a solution for citizens and foreclosing the opportunity for them to collaborate as peers.
Civic processes keeps governments in check and makes markets work. (Churches, for which you also seem to be a proponent, are but one small example of civic spaces.) Innovations arise from civic spaces long before those innovations are commercialized. Conflicts and disputes are resolved in civic spaces much more economically than in courts. Civic spaces allow citizens to develop shared visions for the physical spaces they share, visions for how to utilize those spaces in ways that maximize benefits for all while minimizing costs.
Governments can’t do this, but neither can markets. I suggest you broaden your personal vision to realize that liberty, prosperity and wellness come not from coercion or exploitation, which are endemic to governments and markets, but from citizens shared commitment to the republic.