Independence Has Responsibility – And Consequences

This week’s Courier Herald column:

Next week we’ll celebrate Independence Day, the day the American colonists said “enough” and chose to split from the rule of a foreign king. Our forefathers saw opportunity in charting our own destiny by providing more freedom rather than less – both economic freedoms and those of personal liberty.

Last week, the citizens of Great Britain said via referendum that they too may see some benefit in additional sovereignty and freedom. The referendum threatens the roughly quarter century experiment of brining the many countries of Europe together into a loose confederation of nation states.

It’s difficult to discern exactly what happens next. Revolution – whether by war or by treaty – is the political peak of uncertainty. The will of the people, once unleashed, is often difficult to channel in any one specific direction. This is especially true when the change is unleashed by anger at the status quo, rather than a unified vision of a superior goal.

Analysts spent the weekend speculating which other European Union countries may be next to vote to leave. Others questioned if the desire for sovereignty now unleased within Britain will stop with the European Union. It’s quite possible that those who were arguing the benefits of self governance last week will soon be extolling the virtues of larger alliances as talk of independence for Scotland and Northern Ireland increases, in an effort to hold Great Britain together.

Even some in the U.S. are getting in on the action, though the discussion at this point seems largely confined to social media. Talk of Texas secession – now branded a “Texit” – has long been the pipedream of those who either believe 1865 began a longstanding truce, or have otherwise chose to look to a fantasy of a US escape plan rather than to spend productive time trying to tilt domestic politics in their favor.

Much of the US support for British secession comes from conservative channels among those who favor the concept of “local control”, and thus see any devolution of power from a larger body to a smaller one to be a good thing. Throw in current populist discontent against globalism and trade as well as the conservative frustration over unconstrained undocumented immigration, and it’s not difficult to understand why Brexit would have a strong US cheering session.

I have no personal position on what the British choose to do from here with respect to the EU, short of their role as one of the cornerstones of the western economic system. As such, their current predicament introduces a large amount of uncertainty, which is one of the greatest enemies of the market. The British government and the EU must move purposely to provide clarity for the process ahead so that investors and those within the channel of commerce may react and plan accordingly.

Closer to home, a significant amount of caution is needed for proceeding. Local control is a concept worthy of support, but like many bumper sticker slogans it is part of the answer, not one in totality.

Last week in “Atlanta”, a public battle erupted between the City of Sandy Springs (in Fulton County) versus neighboring Cobb County over the traffic plan to route traffic from I-285 to the new Braves Stadium. The plan involves having traffic from I-285 exit prior to the Cobb border and using side streets within Sandy Springs to approach the Cobb County stadium from the East.

The great limitation of local control is that consequences often extend beyond the borders controlled by the decision makers. And Atlanta’s transportation “plan” may in fact be the poster child to illustrate this lesson.

Suburban governments in Metro Atlanta have long developed around road corridors designed to route cars into the city of Atlanta. Even now, capacity is being added to I-75 and I-85 on three of four routes in and out of town. Meanwhile, the City of Atlanta is embarking on a plan of road diets – removing lanes once reserved for cars to make way for bicycles and for a few miles – a streetcar. There’s also a move to reduce the amount of surface parking spaces.

At some point, there is a role for a larger government beyond “local”. Whether that’s to ensure that travel between jurisdictions is relatively smooth, trade isn’t unnecessarily encumbered, or a common defense may be provided for a mostly common people, there are benefits to larger unions.

Even in the face of declaring independence our founding fathers understood this balance. We didn’t rebel against the British King to form 13 states. We became the shining city on the hill by being the United States.

But implicit in their vision was also a federal government that had a specific role – with more routine and personal decisions made closer to home. As we prepare to celebrate our own independence, we must renew our civic regard to understand this difference and this balance. Otherwise, we run the risk of too many of our own losing the vision of our founders’ superior goal.


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