Friday, January 3, 2014

Tocquevillian Thought of the Day--Local Authority and Fracking

Local Authority, the Nurturing of Citizens, and Hydraulic Fracturing


Gary L. Gregg, Ph.D.

I just returned from a terrific visit to my homeland of southwestern Pennsylvania, one of the nation's hotbed areas for hydraulic fracturing.  Recent news out of Pennsylvania has a distinctly Tocquevillian tone, I think, so I decided to share it.

This is not a blog either defending or attacking the extraction of natural gas through the method of fracking. This is a note about local authority and the nurturing of citizenship.

Last winter the centralized government of Pennsylvania decided that zoning for fracking was too important to be left to local authorities and wiped out the right of local areas to create their own zoning laws when it comes to this practice.  A Commonwealth Court overturned this "Act 13" recently, though the Governor has vowed that he will appeal that decision.  The state, and the industry, argue for the need for centralized and uniform regulations. The Court argued that to allow the state to intervene in such a zoning issue will effectively eliminate all restraints on state power over such traditionally local decisions.

What would Tocqueville have to say?

Tocqueville argued very strongly that vibrant local authority was s key to the preservation of American liberty.  His history shows American society growing up and out from the local authority rather than being handed down from a centralized government. This "direction" in his history/ sociology is very important and contains numerous policy and philosophical implications that I don't have time for here.

But he goes even further. He argues that it is in local politics, towns in particular, that free people learn how to be free. "Town institutions are to liberty," he says, "what primary schools are to knowledge; they put it within the grasp of the people; they give them a taste of its peaceful practice and accustom them to its use" (102).  Summarizing his ideas he says it is in such local institutions where the American "gathers clear and practical ideas about the nature of his duties as well as the extent of his rights" (114).

Again, this note is not about fracking or economics and related questions can be debated. But, Tocqueville, I think, teaches that in terms of nurturing citizens and preparing them for liberty, the right decision is to leave such decisions to the local authorities. If local governments don't have power over such important things as what types of businesses will be permitted in their community and what type of environmental damage might be prohibited, what would encourage citizens to be engaged? Why would the best in our communities want to run for office or show up at town hall meetings if they could only influence the leash laws or garbage routes?

Whatever its other merits, it seems to me the Court's decision was the right one from the Tocquevillian perspective and the state of Pennsylvania is thinking more about economics and jobs than it is about citizens and liberty. If you had to choose, would you choose to have more jobs or to have more informed, engaged, and empowered citizens who know their duties and their rights? Which would George Washington or Thomas Jefferson prefer?

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