Tuesday, June 13, 2006

The Promise of Government Development: Hiding Behind a Leaky Dike

A few weeks ago, the Press and Sun Bulletin of Broome County announced that the State of New York was considering opening a facility to hold sex offenders in Pharsalia, in Chenango County (northeast of Broome County); Pharsalia already holds a smaller facility that would be upgraded to hold 500 offenders. The headline, predictably, screamed "1,000 New Jobs" though the paper did express some reservations:

1) The high concentration of sex offenders being brought to Pharsalia might be dangerous to the community if there was a break.

2) Studies show that prison workers spread out their earnings far beyond the local area (they often commute long distances, for example) possibly negating much of the benefit to the Pharsalia area.

3) The current population of mental health patients might be endangered by the new inmates.

4) The fact that the Governor's plan to confine sex offenders after their sentences are finished (the purpose of the Pharsalia plan) is being challenged in court means that the jobs might have no security.

These complaints are legitimate fears, but there is one that I think has been ignored by the Press and remains unknown to the general public: the problem of relying upon government for employment. A look at the list of the top 10 employers in Broome County finds that 5 are public entities; in a similar list for Chenango County has 6 of the top 10 in the public sphere. Camp Pharsalia would certainly join that list.

Public sphere work is, of course, necessary: we need schools, roads, fire departments and ambulance squads. I would never support the radical Libertarian idea of complete privatization of society, in fact, I support more social spheres coming under the control of local communities. However, the key word here is "local." The jobs that too often come under the rubric of "public" having nothing to do with local control: big prisons, big university centers, big water reservoirs, big building projects and big parks. The jobs do not create wealth, they just move tax money around.

More importantly than the fact that tax dollars are not created, but simply shifted, is that these jobs have the tendency to hamstring local power. Just as the expansion of Wal-Mart into our community siphons our ability to control our destiny and sends that power to Bentonville, AK, these big projects too often put our communities directly into the service and orbit of New York City. Some of this is inevitable, after all NYC is one of the world's great metropolises, but it is not necessary that we simply give them the control of our lives. What if they decide to send their children elsewhere (or to keep them at home)? Or if inner-city prisons enter fashion? What is the state government no longer needs Camp Pharsalia? When we give over to big bureaucracy, we have no control of our destinies. We have more than enough examples to show that they often care little for the fate of our communities down in that mighty City and up in Albany.

In my discussion of the parallels between Buffalo and New Orleans, I spoke of how the people of both places suffered because they placed their trust and well-being in distant masters who, it turned out, had little care for those same people. In Buffalo, the great corporations who owned the factories and the federal government, authorities whose centers of power lay far away, betrayed the city. With New Orleans, it was blind trust in the dike-building Army Corps of the Engineers and the Federal Bureaucracy that that destroyed them. Too often, the promise of centralization leads us down the path of subservience and, ultimately, ruin. Who has respect for the servant that grovels before him? To the community that does literally anything to bring him there, especially if there are a thousand other places willing to do the same tomorrow?

Why should the people of Pharsalia turn down the Governor's offer to build the new prison center? Because they would become a colony of New York City, not a community standing on its own ground. They would give up all pretence of local government and live under Gubernatorial Fiat. To take him up on his offer would risk building their community behind a leaky dike that can crumble at the whim of a distant politician or a faceless bureaucracy.

-Posted by Jesse (Originally posted at York Staters on 1/23/2006)