Rurality and “Government Retreat”

The New York Times ran a story yesterday, dateline Roseburg, Oregon (population 21,000), headlined “Where Anti-Tax Fervor Means All Government Will Cease.”  This is not exactly breaking “news.”  This story has been around in some form, with varying degrees of urgency, for about five years.  See earlier installments here, here and here.  The gist of it is that many rural counties in the West which rely on federal funding streams (e.g., PILT, Secure Rural Schools and Community Self Determination Act monies, covered by stories herehere and here), have seen those monies taper off and in some cases dry up.

I want to be clear before going further that the federal funding streams these counties rely on are not giveaways, at least by my assessment.  They are intended to replace, in some small measure, tax dollars the counties cannot generate because property taxes cannot be levied on federal lands, which comprise vast portions of the West.  (The existence of such extensive public lands is also associated with other controversies, of course; read more here and here).  The existence of public lands may also have an impact on other ways local governments might choose to plump up their public coffers (read more here and here), and the existence of these lands limits the ways in which locals can earn a living, as in the timber industry or in ranching.

As a result of these funding cuts, many nonmetropolitan counties–those least likely to have other funding sources (taxes on robust business enterprises, for example)–are  cutting critical services.  Most news reports to date have focused on cuts to law enforcement, which has cultivated some “informal justice”/citizens “militias” type activity.  But this NYTimes story focuses on cuts to other services.  Highlighted in the story and illustrated by a photo is the fact that Douglas County–at 5,134 square miles, more than 2.5 times the size of Delaware and nearly as large as Connecticut–is about to close the last of the 11 library branches it previously boasted.  The one in Roseburg, the county seat, will be the last to go.  Kirk Johnson, NY Times reporter based out west, reports that Douglas County residents recently voted down a ballot measure that “would have added about $6/month to the tax bill on a median-priced home,” a measure that would have saved the libraries from crisis and closure.

I could digress here into a long discussion about how critically important libraries are for all sorts of reasons, not least these days that–in my suburb and many other California locales–they accommodate many homeless people during the day, providing them a lifeline (the Internet) to identifying and getting services.  I know that my family and I use our neighborhood library on a weekly basis, even though I have ready access to a fabulous academic library.  A 2013 story about the particular benefits of libraries in rural communities is here, and broadband is a big part of the story.   A more recent library story out of rural northern California about the power of books in children’s lives is here.

But Johnson makes the point that libraries are not the only thing on the chopping block in Douglas County.  The failed library initiative is like many others in Douglas and neighboring counties (e.g., Curry and Josephine) that voters have rejected in the last decade.  Another very sobering illustration of the southwest Oregon situation is the fact that Curry County has only one full-time employee in the elections division of its clerk’s office and therefore may have difficulty holding an election this fall.  (I’ve documented here and here similar phenomena in my home county in Arkansas, another place heavily reliant on PILT because of the presence of public lands set aside as Ozark National Forest and Buffalo National River).

There is so much I could say about this particular rural trend to shrink government, sometimes to an extreme degree.  But I just want to make a few points in regard to theoretical legal geography regarding how spatiality and law are co-constitutive.   I have argued as a related matter that rural society and rural spatiality are co-constituting, as reflected in a less robust presence of law, legal actors, and other institutions and agents of the state in rural places.  I framed it as “space tames law tames space” in a frustrating feedback loop:  it is expensive for the state to do its work when the area to be governed is vast and when residents emotionally and intellectually resist vesting power (including via tax dollars)  in the state.  I would characterize this feedback loop as disabling, though I understand some rural residents of a more libertarian bent would see it as enabling–enabling the individual, that is, fostering self-sufficiency.

My argument about the relative “lawlessness” of rural and remote places has not been uncontroversial.  Lots of folks see small towns as the epitome of order and law-abiding-ness and have pushed back against my argument.  Yet it seems that my point is very well illustrated by this detail from Johnson’s article, which he offers as an illustration of “government retreat”:

It looks like the house on Hubbard Creek Road in Curry County, where owners went for more than 10 years without paying any property taxes at all because the county assessor’s office couldn’t field enough workers to go out and inspect. The house, nestled in the woods with a tidy blue roof and skylights, dodged more than $8,500 in property taxes that would have gone to support the schools, fire district and sheriff, because government had gotten too small to even ask. So things fall even further, with cuts to agencies that actually bring in revenue prompting further cuts down the line.

So there you have it:  a community envisages itself as not needing law, regulation and the state, so it underfunds government to such an extent that the state can no longer support itself and perform (m)any government functions.  This, in turn, further fuels the imaginary–and reality–of an anemic and unhelpful state.  The state is thus discredited, thereby further undermining the state’s ability to justify the raising of revenue or to do, well, much of anything.

Which came first, the chicken or the egg?  the state’s inability to be effective?  or the perception that it would necessarily be ineffective and a consequent decision not to fund it, thereby rendering it (more?) ineffective, unhelpful, and inefficient?

As for when a community goes too far in its retreat from public institutions…well, the defeat of the library tax crossed that line for some.  Johnson quotes a Douglas County resident, 54-year-old Terry Bean, a construction manager who supported the library tax, though he had opposed other local taxes.  In explaining his position he invoked another concept associated with rural livelihoods:  community.

There is conservative, said Bean, flicking a cigarette butt into the bed of his pickup truck, and then there is community. And people got them confused.

The library, he said, was something a person could use — for computers, if not for books — even if that person didn’t have a dime, and he still respects that.

And that, in turn, brings me back to my earlier point:  doesn’t everyone reap communitarian benefits from the public library?  even the richest of folks who may never darken its doors.

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1 Response

  1. Brett Bellmore says:

    No, probably everybody does not benefit from them. There are very few things, (Air?) that everybody benefits from. But the key point here is, “benefits from” and “can afford the cost of” are not the same thing.

    But I think you did identify early on the root cause of this problem: That the federal government holds such a large fraction of the land in these areas, that the privately owned bits are like tiny isolated islands in a barren ocean. Only the ocean isn’t actually barren, they’re just commanded not to exploit it by a distant, occupying government.

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