Keating: A Plea for Law and Order

August 31, 2023

by Maryann O. Keating, Ph.D.

When Hoosiers gather to discuss local government expenditures, polarization kills conversation. Comments like, “We absolutely need more bike trails,” and “It’s the potholes, stupid,” do not help. Why not start with principled limits on government, a recognition of scarce tax revenue and a locality’s particular concerns?

Consider four groups that successfully direct local funds to preferred projects:

  1. Firms who want the public to assume the private cost and risk of doing business; they argue that this is essential for job creation and economic development.
  2. Nonprofits wishing to transfer substantial resources towards social issues; they argue that this is the only way to maintain law and order.
  3. Organizations concerned with preserving the natural environment; they argue in terms of the earth’s long-run sustainability.
  4. All those earning salaries in association with the above groups.

Interest groups seeking to direct local funds to their preferred projects function legitimately, but they crowd out issues benefitting the public in general. Hoosiers have generally given priority to public safety, education, public health, bridges and highways, water quality and adequate sewage treatment. Well-financed organized interest groups can count on the public to passively and mistakenly assume that basic services will continue to be adequately provided.

Local officials do not function well as the final arbiter of what a community needs, and self-appointed experts in the form of interest groups often do a great deal of harm. There is no right recipe for local government, and, even with free elections, mistakes will be made. But is it too much to expect those writing laws and making policies to try to work out a system for maintaining general norms of justice?

“Whose Justice?” some ask, “Commonly-held values no longer count.” Of course, they do. Individuals long for safe, stable and peaceful neighborhoods, and can act together even if they do not think alike. We should expect the government to promote conditions and remove obstacles to promoting safe communities. The challenge is achieving this with a minimum of civil coercion and within the prerogatives of democratic government.

Totalitarian regimes can be relatively stable in pursuit of evil ends. Therefore, we are reluctant to impose any comprehensive view of civil behavior, thinking that this represents a lack of respect for certain people. However, this destroys justice for anyone. Justice is motivated and consists of appropriate relationships with other people, and a government fails to the extent that it does not provide or promote justice.

Policymakers need to distinguish between behaviors that must be tolerated in a free society and those that lead to civil decay. Then, we will hold everyone responsible for obeying local laws and ordinances. For example, no one gets to set up tents on public property without permits and shoplifters can expect to be pursued and punished.

Fifteen Indiana counties rank in the 90th percentile or higher among all counties in the U.S. in terms of fewer violent crimes per 100,000 residents. Of course, within these top-ranked counties, there are pockets of disorder. As well, there are pockets of order in 5 out of 92 Indiana counties ranking below the 15th percentile nationally in terms of violent crime. Hoosier communities have different needs and traditions. Overall, we need to restore the priority of self-government where citizens can realize their particular concerns.

Too often, meaningful public celebrations in Hoosier towns have been discontinued, supposedly due to civil disorder. Yet, non-government organizations still retain the ability to sponsor publicly attended events, admittedly charging high entrance fees to cover private security costs.

However, a functioning democratic society is re-invigorated through celebrations of civic holidays and traditional community events.  Besides the ever-present small group of disruptors, what other factors preclude 4th of July celebrations and summer street festivals? Evidently, officials believe that they personally have more important events to attend, no doubt out-of-town. Or, are decision-makers distracted by interest groups and  unwilling to allocate scarce revenue in providing security for public events? Police officers parading around in cool motorcycles and leather jackets impress 7-year-olds.  However, teens and older would respect highly visible pairs of cordial officers deterring or apprehending anyone getting the least bit out-of-line at nominally priced public events.

Suppose local officials began to value and support small services like warning sirens benefitting all residents rather than granting large benefits to special interests. Such towns might even be willing to reinstate traditional high school basketball tournaments between Christmas and the New Year.       

Maryann O. Keating, Ph.D., a resident of South Bend and an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, is co-author of “Microeconomics for Public Managers,” Wiley/Blackwell.


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