A little while ago a friend of mine passed along a copy of an unpublished essay penned by now deceased J. H. Habermeyer, a professor of Political Science and Economics at RPI for many years. The Seven Walls of Local Government is a short, engaging and literary essay on the ways that local government erects defenses around its doings and, ultimately, how bureaucracies and bureaucrats use different techniques to obscure, obfuscate, defend, and protect themselves in what they do. The literary trope is The Wall.
I will present Professor Habermeyer’s essay in seven appropriate installments. The first portion includes his pithy introduction. Here it is.
The Seven Walls of Local Government
There is an old adage in political science circles that the business of government is to keep its business secret. This is so universally true that the idea has indeed become axiomatic – even among those for whom such a notion is not one to cause disapprobation. And yet, in a democracy, the instruments of government are theoretically answerable to a sovereignty that inheres in the people. Therefore, in a democratic government the niceties of popular participation must be paid obeisance while the individual government activities themselves will remain obscured by the clouds of procedural complexity, alleged expertise and technical obfuscation; thus: to represent government affairs through a glass, darkly.
This peculiar dance is found only in democracies. Totalitarian regimes don’t concern themselves with such refinements and the inhabitants and rulers in those regimes hardly even bother to pay lip-service to any institutions that purport to promote “citizen” involvement in government. In the Communist world these facades seem to be erected principally to annoy Western observers.
Nowhere is the interesting paradox better illustrated than the way that local governments in the United States deal with the thorny problem of excluding substantive citizen scrutiny and involvement, while ostensibly promoting it.
The precincts of local government may be conceived as a citadel comprised of seven concentric walls protecting the inner sanctum sanctorum. As the inner rings tighten, so the width of the gate in each shrinks. Each wall defends the denizens of the citadel from outside scrutiny, criticism and retribution. Each wall serves to protect the citadel by winnowing out potential invaders who will find it increasingly onerous to pass through the portal in each of the seven perimeter fences.
It is, of course, a given, that at just about any particular time a majority of elected representatives in each government have abdicated their own representation of popular sovereignty to the greater good of defending the citadel from their own constituents. This situation is in no way peculiar; in fact, it is the rare case indeed where a significant minority, let alone a real majority of public representatives are willing to put their obligation to the public ahead of their fealty to the established bureaucratic order. This situation reflects fascinating psychological and practical political topics in its own right, but will these will not be addressed in this essay.
The First Wall
It’s an ironic and sad fact that the first and most effective barrier to public participation and oversight of government activity is largely erected by the public. This wall is the institutionalization of ignorance and apathy on the part of the public itself – a public that chooses to be unaware of what is going on and/or is either too lazy to participate, or is resigned to the fact that participation doesn’t matter. To the extent that the other six walls are effective such apathy is certainly understandable. To the extent that this is used as a pretext for laziness, it is reprehensible. Governments can be relied upon to use, and abuse this apathy.
It is now typical for local government jurisdictions to publicize and notify the public of their doings. We may rest assured that such ostensible transparency was never initiated by governments themselves, but rather was imposed by well-meaning reformers. Yet it is part of the cost of entertaining the democratic ideal. In any case, the annoyance is comparatively small and the payoff in validation is enormous.
In many cases legal requirements now require publication of municipal government actions in newspapers of local circulation. Certain actions must be advertised by posting signs within the vicinity of effected property. Local councils will post copies of their agendas on the premises and mimeographed copies of agenda materials may be acquired, usually at a cost, by interested citizens. These rules and practices, while followed by jurisdictions according to law or custom, can be generally counted on to follow bare minimum standards. Whether posted notices remain posted, whether anybody reads the tiny print in the newspaper, and whether anybody can make it over to the town council to read the agenda is a matter of indifference to local decision makers.
Once such materials are perused another problem immediately becomes apparent. This is the use of incomprehensible governmental jargon that can be counted upon by its practitioners to help intimidate or bamboozle the public. This rather picaresque fraud is one of the most effective arrows in the bureaucracy’s quiver. The deployment of pseudo-technical jargon, confusing acronyms, and a torrent of useless verbiage in government reports, publications, and notices can surely be relied upon to dissuade all but the most intrepid to attempt to fathom the sacred mysteries therein described.
While it is clearly not practical to individually notify every citizen of every impending action or policy decision, it is cynical indeed to pretend that the bare minimum notifications and descriptions as they are typically pursued constitutes informing the public. And this is where the consequences of an apathetic citizenry come into effect: the vast majority of a political division may have deliberately and effectively disenfranchised itself of what should be a sovereign authority. Is it adequate to merely acknowledge representative republican government and walk away from the responsibility of further participation? The answer is clearly: no.
At this juncture I note the rare occurrence of wide public participation in isolated and pointedly controversial issues. When some potentially obnoxious land use is proposed by the local authority, or some new and annoying public levy is in the offing, it is not uncommon for the folk of a community to rouse themselves into a state of political agitation. In these rare instances the bureaucracy that proposes such activity must brace itself for initial public discomfiture and will rely upon the remaining six walls to defend its proposed activity. In many such cases, the public outcry subsides quickly; rarely does it not. If the public outrage reaches a sufficient crescendo some electoral change – aside from the normally scheduled ballot – may be occasioned. In this instance the popular sovereignty is very much exercised, and to the self-satisfaction of the participants. Their subsequent and speedy return to political somnambulism goes to reinforce the idea that spasmodic public participation, while perfectly justified, represents a very ineffective weapon against the inertia of government process.
The Seven Walls of Local Government