Bill Clinton famously proclaimed that "the era of big government is over." He was wrong: it just moved to the suburbs. State and local governments now dwarf the national government. Fully 86 percent of civilian government employees work for state and local entities. That translates into 46 million Americans who either work for local governments or depend on someone who does.
By long-standing tradition, Americans prefer their government to be close to home, where ostensibly we can control it. We've got half our wish: most government is local, but it is out of control. Local governments are multiplying like rabbits, at a rate of one new entity added each day. They operate the schools our children attend, determine the uses of our property, and tax us at a higher rate than the national government.
It wasn't supposed to be this way. The founding fathers, fearing all government, created federalism not to aggrandize state governments but to protect individual liberty, presuming that government closer to the people could be trusted to guard those rights. As tyrannical state leaders violate liberty in the name of "states' rights," we discover that those who coined that term had it wrong. States do not have rights. People have rights. And the purpose of federalism is to protect those rights.
Grassroots tyranny usually afflicts the proverbial little guy. In Mesa, Arizona, Edward Salib owns a Winchell's Donut franchise and posts the company's signs in his store windows.
But Mesa ordered him to cease the advertising, citing an ordinance declaring that signs could only cover a certain percentage of a window (to protect the city's "aesthetics"). But the standard Winchell's advertising signs covered more than the allowed space. Salib asked if he could comply by leaving one window empty of signs. Not enough, the city responded.
Salib turned to the judicial system. Federal courts often strike down local laws when they violate freedom of speech—except when the speech is commercial. Although many people highly value commercial speech, the courts do not. Salib's challenge to Mesa's ordinance failed in the trial court and is now on appeal.
There are thousands of such stories. The typical person lacks the resources to take on local governments. The odds are further stacked by the politicians' ability to use their citizens' tax dollars against them. Even when people can stand up for themselves, they often encounter court systems that indulge every presumption in favor of local government power.
What can we do to fight the leviathan? First, we should pay attention. The school board member or zoning commissioner often has more impact on the lives of ordinary people than does the president of the United States. We should get to know local officials and expend as much effort on local politics as we do on national politics.
We also need to rediscover federalism. We must remember that the object of American constitutional government is the preservation of individual liberty and that government at every level is a constant threat to that liberty.
In terms of fighting grassroots tyranny, we should look to state constitutions. Many state constitutions provide greater protections of liberty than does their national counterpart.
Most important, we can fight back. Washington, D.C., remains an object of concern for those who value freedom. But the more dangerous bully may live closer than we think. Only by standing up against it can we hope to vindicate our own freedom and cause government officials to act like the public servants they are meant to be.