Last week, Randy Simmons gave several lectures at the Institute for Humane Studies' Liberty and Society seminar. Mayor of Providence, Utah and a professor at Utah State University, Simmons has both a theoretical background in free market ideology and practical knowledge of the workings of local government.
Simmons' said that as a political leader, his actions are guided by one question: "Will this policy increase choice or decrease choice?" For example, with regard to zoning, often a contentious issue within municipal governance, Simmons pointed to his mayorial successes achieved by allowing people to use their property more freely.
This view of leadership is consistent with Alexis de Tocqueville's vision how a laissez-faire politic allows citizens to develop systems and institutions that allow for cooperation and prosperity. Today, Simmons explained, democracy is often misconstrued as being about voting, while the classical liberal view of democracy centered around societies' emergent orders unhampered by political regulation.
Simmons said that political markets obscure these outcomes because voters do not face the same set of incentives as consumers do, even though they are the same people. This is because votes are indivisible, and they obscure people's strengths of preferences on policy issues; the price system that allows for signaling in the market for goods has no equivalent in the political market. The problem of the irrational voter is not as severe at the local level as it is at the state or federal level because when fewer people participate in an election, an individual voter has a greater chance of being able to influence an election's outcome. However, even municipal governments do not provide an effective way of carrying out voters' individualized preferences.
When governments serve to protect property rights rather than limiting how citizens can use their property, people can discover methods for maximizing their property's utility. For example, many neighborhoods have established homeowners' associations to deal with collective action problems in a manner less coercive than what a local government could carry out.
According to Simmons, Tocqueville's democracy was about the emergence of "neighborly peace" among Americans that can be achieved when people are provided with a system of property rights designed to protect liberty and encourage innovation. While federalism is important for a more direct system of democracy, the best policy for allowing liberty and prosperity to thrive is limited government at every level.