Principled government starts at City Hall

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A few months ago, I met a gentleman at the National League of Cities conference in San Antonio named John McAlister. John is a fellow City Council member from Gahanna, Ohio, a suburb of Columbus. As we waited for a boat tour of the downtown San Antonio Riverwalk, John and I discussed politics in our hometowns, a common discussion at these conferences. Soon our discussion turned to national politics and the challenges facing our country. I learned of John’s steadfast commitment to the oath of office he took upon entering his role of City Councilman, that to uphold and defend the Constitution, an oath that City Councils, County Supervisors, state legislatures and Congressmen take all across this country. John strongly believes that we can regain limited federal government by holding local politicians accountable for their votes. I found his zeal refreshing and reassuring since I, too, am impassioned by such beliefs.

One of the many truths I gleaned from John McAlister can be found on his website. There, he wrote, “If you check the background of your local member of the U.S. House of Representatives or the U.S. Senate you will find that most of these people started out in politics as a city council representative, county commissioner, etc. Many went on to their state legislatures. What if we were only sending people to higher office that had proved their worthiness of upholding the Constitution at the local level? Might we then start to get state legislatures and a U.S. Congress made up of people who honor freedom and the founding principles of limited government and a government that secures our rights rather than tramples on them?” How profound.

Principled government – the kind of government that enriches individual liberty and freedom, upholds and defends the Constitution, and promotes the interest of the sum, not the part while maintaining as limited a role as possible—starts in the city halls all around this country. It is in the local communities, not the state capitols or Washington, D.C., that a fundamental change can begin to reverse the course of the “nanny state” and rightful restoration can be made of our American foundations. The continual overreaching of government can be combated best and most effectively by city officials who stand on solid principles and act at times against their own inclinations, with an eye on the Constitution and an ear listening to the voice of the people.

There are times, I will admit, when the will of the people is in direct contrast to the Constitution and to the principles of good Republic government. Many, even some traditional conservatives, will accept more government intrusion into their personal lives and support laws that chip away at our Constitutional foundations for what could be seen as a humanitarian or medical cause or even for a slight bit of comfort all the while consigning the founding principles of our Republic to a mere afterthought. Ronald Reagan once said, “One of the traditional methods of imposing statism or socialism on a people has been by way of medicine. It’s very easy to disguise a medical program as a humanitarian project.” In recent days, we have seen such relegation of principles in cities around Mississippi and in a number of other states. Big government ideals are disguised within seemingly worthwhile causes. While there are numerous examples, one above all comes to mind—a smoking ban.

Proponents of a smoking ban believe restaurants, bars, and other such establishments to be “public” places, which allow local governments to regulate said activity. They use phrases such as, “Your right to smoke ends when my right to breath begins,” and “If I want to eat in that restaurant I should be able to do so without breathing in smoke.” They point to the medical community’s research that secondhand smoke is harmful. They say that smokers cost society by way of increased likelihood for the need for medical treatment, which in part falls on the general taxpayers. Proponents also say that all establishments should be mandated to comply with a smoking ban to level the playing field for all who do business in the area.

I trust by now you recognize the inherent flaws in the smoking ban proponents’ arguments in terms of principled government. In case you missed it, allow me to elaborate. But first to qualify my statements to follow, I do not smoke. Actually, I personally do not care to be around smoke nor would I condone the use of cigarettes. With that said, I will now continue.

Restaurants, bars, and other such establishments are not “public” places as defined in government terms; they are privately owned businesses. “Public” places are areas that are owned by the city, county, or state, such as parks, ball fields, and government buildings. Private businesses can refuse service should they choose; public areas are accessible by all taxpayers.

America was built on capitalism, free enterprise, and an entrepreneurial spirit. Capitalism by definition is an economic system based on the private ownership of the means of production and distribution of goods, characterized by a free competitive market and motivation by profit. Capitalism has been the backbone of our society and has allowed our country to grow and expand more than any nation in the history of the world. Allowing a person to decide what type of business they operate and how they manage that business has been what has made this country great. A business owner’s right to choose whom their business will cater to and what services and goods they supply to the public is capitalism at its best. So for me, as an elected official, to hamper in any manner a private businessperson’s right to run their business as they see fit is a detriment to capitalism and our economic system. That is what a smoking ban on private, commercial businesses does; it takes away the business owner’s right to choose who their business will cater to and disregards capitalism. A smoking ban is over regulation, big government, and infringement on freedom at its core.

