There were a few large cities in the United States in the 19th century,
but the nation was largely agricultural, and towns were the basic unit
of government. Then rural Americans left their farms and small towns
by the millions for better jobs, and the 20th century became the era of
Now Americans are on the move again, often out
of cities into adjacent suburbs and far into the countryside to distant
subdivisions and booming regional cities. We are becoming a nation of
huge metropolitan clusters.
Yet, as retired American
broadcast legend Tom Brokaw points out in a recent New York Times
article, the small, local government units inside those clusters -
police and fire departments, school and library systems, water and
sewer boards, planning agencies and so forth - remain. Even sparsely
settled rural states like Brokaw's native South Dakota support dozens
of independent state universities rather than centralizing operations
under a single entity.
He notes that the relatively small,
[145,000-square-kilometer or 56,000-square-mile] neighboring state of
Iowa maintains 99 separate county governments and therefore 99 county
bureaucracies. And Brokaw believes that a large state like New York
could save its residents more than a billion dollars a year by
consolidating some of its more than 10,000 separate government entities.
Such ideas never get very far, however. Efforts to create
mega-government units - no matter how much more efficiently they might
run - are vigorously opposed by government workers, police,
firefighters and their unions. Politicians do not agitate these people
if they want to get re-elected.
And lots of other Americans
like their small, hometown government agencies. They feel that they
can keep a closer eye on them and have greater influence over
government affairs than they would over some mammoth bureaucracy far
away. As one Florida resident wrote the Times, "Sometimes inefficiency
is the price we pay for democracy."
Read more of Ted's personal reflections and stories from the road on his blog, Ted Landphair's America.