Mere Subjects

By Steven Miller
  • Monday, February 16, 2004

"All politics is local,” the late Tip O’Neil, speaker of the US House of Representatives, used to tell young congressmen.

His point was that when all is said and done, what matters most to people is what affects them right where they live.

There’s a notable corollary to O’Neil’s insight: Because local government is the level of government closest to the people, it must be considered the most important stratum of the entire federal system.

After all, the whole point of America, historically speaking, was to allow us all, as citizens, to govern ourselves. And, as the most vital issues that we all face everyday are primarily local issues—personal safety, for example—citizen control of local government is absolutely necessary to the entire American experiment.

This idea of citizens governing themselves is known—in language dating back to the American Revolution—as citizen sovereignty.

In England there was but one sovereign: the king. Everyone else was his subject. However in 1783—defeated in our Revolutionary War—the king of England in the treaty of Paris ceded his sovereignty to the people of America. Consequently, the subsequent history of American constitutional law is thick with legal acknowledgments of this fundamental principle.

In United States v. Lee, 106 U.S. 196, for example, the U.S. Supreme Court wrote: “Under our system the People, who are there [in England] called subjects, are here the Sovereigns.” Similarly in 4 Wheat 402: “The People in their capacity as Sovereigns made and adopted the Constitution; and it binds the state governments without the states’ consent.”

Unfortunately, here in Nevada, citizen sovereignty over both local and state government has, to a significant degree, largely been stolen. Or perhaps a better word would be embezzled, inasmuch as elected Nevada politicians in 1969 gave away something that was not theirs to give.

It happened with the passage of the so-called Dodge Act—more officially known as the “Local Government Employee-Management Relations Act.” The new law illegitimately “authorized” local governments to divide the sovereign governing authority they exercised as constitutional representatives of the people of Nevada and hand off some of that authority to certain private organizations.

Those private organizations? Government-employee unions. Upon them local governments bestowed the power to exclusively represent government workers at the collective bargaining table—whether or not workers wanted either representation or collective bargaining.

“When government engages in collective bargaining,” notes Dr. Leo Troy, distinguished professor of economics at Rutgers University, “the process itself curtails sovereignty; it is a first step in altering the nature and practice of political governance.”

To most people, acknowledges Troy, the reduction in governmental sovereignty occasioned by collective bargaining looks no different than the diminution of managerial rights that happens when private business negotiates with private labor unions. But, he argues, there is a big difference:

“In the public labor market, the public employer, the sovereign state, occupies a position not matched by the private employer in employee relations. Sovereignty is derived from the people in an open society, while managerial rights are derived from stockholders and private owners.”

Moreover, points out Professor Troy, once collective bargaining begins, the government as employer not only surrenders significant policymaking authority but its officials quickly become subject to powerful lobbying, political and bargaining pressures from its labor relations “adversary.” Even more important, the new relationship routinely makes the government policy makers (politicians) “beholden, often significantly, to its labor ‘adversary’ for election to office.” The cycle then feeds on itself, with even more transfers of public authority and public monies flowing into the private government-union interests, making them yet more able to bend politicians to their will.

While this pattern became most notorious in New York City as a major cause of that city’s infamous and never fully resolved 1960-through-2004 fiscal crisis, much of it also obviously characterizes Nevada—where county commissioners, city council members and school board trustees all become noticeably “beholden” to the government union bosses who deign to provide them with endorsements and campaign backing.

The process is, in a word, corrupting. As Dr. Troy notes, “It already has forged a new partnership between the [government unions] and political authorities and has changed the nature of governance without the explicit agreement of the electorate.”

In this “new partnership” the taxpaying Nevada citizen is definitely the odd man out. And the result is becoming all too familiar: ever-escalating government spending coupled with recurrent and thoroughly unnecessary fiscal crises.

Worst of all, Silver State citizens are being progressively turned into mere subjects.

Steven Miller is policy director of the Nevada Policy Research Institute.

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