Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Conversations with municipal politicians

Paul Tuns relates an old conversation with a city councillor somewhere that recalls London's ham-handed attempts to discipline its citizenry's garbage output:

Years ago I was talking to a city councilor from another municipality about his city's onerous garbage restrictions. I said that I didn't have a problem with some of the limits the city placed on households if people had an alternative, even if it was to pay for tags so larger or more wasteful families had to cover the costs for the additional garbage they produced. The councilor said it was not enough that people pay their own way, society had to simply reduce what it consumed. I pressed on this and finally the councilor said that the ultimate goal was to "bring down the capitalist system." It is impossible to believe that garbage collection regimes can do that, but imagine the hubris of believing that they can. Never mind if they should, but actually believing that some city council could collectively destroy capitalism.

This is the mentality that explains why city governments do so much more than maintain police and fire departments and fix the potholes on the roads. The mentality is not merely socialist in that it believes that government should be doing so much more, but the mentality that city council can right all the wrongs of the world. It is a dangerous idea that leads to a lot of bad policy but it is also a pathetically sad idea that demonstrates adult city councilors live in a make-believe world.
With few exceptions, London's councillors are not so rigidly doctrinaire as to oppose capitalism — most of them have at least some inkling of which side their tax base is buttered on. Behavioural engineering is still a constant temptation for local politicians, but most often only because they are urged to and applauded for it by their own constituents. This popular encouragement and approval yields to cities much more practical power over private life and property than the legal endorsement to use it from the courts and other levels of government. Behavioural engineering by legal means may be integral to anti-capitalist design, but hard ideology is almost purely a bystander in the arena of small-town local politics where the battles are waged between sentiments instead of ideas… which is a perfectly satisfactory position for the anti-capitalist ideologue in any case, having conditioned politics as the field and sentiments as the weapons. The closest thing to ideology for most local politicians is the imperative to tailor their messages to an audience that appreciates their ability to turn sentiments into power — which is why they must be ridiculed for it at every turn.