By S.D. Plissken | March 21, 2020
A Milton official got up on his hind legs this past year to misinform the Board of Selectmen (BOS) that they have “The Power” to “prudentially manage” the affairs of the town, and that their use of that Power is unquestionable.
Of course, he was fundamentally wrong, and wrong in several ways. The “American system” is based upon the Lockean principle that sovereignty resides in the people, who lend it only to a government of their choosing, and that they do so for a very few limited purposes. Should that government fail, or otherwise abuse its people, such that it loses its their support, it does not just go merrily along unquestioned. Sovereignty reverts instead to those that lent it.
Both the Federal and New Hampshire constitutions acknowledge this. The New Hampshire one is actually clearer and firmer than the U.S. Constitution in setting forth its terms. Parenthetically, I witnessed this last year – with some displeasure – a New Hampshire judge override a witness who cited their rights as set forth in the NH Constitution. The judge translated for the record the witness’ words – and their meaning – into terms of the less protective US Constitution. There was a presiding “NH” judge denying the very constitution that authorized his actions. That judge needs to be both questioned and perhaps recalled. (Time to elect judges?).
Many have asserted, with some underlying logic, that groups of people can not assert aggregate rights and powers that they do not possess themselves as individuals.
Consider, if you will, the well-known “How Many Men?” progression, or reductio ad absurdum, that illustrates their point.
- Is it a theft if I take my neighbor’s twelve-pack of toilet paper (“ripped from the headlines!”) – or any other resource belonging to them – at gunpoint?
- Is it a theft if five or six of us take my neighbor’s resources at gunpoint?
- Is it a theft if twenty or a hundred of us agree together – let us call it an election – to take my neighbor’s resources at gunpoint, and then do so?
- Is it a theft if the group votes to take my neighbor’s resources at gunpoint, but allows that neighbor to vote too?
- Is it a theft if the group, now including the neighbor, votes to take the neighbor’s resources at gunpoint, but gives some of them to some other, less fortunate neighbors?
And so on. Obviously, Step One is an outright theft, but at which step did it cease to be so? How did a group of people somehow acquire the “right” to commit thefts that would be crimes if perpetrated by them individually? Those making this argument – we might think of them as logical purists – claim that this progression to superhuman rights is just “magical thinking.” Groups do not have and can never acquire any aggregate rights above those possessed by them as individuals, and that their actions remain forcible thefts throughout the progression.
George Washington is credited with having observed honestly (he could not tell a lie) that “Government is force; like fire it is a dangerous servant – and a fearful master.” Effectually, he acknowledged the underlying force employed, warned against it, and went on to use it nevertheless.
If we were to be less pure than the purists, and join George in putting aside moral questions of forcible theft and try to go on nevertheless, what are the limits?
Obviously, the cleanest course of action would be achieving consensus – everyone agreeing unanimously on what needs to be done or spent. No force at all would be required if a consensus could be achieved.
From there, the lesser next option would be gaining some sort of overwhelming majority. However, it must be acknowledged that such a majority would be forcing its will upon a minority. (“Two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for lunch”).
The constitutions mentioned above seek to limit the types of things that might be forced upon an unwilling minority, even forbidding some altogether. (“Shall make no law” and “Shall not be infringed”). Of course, governments try always to redefine or extend their limits beyond those paper walls. (It remains a well-known legal principle that unconstitutional laws are not laws at all).
Bringing this back down to our particular patch of earth, Milton officials should tread quite lightly indeed. None of them have received anything like an overwhelming majority. (Not entirely their fault). Most hold their offices through bare majorities of a minority of the electorate. Some hold their offices through having received minorities of that minority. And some have been appointed to their positions by others whose own mandates are not particularly strong. These “mandates,” if we may call them that, should not be overstated or extended very far at all.
Given that all of that is true, one might expect them to restrict themselves to managing a minimal government at the lowest possible cost. Grand views of “prudentially managing” the property and lives of others should be entirely out of the question. (“Any government powerful enough to give you everything you want will be powerful enough to take from you everything you have”).
For some years now, Milton officials have gone inexplicably in quite the other direction. They have been voting unanimously for measures and expenses that do not enjoy anything like unanimous support from those they purport to represent, quite the contrary in fact. They just last week discovered their error. (Yes, a bit slow in the uptake). Should they fail to set a truer course going forward, one imagines they might find themselves facing default budgets for years to come.
A reasonable course correction would have them disgorging most of their hoarded “fund balance” as tax reductions. Most of the proposals for which they took it got rejected anyway. After that, they should make certain that it never again resembles a dragon’s hoard, by adjusting the percentage through which it is forcibly taken downwards, way downwards.
Likely, that would require extending their CIP acquisition timelines much further out. (Assuming that a CIP plan that needs a dragon’s hoard to sustain it is not simply dismantled altogether, which is a distinct possibility).
It would require some planning on their part, some actual planning that takes into account what the least among us can afford. Otherwise, it would just be theft.