Governments Want us to Believe we are Empowered

Lee Friday – November 24, 2017

On November 18th, citizens in London, Ontario cast their ballots in the annual Neighbourhood Decision Making Program. In fact, this program is nothing more than a tiny bone ($250,000) – less than one tenth of one percent of the City’s budget – with strings attached, thrown to taxpayers. It is just another political ploy which attempts to create the illusion that citizens actually have meaningful control over their own neighbourhoods.

Councillor Josh Morgan said “This is one of the ways to give residents that decision-making power and ability to shape their neighbourhoods.” However, citizens do not have decision-making power over issues of any importance. City Hall makes all the decisions with the remaining 99.9% + of taxpayer dollars, and if residents happen to get what they want, it is by coincidence, not by design. Even this tiny new program, despite its name, remains under bureaucratic control. On the City of London’s website, we read:

This program will allow you to propose ideas to enhance your neighbourhood, with you deciding on which ideas will go forward!

Yes, City Hall actually ended that sentence with an exclamation point, presumably to emphasize that voters are really in control. However, the assertion is false. You do not decide. When we dig deeper, we read this:

Resident ideas are vetted for feasibility by Civic Administration, and once approved, developed into proposals to be represented on the ballot. A community vote is held to determine which proposals will receive funding.

So, if a majority of residents favour a particular idea, but the bureaucrats do not share their enthusiasm, the idea will not be on the ballot, which means you are not able to vote for it. So much for majority rule, even on a small scale.

The Myth of Majority Rule

To be clear, I am not in favour of the political concept of majority rule because I do not recognize the moral right of the majority to tell the minority – even a minority of one – what to do. However, for this article, the point we need to understand is that majority rule is a myth, and the Neighbourhood Decision Making Program is just one example. The fact is that regular citizens have virtually no influence over the activities of any level of government, while special interest groups have considerable influence.

Here are a few highlights from a study published by Professors Martin Gilens (Princeton University) and Benjamin Page (Northwestern University):

. . . The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.

. . . As to empirical evidence concerning interest groups, it is well established that organized groups regularly lobby and fraternize with public officials, move through revolving doors between public and private employment, provide self-serving information to officials, draft legislation, and spend a great deal of money on election campaigns. Moreover, in harmony with theories of biased pluralism, the evidence clearly indicates that most interest groups and lobbyists represent business firms or professionals. Relatively few represent the poor or even the economic interests of ordinary workers . . .

. . . Clearly the median citizen or “median voter” at the heart of theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy does not do well when put up against economic elites and organized interest groups. The chief predictions of pure theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy can be decisively rejected. Not only do ordinary citizens not have uniquely substantial power over policy decisions; they have little or no independent influence on policy at all.

Conclusion

The Neighbourhood Decision Making Program is largely a misnomer. I don’t think Councillor Morgan, or anyone else on City Council, wants residents to have decision-making power and the ability to shape their own neighbourhoods in any meaningful way. Councillor Morgan said this new program “empowers citizens.”

If City Council really wants to “empower citizens” to “shape their neighbourhoods,” they would not force sidewalks on neighbourhoods that don’t want them.

If City Council really wants to “empower citizens,” to “shape their neighbourhoods,” they would not allow a livestock operation to violate its neighbours’ property rights by inundating them with revolting odours and a massive infestation of flies.

The list goes on.

The sad truth is that citizens are forbidden from taking action without the approval of government, which itself takes action without the approval of citizens.

Thousands of dollars in taxes which each of us pays every year is a serious form of disempowerment for citizens, as it simultaneously empowers the government. Reduce taxes, reduce the size and scope of government, reduce government budgets – then citizens will be more empowered. This is a simple economic concept which should guide future decisions by Josh Morgan and his fellow councillors, that is, if they really want to empower citizens.

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