Thursday, March 7, 2013

Individual Choice vs. Centralization

[Approximate Reading Time: 10 minutes]
[Mood: Contemplative]

I had an interesting discussion with a friend over dinner recently where we talked about individual choice and the freedom to choose how we lead our life. Both of us agreed such a choice is important. I would assume most of us agree individuals should have the right to choose how they live their life. What's more, the government and corporations would very much want us to feel the same way too. But why do I feel we don't have much of that essential freedom anymore? I gave it some thought over the past few days and connected the dots and I'm sorry to say that things aren't looking very good for those of us who are proponents of individual choice. And it's getting worse!

For individual choice to exist, the household that the individual is a part of must first have certain freedoms. One such right could be parents' right to decide how their children are to be schooled, for instance, whether in a public school system or home-schooled. For households to have these freedoms, the local community that they are a part of must enjoy the right to certain freedoms as well. For example, to be able to create laws that guarantee certain freedoms to the households. Households within a community should be able to get together and decide what's best for them and their families. We can continue this line of reasoning up the hierarchy through towns and cities to counties and states and finally to nations. At each level, the participants should have the power to change and even override the laws made at a higher level. But the trends we see point in the opposite direction. There is increasing centralization in many aspects of life. More often than not, laws created at a higher level override local laws.

The laws made in Washington can and do override the laws passed in state legislatures. If Californians come together and agree that they want to allow certain patients the right to use medical cannabis, what right does the federal government have to say otherwise? And yet, the Feds recently successfully shut down businesses and educational institutions related to medical cannabis in Oakland, California with such impunity that state officials could only stand and watch. In fact, this trend is playing out at the highest level. Sovereign countries are increasingly unable to stand their ground in front of organizations such as the WTO and agreements such as GATT as "international courts" pressure central governments in matters of trade and domestic economics. How then, can one expect to have individual choice in an era of massive centralization? We see the effects everywhere in the US today. While Washington is awash in cash and while fine wine is poured liberally in upscale restaurants in America's political stronghold, state, county, city and local governments are suffering the worst budget cuts in decades. The lower the level, the worse the depredations that are visited upon them. There's a method to this madness though. If I were running a large business with operations in a dozen states, I would prefer to deal with the Feds once instead of a dozen scattered state legislatures one by one. It's easier to lobby a few congressmen and congresswomen in Washington than to figure out the politics in each individual state. And similarly, I would prefer to deal with the state legislature over convincing a dozen city councils to vote my way. As they say in the business world, business leaders would much prefer a "single throat to choke"!

Let's take a concrete example of something one would put squarely in the realm of individual choice - diet and Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). Is there something I can do if I don't want GMOs in my food? Say, I'm convinced that GMOs are bad for my health in the long term and I want to avoid them as much as possible and preferably eliminate them from my diet altogether. If I want a GMO-free diet my local community and my city must first have laws and policies that support my choice. They should have the power to draft, vote on and implement any laws that preserve and guarantee my right to choose what I eat. Such initiatives as labeling foods that contain GMOs are crucial for me to exercise my choice. But what did we see recently in the November 2012 elections in California? Millions of dollars of out-of-state money pouring into California elections and scuttling prop 37 which would have required mandatory labeling of GMO foods sold in California. Centralized forces, in this case, major food corporations, diverted a small percentage of their profits to defeat prop 37. It makes business sense for them to do this.

Another example is education. We're seeing wealthy and influential "donors" pouring money (they call it philanthropy sometimes) into what should essentially be a state and local issue. It should be up to each one of us to decide how we want our kids to be educated, what the curriculum should be, when a child ought to start formal education, etc. Why does the Billionaire mayor of New York City spend millions of dollars to change the educational system in Los Angeles, California? How can individual choice take precedence in the face of such massive centralized interventions?

Let's take another example... hydraulic fracturing (or fracking). It's been around for a few decades but recently, advanced technology and economics have resulted in a boom in energy extraction achieved using horizontal drilling techniques. The documentary "Gasland" is a good piece of investigative journalism that explores the fracking boom in the US and shows its negative impacts on the people who happen to be on the path of the many energy companies that have fracking operations across the country but primarily in a few states like Pennsylvania and North Dakota. I'm convinced fracking is harmful to the environment and the life forms that inhabit the areas where wells are drilled and injected with fracking fluids. Fracking poses enormous risks to fresh water aquifers as fracking fluid laden with toxic and carcinogenic chemicals sometimes leaks into drinking water supplies of rural residents.

I just read an article on fracking in Colorado and as I read this rather long article, I couldn't help but see the same patterns mentioned above pop up again and again. Here are some excerpts -

"Air and water quality issues are so ubiquitous in areas invaded by the industry that summarizing is difficult. Most astonishing, however, is that neither Colorado nor the U.S. has undertaken a systematic examination of the thousands of citizen complaints. With regards to air quality, these complaints run from skin rashes, to open sores, to nose bleeds, to stomach cramps, to loss of smell, to swollen and itching eyes, to despondency and depression, even death."

Describing a meeting called by the Governor of Colorado, the author says, "To an outsider this meeting might sound like a tempest in a teapot, but as in most states with oil and gas reservoirs made recoverable through fracking, the state government of Colorado has said that it, and it alone, has the authority to regulate the oil and gas industry. The counties and cities may write their own regulations, but they must be in “harmony” with the state’s, and can not add conditions or requirements that would harm the industry’s bottom line. They are “preempted” from doing so."

"... he [Governor of Colorado] said nothing about the fact that he had already sued the city of Longmont, a city of 86,000 within Boulder County, over its regulations. Longmont’s regulations, labored over by a cautious oil lawyer, but eminently decent man, did not ban fracking within the city, as many wanted, but did make residential neighborhoods, schoolyards and the city’s open spaces off-limits to drilling by the industry."

The Governor had sued over these city regulations for not being in harmony with the state’s! The power that should reside within the city of Longmont got unceremoniously usurped by the state. Do you think the oil companies and their well-funded lobbies had anything to do with this power grab?

What does it do to my individual choice to have a safe environment where I live if I were living in Longmont, Colorado? Look closer to home and you will notice the rights that we think we enjoy are increasingly coming under the jurisdiction of higher and higher levels of centralized institutions. Individual choice is under attack and falling by the wayside. Try growing a vegetable garden in your frontyard.

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