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Editorial: Big and Small vs Good and Bad


May 19, 2011 by wcobserver

If you are looking for a debate topic that allows you to switch sides with relative ease, try the quantity vs. quality question. Does size, amount, volume really matter or is it some distinguishing attribute, some essential element of excellence of an item that really matters?

It depends. And even then, the debate still rages. One hamburger joint brags “over 10 billion sold…” but are they “good” burgers? Some people prefer two or three good friends their entire life, others count scores of best friends.  Mass produced, great!…every piece perfect and cheap. Hand made, great!…every piece unique and valuable.

Throughout nature the relationship between quantity and quality is more empirical – increase the amount of heat to water and it will become steam. Often, changes in quantity result in changes in quality.

But in the complex social world of government it isn’t so clear cut. Much of the current chatter about national politics flows from the quantity/quality debate regarding the size of the government – small government is good, big is bad.

Local politics, which has been called the essence of all politics, has its own version of the big government- good government debate.

Sometimes, in our neck of the woods, when we are discussing what we consider “bad government” with someone, it is not unusual for them to shrug their shoulders and make some comment about “small town politics” implying that the smaller population has a negative impact on the quality of the government. We don’t buy that. It’s not the size of the town that makes bad government. Bad government can be anywhere, small towns or big cities.  In the cities it’s referred to as “machine politics.”

“Small town politics” and “big city machine politics” have a number of characteristics in common. Both systems rely on some sort of hierarchy such as crony-ism and nepotism.  They are generally headed by a single individual or small autocratic group that controls enough votes to maintain political and administrative control of the small town or big city.

Both Big City Machines and Small Town Politics are not organized for a single election or cause, but rather are entrenched elements in the political life of the community. The terms are commonly used in a pejorative sense referring to some aspect of political corruption.  In this case the size or amount doesn’t really matter – bad government occurs in both small towns and in big cities.

They usually depend on a patronage or spoils system to determine who gets the lion’s share of government resources. They both prefer to conduct public business out of public view.  “​Back-room” and “behind-the-scenes” control is the norm. Machines and small town politics are often criticized as undemocratic and inevitably inviting corruption.  They contribute to a situation where the interest of a self appointed few is placed before what is often best for the general public.

Obviously not everyone agrees that small town or machine politics is such a bad thing – they flourish in many small towns and big cities throughout the country. Some citizens are less interested in transparent, accountable government than they are in efficient government. Small town machines get things done. “They may be a bunch of  self-​ serving and corrupt in-laws, huntin’ buddies and ‘good ole boys,’ but by golly, they are taking care of ME.”

There is one distinction between small town politics and big city machines that shouldn’t go unnoticed. Small towns are inhabited mostly by conservatives that vote Republican, the city machines are manned mostly by liberals that vote with the Democrats. Corruption is one of the few bi-partisan aspects of modern politics.

We’ve said it before and well say it again. Representative Democracy is a lot of trouble whether you live in the big city or small town. The question isn’t about small government or big government; bad outcomes or good outcomes.  What’s important here is that we’re in charge of our government.

Abe said it best, “Government of the people, by the people, for the people.”



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