Additionally, I personally find it disconcerting that business owners who support a smoking ban and that would be impacted by such an ordinance would essentially turn over the direction of their companies to a local governing body. If a business owner wants to ban smoking in their establishment, then by all means post a no smoking sign and lead by example. The truth is, however, that those who will not act on their own merit fear the loss of revenue it will cause if they act alone. In their train of thought, if all such businesses are required to comply with a smoking ban, they stand to lose less customers and revenue because all of the like businesses in the area will be under the same mandate; there will not be an alternate choice for the consumer. While I follow their thinking, I find it in stark contrast with my ideals of principled government.

As for the medical studies, yes, smoking is not healthy and secondhand smoke can be and often is harmful. And yes, often times, poor choices by the few adversely cost the sum as a result of the socialization of our health care system. I would agree with those statements and concerns. But please don’t miss the greatness of our country here. You and I have the choice to be a patron of any business we choose. And those businesses will succeed or fail based on if you and I support them. That is our freedom, our privilege in a society based on free enterprise. Your patronage of a business will determine that business’s health. If enough of us do not buy from a business it will inevitably die. That is capitalism. So if a business owner chooses to cater to smokers and provides such an atmosphere, it is that business owner’s choice; he or she will succeed or fail based on that choice. It is not up to me as a local elected official to mandate to a private business owner what he or she can and cannot do with their private business in terms of offering smoking within their establishment. After all, the last time I checked, cigarettes and cigars were still legal products for sale and purchase in the United States. Capitalism allows for success if the market will sustain it and failure if it cannot. Why over regulate businesses in such a way if the market will ultimately decide their fate? That’s the greatness of free enterprise.

This, of course, is just one example of where city leaders who are grounded in good, principled government can demonstrate their intent to uphold their oath of office and further the restoration of our founding ideals of government. I can think of other examples as well, some even in my state government: other so-called “sin taxes” on otherwise legal products such as salt, alcohol, and the like, banning products that contain pseudoephedrine, and so on.

As difficult as it may be to accept for some, the Constitution and principled government should never play second fiddle to personal comforts, charitable or humane endeavors, or yes, even religious viewpoints. Indeed, faith and values influence our decisions and should play a profound role in our lives. The founders of our country, however, never intended to allow government to legislate morality or mandate how an individual lives his or her life. The point of government should be to foster an environment where everyone can prosper and achieve, while holding fast to their individual eccentricities that make them autonomous and unique. It is the proper role of government to provide equal opportunity for all to succeed, not mandate that we all succeed equally. Thus it is both the challenge and the responsibility of local elected officials to uphold the principles of their oath while effectively guiding those they represent in the understanding of such fundamental basics of Republic governance.

Having now attended a Tea Party rally or two, it would seem prudent for those concerned, conservative Americans to not be singularly focused. Yes, the 2010 Congressional elections and the 2012 Presidential elections do matter, but so do City Council, County Supervisor, state legislature, and statewide office races, perhaps even more so. The Tea Partiers would do well to expand their focus and understand that true governmental change in this country comes with promoting principled government that starts in City Halls. It can be easy to protest and denounce the policies of the President and Congress from afar; taking a stand in your local community amongst your family, friends, and neighbors is a far more difficult pursuit.

Likewise, being a city official and promoting principled government is not an easy task. City officials are not insulated from their constituents, as are state and federal leaders. City Hall is just around the corner, not hundreds of miles away. Local politics is prevalent in the grocery stores, schools, churches, and corner pharmacy. While state and federal leaders may encounter professional lobbyists and well-funded special interest groups in their daily political world, city officials must hear from their friends, family, coworkers, pastors, and small business leaders every single day. It is easy for a city leader to be torn between sound government principles and what may make their next day at work, the weekly trip to the store, or next Sunday morning a little easier to endure. But expedience and pacification only breed future governmental ills. The sooner those serving in cities around the nation recognize their own strategic importance in the political struggles of the day, the sooner America will return to principled government.

To quote Reagan once again, “I’m convinced that today the majority of Americans want what those first Americans wanted: A better life for themselves and their children; a minimum of government authority. Very simply, they want to be left alone in peace and safety to take care of the family by earning an honest dollar and putting away some savings. This may not sound too exciting, but there is something magnificent about it. On the farm, on the street corner, in the factory and in the kitchen, millions of us ask nothing more, but certainly nothing less than to live our own lives according to our values — at peace with ourselves, our neighbors and the world.”

America can experience a governmental awakening, but it will not start in the state capitols or Washington D.C.; it will start in the City Halls and family kitchens throughout this great country. Citizens must actively participate in their local government if they want the politics and policies of the day to truly change at its core. We must hold City Hall accountable. City leaders must be steadfast to uphold their oaths and choose daily to actively stand firm in principled government, and if they do, we will surely see a true American reformation.

Frank Corder is a twice-elected Republican City Councilman in Pascagoula, Mississippi.  He hosts and co-hosts political talk shows on local radio and television.

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