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Archive for February, 2012

Closed Boxes

I had a conversation the other day with an old acquaintance, introducing him to the concept of cantons. “Too much about taxes”, he said. “It won’t resonate with most people”. The discussion that ensued went on for a good long time. At one point, in arguing against any idea that a political solution could work, I described the current political situation as a “closed box”. By this I meant that everything within politics was controlled by the special interests, not the people. As the recent rash of clearly intentional “miscounts” in several Republican caucuses and primaries shows (Iowa, South Carolina, Nevada, Maine), no one can win an election who is not pre-approved. They’ll do whatever it takes, no matter how ungraceful. No amount of trying to elect “good” people will change the fact that those who get elected will do so because they will toe the line set for them by the most powerful special interests.

My solution to this vexing problem required that it be outside that closed box. I determined that taxes, necessary to the functioning of governments, could be used against them, because people still look on taxes as “their money”. My reasoning was that, if I could get enough people to want to take back control of “their money”, it would crack open those closed boxes from within. What a lovely sound that would be!

Power (back) to the People

To me, the fundamental issue has to do with concentration of power in too few hands, causing the concomitant concentration of wealth in too few hands. These two things are inseparable (the Occupy movement has it only half right). The answer to both is to correctly address the first, and this is done by finding a way to redistribute power back to the people. This had been marvelously done with the US Constitution, with the idea of federation of states being truly realized and exercised. Since Lincoln’s war we have consolidation of power in the District of Criminals, and increasingly in the Executive Branch. I see cantons at every level of government, first locally, to be the correct answer to how we redistribute power away from special interests and the governments they control, back to the People.

Special interests vs the People

Governments at every level of society seem to work perfectly in one sense: they always seem to benefit special interests at the expense of the people who actually pay for government with their taxes.

Some people say that government is too big, but how can we know? What metric can be used to determine whether or not government is the right size?

So, we have before us two questions that need answers. First, what can be done to prevent special interests from continuing to control governments everywhere to their own advantage, and to the disadvantage of the people? And second, how can we “right-size” government?

What I am proposing here is a new kind of organization in society that will answer both of the questions and accomplish both objectives:

1) Put the power of government back in the hands of the people who support it with their taxes, and
2) Ensure that only those parts of government that actually provide some good to the people continue to exist.

The organization I am proposing I call a “canton”. The word comes from the territorial areas that make up the Federation of Switzerland. But the type I am proposing differs in significant ways. Let me describe a canton in detail.

First of all, let’s consider the situation at the lowest level of government: the municipality. For this example, we will talk about a middle-sized town of just less than 100,000 citizens, where the town is funded mostly with property taxes. As things currently work, tax notices are sent to all owners of real estate in the town, other than those that are exempt, such as non-profit organizations. The property owners are assessed a certain tax on their property, payable to the town’s tax office. The tax office collects the taxes, which are then made available to the various departments of local government as determined by the elected town council. This is generally the kind of local government we have all grown up with for many generations in America. When times are good, it works reasonably well. We know that it doesn’t work perfectly (what does?), and we realize that there is some degree of cronyism, preferential treatment for some special interest groups, even some corruption. But, as the saying goes, you can’t fight city hall, so we tend to ignore a good deal of the imperfections, chalk it up to a system that, while imperfect, is generally good enough, and get on with our lives.

That’s what we do in good times. But when the times are not-so-good, we begin to feel the squeeze, and the issues that we were willing to ignore before become more unpleasant to deal with. Often the real pain comes when the town starts spending more than it takes in, forcing an increase in taxes, directly impacting our own family’s possibly fragile bottom line. We may even begin to move out of our comfort zone (which has become more uncomfortable), to seek some kind of relief.

At the same time, some of us just become more frustrated with the more glaring imperfections of the local government, and, prompted by a spirit of civic responsibility, determine to change things for the better for everyone. After all, since when have we been satisfied with “good enough”?

This is where a canton can make a difference. So, what is a canton? In some ways it is like a political party, since its members share common principles and values. Its members have one other thing in common: they are taxpayers. As such, they want their taxes to go to projects of the local government that are consistent with their values. This, we are told, happens now, because we have the right to vote and elect all the town officials that make the important policy decisions about how our taxes are spent. But it turns out, this doesn’t really work. The people who get elected generally do so with the support, not just from the people who elect them, but from special interest groups, who have quite different agendas. And since the elections are based on majority votes, and these majorities can at times be quite slim, a great many of the people casting votes cast them for those who end up on the losing end of the election. These people of the minority then are, to a very real extent, unrepresented by the officials the majority elects. On the contrary, the officials who win these elections may have principles and values diametrically opposed to those of the minority, and will direct all funding of programs and departments accordingly.

The aim, therefore, of a canton, is to be an organization of taxpayers, united by a common set of principles and values, representing the personal interests of each member, organized as a group for common action. To do this it must first acquire enough members to be a force to be reckoned with. Then, it must take away from the local government the right to spend the taxes acquired from its members, and to assert the right to spend those taxes according to the principles and values of its members.

What will this accomplish? It will create a set of organizations (cantons) whose sole purpose is to see that local government does not serve first the special interest groups, but the people, and all of the people, according to each ones principles and values. Second, it will provide a method for right-sizing government by funding only those departments and projects that accord with the needs and desires of the taxpayers themselves.

Where, you may ask, does a group of taxpayers get the authority for something so radical? It comes from our very own (quite radical in many ways) Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.”

Our current forms of government have served us reasonably well for a very long time. We do not need to abolish them. But it has become increasingly clear to many that now is the time to alter them in ways that seem most likely to effect our safety and happiness. If you agree, become involved in the canton movement. If we succeed in attracting enough members to our local cantons, we can calmly and thoughtfully proceed to the next phase, creating a system of government very much like our current one, but responsive to every person, their values, their good, and the good of all.

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