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August 06, 2007
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A Second American Revolution

The HR Doctor recently took a trip back in time to consider some of the political issues and tensions in the America of the 18th century — before the United States of America. Such a journey is made much easier by the fact that everyone of us owns a time machine that is capable of taking us to the most exotic times and places we might ever imagine. These personal time machines live within the power of our imagination and the immense capabilities of our brain. We can activate the time machine with a book, a conversation, on a walk or in a crowded shopping mall, anywhere or anytime: This wonderful machine is always at our disposal.   

Eighteenth-century America was a time of anticipation, frustration and great hardship.  Life expectancy was about 35 years, driven by high infant mortality and risks of death by injury. The technology we take for granted today was not present 230 years ago. The power for manufacturing or farming was derived primarily from animal and human labor in a cottage industry model. Generally, mass production was part of the future, not the present, and most people derived their living from agriculture or providing support services for an agricultural economy.

People came from all over the world to America, although many did not have a choice. Many did not survive the slave ship journeys but many others found a kind of freedom to escape debtors’ prison, worship in their own way, own property and speak out in ways they had never imagined in “old” Europe.

Part of this freedom has been forever linked in American history to the concept of the frontier. It was possible to escape to the frontier from the frustrations of life in a city or life with complications and uncertainties that troubled the individual.   An old folk song contains a verse, “I heard my neighbor’s rooster crow early in the day; I heard his axe beyond the hill, and now I am bound away. For some men love the city life; some men crave the town. I belong in the Arkansas wood; that’s where I’ll settle down.”

Underlying all of the ingredients thrown into the cauldron of America was an abiding reliance on the individual, the neighbor and the local community. Based on this reliance and the resilience to meet the unknown, with its many dangers and setbacks, came a distrust of government authority, especially a government which was distant. 

In fact, our country was originally founded based on the frustrations and distrust of the way in which America was managed as a British colony. How ironic that it was the opposition to rule from far away with little influence over the actions of the government that led the Founding Fathers, and no doubt the Founding Mothers, to create a new answer — form another government!

In the period of the American Revolution, one of the driving philosophies opposed to British rule was the concept of being taxed unfairly and without fair representation. Local control was being replaced by control from thousands of miles away.

The lack of a responsive government and interference with the core freedoms and sentiments of the American colonists provided the kindling and the sparks which triggered the Revolutionary War. 

Now, fast-forward your time machine to the present day. Once again we find the frustrations of taxation most of us would regard as unfair and in need of major change. This is true not only of the income tax but also of the bizarre system of property taxation found in much of the country. In these systems, one residence has property taxes capped with limited increases permissible, but the identical house next door, which was just sold, has significantly higher taxes.

Unfunded and caseload-driven mandates hobble local governments’ ability to generate and sustain the very kinds of policies that are responsive to local needs. Entanglements with the federal government start out well-intentioned but often end up disruptive and damaging to a local community. As anyone involved in local government management in Florida can testify, working with the well-intended FEMA can be the equivalent to a dental office visit without Novacaine.

The diluting of the 21st century version of the local “Minutemen,” the National Guard, can have future unintended and serious consequences for a local area or region. Certainly, the same can be said for the lack of a cohesive national vision and policy to effectively deal with the sad fact that many millions of people are without health insurance and affordable prescription drugs, and the equally sad overabundance of affordable semi-automatic weapons. 

Some of the same ingredients of unresponsiveness, frustration with taxation and a sense that few at the federal and even the state level are hearing the demands for action coming from local governments are similar to the environment, which was developing along the East coast of the American colonies over 200 years ago, notwithstanding a much different economic and technological base.

It may well be time for another American Revolution of federalism revisited — one that reasserts and spotlights the fact that local government is where the action is and where a public administrator can really make a visible difference. Tip O’Neil was correct that all politics is local.   However, the HR Doctor would add, “… if you have the proper state or federal permits.” 

I wonder how a frustrated group of colonial activists could handle staging a 2007 version of the Boston Tea Party. There would have to be state and federal environmental protection permits or waivers. There might have to be a parade permit. The participants would be in danger of arrest and prosecution, not because of their political views, but because of violations of the no-dumping rules. Then there are fish and wildlife habitat concerns and waivers of liability to be signed by the organizers along with providing proof of insurance. 

Certainly such an event would, for at least 23 seconds, receive attention from the hordes of reporters, pundits and talk-show personalities who would magically show up and interview one another before, during and following the event. Apparently, pollution of the airwaves and the printed media is not covered by any permitting rules.

Phil Rosenberg

The HR Doctor •


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