There’s been lots of justified concern in recent years that the federal government — that crazy uncle in the attic — has broken free of its restraints and is smashing the crockery and scaring the kids. Between George W. Bush’s police state and Barack Obama’s fascist economics (or is that Bush’sfascism and Obama’s police state?), the peril on the Potomac seems to represent an ever-growing threat to our liberty. But as the column I wrote earlier this week about a SWAT raid in small-town Arizona suggests, it’s too easy to keep your eyes focused on D.C. and so miss the machinations of the control freaks in the local city hall.
The fact is that local governments have enormous power over the petty details of our day-to-day lives. Yes, the federal government may keep you awake at night fretting about wiretaps, bans, taxes and mandates, but it’s local officials who get to decide whether you even have a bed in which to toss and turn. City councilmen, zoning and planning officials, building inspectors and the like get to determine whether you can move into a new home or open a business. A denied occupancy permit, a refused zoning variance or a hiked water fee can make all the difference in the world.
In a February 2010 article in Vanity Fair on the ’70s disco scene, Ian Schrager of Studio 54 fame makes an interesting point about the far-reaching effects of petty regulations:
It wasn’t aids that made the nightclub business difficult. Government regulations did it in. Steve and I did our first nightclub [the Enchanted Garden, in Douglaston, Queens] for $27,000 and Studio 54 we did for $400,000. Now, with all the regulations, fire codes, sprinkler requirements, neighborhood issues, community planning boards … before you even put on the first coat of paint, you’re into it for over a million dollars. What it’s done is disenfranchise young people.
An April 2005 article in the North Bay Bohemian on the rise of underground restaurants in California made the same point:
“It costs $200,000 just for a permit to be allowed to buy water from the city!” exclaims [former underground restaurateur Michael] Hale. “You have to get tons of permits from various people. You’ve got to get a building permit, a permit if you want to remodel, you have to get licenses for beer and wine, and you have to get certified by the Health Board.”
And, of course, the power of eminent domain is largely exercised at the local level, where bureaucrats and politicians decide who will be pushed off their own property to make way for some government-favored use.
Those rules can be a nightmare to navigate — or an insurmountable hurdle — if they are properlyapplied. But local government is a personal business. People know each other, develop friendships and enmities, and personal feelings can easily spill over into the application and enforcement of local rules. David Carl, the subject of my last column, insists that the SWAT raid on his Cottonwood, Arizona, business, over which he is filing a lawsuit, began as a dispute over signage regulations and an occupancy permit that turned personal. Indeed, a review of city records shows that one zoning commissioner displayed a continuing interest in the progress of the case.
Does that prove that local rules were abusively applied? No. But it’s suggestive. And even the fear of such abuse can cause people to mind their manners when dealing with local officials.
I remember when my wife and I, and our partners, went shopping for a general contractor to construct a building for my wife’s medical practice. We received a lot of advice on who to use and who to avoid — not just based on their personal merits, but also on their relations with local officials. We were warned that good relations could ease the way for permits and make inspections a breeze, while bad feelings could sabotage the whole project.
Given how matter-of-factly that advice was given — and how often I’ve heard of similar advice given to people elsewhere — that offers an important insight into the destructive power posed by local officials and their rules.
Local government is certainly closer to the people. But closer isn’t always better. Often, we need to maintain a healthy distance from the people who want to wield coercive power over our lives. And as our experience with the federal government has demonstrated, even 3,000 miles and more isn’t always enough.