August 18

After another night of tear gas and clashes between protesters and police in Ferguson, Missouri governor Jay Nixon is going to call in the National Guard to try to restore order. Meanwhile, the federal government announced it will be conducting its own autopsy of Michael Brown’s body, after a private autopsy arranged by his family showed that he was shot at least six times, including twice in the head.

This case has been unusual in that a certain degree of left-right agreement has emerged, particularly between liberals and libertarians who both see the militarization of local police getting out of control. But there’s another lesson emerging, one that isn’t going to make those libertarians pleased: sometimes, big government isn’t the problem, it’s the solution — to the problem of small government.

What I mean by “big” and “small” in this case isn’t government that does many things versus government that does few things, it’s government at a higher level versus government at a lower level. When government at one level fails, oftentimes the only solution can be found up the ladder, from local to state to ultimately the federal government.

There’s a mythology in American politics — repeated most often by conservatives but occasionally by liberals as well — that the best government is the one that’s closest to the people. Those bureaucrats far away in Washington don’t have a clue what’s best for us, unlike the people who know our communities and see us every day. They’re the ones who understand our problems and can be held accountable when they screw up.

But the reality is often far different. The truth is that old-style corruption of the briefcase-full-of-cash variety has become extremely rare in Washington, because it’s hard to get away with. Members of Congress not only have all kinds of disclosure requirements, they also work in a place that’s teeming with reporters examining their activities, official and otherwise. That’s far less true on the state and local level, particularly since the declining fortunes of newspapers have meant fewer and fewer reporters in state legislatures and city halls.

And at the local level, problems like disenfranchisement are far less likely to be the subject of high-profile campaigns and lawsuits waged by well-funded interest groups. Consider the fact that though Ferguson is two-thirds black, not only is the police force nearly all-white, but so is the political leadership, with a white mayor and five of the six city council members being white. How did that happen? Much of the answer lies in the fact that municipal elections in Ferguson are held not just in off-years, but in April instead of November. While turnout among whites and blacks in the 2012 presidential election was identical, whites turned out for Ferguson’s April 2013 municipal election at a rate nearly three times that of blacks.

That disparity then has consequences that incorporate law enforcement, economics, and people’s daily interactions with authority. As political scientist Jeff Smith puts it in a good piece:

With primarily white police forces that rely disproportionately on traffic citation revenue, blacks are pulled over, cited and arrested in numbers far exceeding their population share, according to a recent report from Missouri’s attorney general. In Ferguson last year, 86 percent of stops, 92 percent of searches and 93 percent of arrests were of black people — despite the fact that police officers were far less likely to find contraband on black drivers (22 percent versus 34 percent of whites). This worsens inequality, as struggling blacks do more to fund local government than relatively affluent whites.

So the local government, the one that’s supposed to be in touch with the people, is not only out of touch, it’s making their lives miserable. The events in Ferguson have also shown us a case of inept local government that has made the situation worse at every turn. First the Ferguson police responded to protesting residents like they were retaking Fallujah. Then when state troopers succeeded in calming things down for a night — a higher level of government trying to correct the failures of a lower level — the Ferguson police released the surveillance video from that convenience store, as though trying to make the case that Michael Brown had it coming, which enraged local residents and started a new cycle of unrest.

It’ll be great if this situation leads to liberals and conservatives joining together to do something about the over-militarization of law enforcement. And yes, that over-militarization is something that the federal government and local governments cooperated to create. But the next time you hear someone say that power should be devolved as far as possible to the state and local level, remember that those lower levels of government are often where the worst problems are.