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“Government is simply the name we give to the things we choose to do together,” Rep. Barney Frank is reputed to have said. Magazines like Salon agree: “in a democracy the government is us.” Anyone who has ever nodded in agreement when hearing those kinds of statements might have difficulty wrapping their head around the March 6 edition of Last Week Tonight, in which host John Oliver targeted his blend of comedy and journalism at “special districts,” the existence of which was doubtless unknown to many — myself included — before the episode.
Special districts are public authorities created for specific purposes, such as managing utilities or infrastructure. They are as numerous as they are obscure: The U.S. Census Bureau counted 38,266 of them nationwide in 2012, although, as Oliver notes, many state governments simply don’t know how many exist in their jurisdictions. What’s more, their record-keeping is so slipshod that in Kentucky, for example, one analysis found that only 40 percent of the special districts required by law to submit budgets actually did so.
Among Oliver’s more disturbing accounts is his explanation of how a Texas developer fulfilled the legal requirement to hold a vote on a new district’s financial measures. The neighbourhood had no residents, so the company hired a business specializing in “turn-key voter trailer installation services and election services” that installed trailers with temporary residents to vote in favor, then move on. The firm boasts of having facilitated almost 100 such elections.
Nothing better illustrates the public’s indifference to special districts than the surreal video of a mosquito control district meeting in New Hampshire last September attended solely by its chair and vice chair. They carry on for a full 43 minutes, dutifully reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and even opening the floor to questions in an otherwise empty room. Their conscientiousness could be seen as admirable, but it may be underappreciated given that Oliver’s staff were the first to actually view the YouTube video. Forget the lofty sentiments cited above; the Kentucky auditor’s description of special districts as “ghost government”] seems far more apt.
Are special districts truly special in this regard, though? Would anyone seriously argue that, special districts aside, people are generally active, informed participants in public affairs? On foreign policy last December, 30 percent of Republican primary voters (19 percent among Democrats) supported bombing Agrabah — the fictional country from Disney’s Aladdin. In domestic affairs, in 2013 — more than three years after it had been enacted — almost half of Americans were either unsure whether Obamacare was in force, or actually thought it had been repealed or overturned. In fiscal matters, 77 percent of Americans in 2010 favored balancing the budget through spending cuts, but only half as many could name a single program that they were willing to cut.
As special districts illustrate, it is difficult enough for citizens to keep tabs on a small bureaucracy with limited responsibilities. But Washington spends $4 trillion annually, employs 22 million people, and has more than 400 agencies. It is involved in literally every facet of human existence, from health care to agriculture to transportation to finance. Not even the Library of Congress knows how many federal laws there are, and in 2014 the Code of Federal Regulations reached 175,268 pages of legal jargon. Its sheer complexity puts the federal government well beyond the ability of any human mind to even begin to grasp to any meaningful degree, never mind the state and local equivalents. How can something so far beyond our understanding be an “us” that we “choose”?
It’s worth adding that the government has been — and remains — involved in some sordid business: Jim Crow, the Japanese internment, overseas wars, and mass surveillance, to name only a few of the endless examples. The awfulness of such policies, contrasted with the basic decency of the average citizen, is further evidence that the people are not one with their governments. Indeed, it is that disconnect between citizens and the state that refutes the appalling justification for terrorism invoked by Osama bin Laden:
[T]he American people are the ones who choose their government by way of their own free will; a choice which stems from their agreement to its policies. … the American people are the ones who fund the attacks against us, and they are the ones who oversee the expenditure of these monies in the way they wish, through their elected candidates.
Far from being “us,” or mere shorthand for “things we choose to do together,” the government is a behemoth shrouded in obscurity. Its activities are almost entirely unknown to outsiders and therefore beyond nearly all scrutiny. Rather than holding on to a dubious belief that can lead to uncomfortable conclusions, it is better to seek to reduce the government’s size and powers to a scale at which the electorate can monitor its activities, understand its workings, and push back when it inevitably overreaches.