State Governments Are Oppressive, Too


Historically, the battle over the size and scale of government has been focused largely on “states’ rights.” This federalist notion also has been associated with many shameful things, such as slavery, Jim Crow laws and other abuses of personal freedom.

Yet, increasingly, the clearest threat to democracy and minority rights today comes not just from a surfeit of central power concentrated in Washington, D.C., but also from increased centralization of authority within states, and even regional agencies. Oppressive diktats from state capitals increasingly seek to limit local control over basic issues such as education, zoning, bathroom designations, guns and energy development.

This follows a historical trend over the past century. Ever since the Great Depression, and even before, governmental power has been shifting inexorably from the local governments to regional, state and, of course, federal jurisdictions. In 1910, the federal level accounted for 30.8 percent of all government spending, with state governments comprising 7.7 percent and the local level more than 61 percent. More than 100 years later, not only had the federal share exploded to nearly 60 percent, but, far less recognized, the state share had nearly doubled, while that of local governments has fallen to barely 25 percent, a nearly 60 percent drop. Much of what is done at the local level today is at the behest, and often with funding derived from, the statehouse or Washington.

Diversity vs. regimentation

This trend is particularly notable in the country’s two megastates: California and Texas. Each is increasingly controlled by ideological fanatics who see in their statehouse dominion an ideal chance to impose their agenda on dissenting communities. In California, Jerry Brown’s climate jihad is the rationale for employing “the coercive power of the central state,” in his own words, to gain control over virtually every aspect of planning and development.

In Texas, the impetus comes from the far right, which has been working to strip localities of their traditional ability to control their own affairs, which, as two Houston scholars recently pointed out, has been critical to that state’s success. These efforts cover a host of issues, from fracking and ride-sharing to transgender bathrooms, a topic which affects very few but has, absurdly, become the key issue for a legislative special session.

Just as Californians find themselves increasingly controlled by climate warriors and anti-suburban ideologues, diverse Texans in cities like Austin now must conform to the dictates of strident demands by a “liberty caucus” that eerily resembles their authoritarian doppelgangers in Sacramento.

In other cases, such as in North Carolina, social conservatives, like their Texan bedfellows, seek to circumscribe progressive policies in places like Raleigh or Charlotte. Businesses, in particular, are concerned that some bills, like the state’s transgender bathroom legislation, could lead to painful boycotts by corporations and event planners. Conversely, some blue-state policies, like high mandated minimum wages and policies restricting fossil fuels, hurt disproportionately poorer areas, like upstate New York and rural California, which have lost much of their political clout.

Read the entire piece in the Los Angeles Daily News.

Joel Kotkin is executive editor of He is the Roger Hobbs Distinguished Fellow in Urban Studies at Chapman University and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism. His newest book is The Human City: Urbanism for the rest of us. He is also author of The New Class ConflictThe City: A Global History, and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. He lives in Orange County, CA.

Photo by LoneStarMike (Own work) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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Locales of One

As always, the question is, where to draw the boundary? Why should the city boundary of, say, Houston, a city of 2.5MM people, be proclaimed as "local" and not, say, the boundary of each specific neighborhood in Houston, or each individual street, or each individual house or, ultimately, each individual? A locale of one is the most radical localism, right? And how to apply state constitutions? Why should Houston be subject to the Texas constitution and, more importantly, the interpretations thereof by the state supreme court? Why should court-law apply state-wide but not the positive law of the state legislature? Back when the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court proclaimed gay marriage a right, I very much doubt Kotkin would have defended on a "localism" theory a particular Massachusetts township's refusal to allow gay marriages. Or to take the housing situation: Massachusetts has a state law that permits housing developers to bypass local zoning boards if a certain percentage of their development is set aside for "affordable" housing. Again, I doubt Kotkin ever considered such a policy as somehow oppressive to the inherent sovereignty of cities and towns, seeing that most towns want to do what Kotkin typically decries when writing of California: restrict the construction of new housing in order to inflate existing home values thereby making them less and less affordable.

And how can a radical localism work under the federal supremacy clause anyway? Is Houston to be exempt from the Texas state legislature but subject to Congress?

Kotkin here is a bit too transparently tendentious. It appears that the transgender bathroom thing has set him off as much as Jerry Brown's California c'est moi despotism. I just do not believe Kotkin would have based his radical localism theory on a transgender bathroom foundation were the situation in this country reversed, where the Left controlled most of the state governments and mandated non-gendered bathrooms but the Right controlled the urban governments and refused to implement the mandate. And the entire thing is ridiculous on its face anyhow. The purpose of a bathroom is to relieve one's bowels and bladder and to practice hygiene. I have lived for a long while now and never once have I heard of a transgendered-type person's being unable to relieve himself or wash his hands under the traditional bathroom regime.