Europeans don't enjoy grassroots democracy? And the implications?

I thought this opinion piece from the UK Spectator was rather interesting. It makes the assertion that Europeans do not enjoy, and by and large do not understand the importance of, the “town hall” democracy that we take for granted in the US. Furthermore, the piece cites de Tocqueville’s assertion that “Town meetings are to liberty what primary schools are to science; they bring it within people’s reach, they teach men how to use and to enjoy it. A nation may establish a free government, but without municipal institutions it cannot have the spirit of liberty.”

So first a GQ: do citizens in the EU by and large have the right and the institutional framework to decide issues impacting their immediate communities? This can include the curriculum taught in local schools, what kinds of buildings can be erected within the city limits, how property is taxed, the weight limits of trucks driving on local streets, how often garbage is picked up, what kind of public transportation system will be available, and hundreds of other issues.

And then a couple of related GD issues:
[li]Does a lack of local-level democracy hinder the “spirit of liberty” in Europe?[/li]
[li]If it does, what implications does this have for the viability of a democratic European Union?[/li]
[li]And finally, can we trace much of the Europeans’ bewilderment over the way Americans live–and possibly over the reasons Americans succeed so well–back to this fundamental difference in the two sides’ political cultures?[/li][/list=1]

If, by “institutional framework” you mean an official forum like a town meeting, there’s nothing like that in Ireland or, I think, in most European countries. But it’s not universal in the US, is it? I think of it as characteristic of some of the smaller New England states. Am I wrong?

In most EU countries local issues will be decided by local elected officials who, depending on the political culture which of course varies from place to place, will usually be fairly close to the members of the community concerned - i.e. they’ll be members of the community themselves, they’ll be in regular touch with other members of the community, they will know the views and sentiments of the community on issues and (assuming they have any desire to be re-elected) they’ll pay close attention to those views.

Some countries - not Ireland - may have provisions for local referenda on specific issues.

I’m not at all certain that the town meeting model is necessarily the best way of guaranteeing the “spirit of liberty”. The town meeting described in the Spectator article apparently decided what games private citizens could play - what business of the town is it whether I play bingo or not? - and also elected the police officers, which seemed to me to risk encouraging a police department more concerned with enforcing local prejudices than with protecting the liberty of the individual. In fact the town meeting will onlywork well in a community in which the spirit of liberty is already very strong, and in such a community the institutions of representative democracy should work equally well.

Although the proverbial “town meeting” seems to be a feature of New England, I believe that almost all communities have some form of local decision making on community issues–to a much greater extent than European communities, according to the article.

I don’t know much about local politics in Europe–hence my inquiry–but I do hear stories about how Brussels bureaucrats mandate the minutiae of community life. I also get the impression that Europeans are surprised by the variety of state and local laws regarding things like drinking ages, gun ownership, and crime and punishment (including the death penalty).

What are these issues, and how much decision-making power do these elected officials have? Can they institute local zoning laws or push through their own initiatives like (for example) a city-wide light rail system? Can they get their own funding through city or county municipal bonds, or do they rely exclusively on funds doled out from the central government?

But the idea behind Tocqueville’s “spirit of liberty” is that local people get involved in the affairs of their community. There might be abuses and arbitrary intrusions, but wouldn’t that be (possibly even more) true of a centrally-appointed bureaucrat who isn’t accountable to his or her constituency?

(BTW, wasn’t this a plank in Pim Fortuyn’s platform–that town mayors should be elected by the locals rather than appointed in the name of Her Royal Bicycleness?)

As for bingo, I believe the issue is whether to allow churches and other organizations to run games in which citizens gamble money–it’s not about whether people can play in their own homes for funsies.

And regarding local police abuses, unfortunately this has happened in the past–especially in the South, it seems–but I think this is addressed somewhat effectively by the integration of local jurisdictions into the state and federal system of courts. I believe that you can theoretically appeal such an abuse all the way up to the US Supreme Court. I believe this is how the “Miranda rights” came to be, for example–a police abuse (not reading a suspect’s rights) was exposed, appealed all the way up to the Supreme Court, and then a new standard of behavior was set for local police departments to follow nationwide.

I think the author of the article would say that (like many Europeans) you are once more putting the cart before the horse:

I cannot even begin to measure the stupidity of that article. It is pure, US-centric BS. “only in the US are the people truly free”?? Gimme a break. The author seems to think the US is the measure of all things and therefore, in whatever way other countries are different, they are worse.

In Europe different issues are decided at different levels, just like the US has local, state and federal levels. Are Americans not truly free because they are subject to state and federal governments? Why is America the model to be followed? On the whole I would say the Federal Government has more power than the European Union. I guess Europeans should feel sorry for the poor Americans who lost their independence when they became subject to the Federal Government.

The Eu will not admit the death penalty and that somehow is an awful thing? Well, it happened in the US for a while and it may happen again. I guess that will be the end of the US as we know it. OTOH European nations have more freedom than the several states in some areas (like abortion).

>> do citizens in the EU by and large have the right and the institutional framework to decide issues impacting their immediate communities?

Yes. As I said, it may not coincide exactly with the same level of decision as in the US but in the US it also varies from state to state and from one city to another. But, of course, all the countries of the EU are working democracies and issues are resolved by people elected directly or indirectly, just like in the USA. (BTW, a pet peeve of mine is the use of the word “impact” when the correct word is “affect”)

Europe is not worse and not better than the US. It is different. What works for the USA would not necessarily be the best thing for Europe just like the reverse is also true. Europe is composed of very different countries and you’d have to analyse them one by one on all issues.

Suppose the school curriculum is set at the national level rather than the city level. Why is that so bad? It may be a pretty good thing to avoid the country hicks teaching creationism. That’s one issue where the US comes out second when compared to Europe. So I can’t see why letting the backwoods hicks write the curriculum serves a higher purpose.

We could go into issues one by one. Garbage collection? You really think Brussels is deciding how the garbage is collected in Toscanini, Italy?

As I said, that article has no redeeming value. Pure BS.

I’m very interseted in questions of democracy, and I think the OP touches on some very important questions. But the linked article is maybe not the best starting point for the debate. It’s a little… confused.

David Weman, please feel free to look at the article only as an initial reference and not necessarily a starting point. What about the questions I ask in the OP, taken on their own? If you have stronger articles to cite, or arguments of your own–pro or con–I’d be very interested to hear them.

I think comparative studies are always an interesting avenue to explore. Somehow there are always things to learn about other democratic philosophies and how those have transferred into practice. Unfortunately (IMHO), both Mark Steyn and The Spectator are a little to close to tin foil country for a rational starting point

That notwithstanding, I rather liked this artice. I mention it because there is the feeling in the OP that the EU member States employ but one system of democracy when, in fact, the concept is considerably more flexible. Indeed, if you look at developments in, for example, the UK over the past 2 – 3 years (and ongoing) it’s possible to see quite radical change (it could also be argued that it’s been a long time coming). Thus:
“Moreover, the EU founding treaties quite explicitly have enshrined the principle of subsidiarity (the principle that government action should be taken at the lowest possible level) as the cornerstone of EU government. That gives the European government a philosophical framework which is lacking in the US Constitution.”

’ subsidiarity’ is a longstanding concept and perennial ‘buzzword’ 'round these parts. Just thought the article might offer something to chew over.

It’s impossible to generalise about the devolution of power in the EU. Looking at the UK alone, for example, there is the parliament of the United Kingdom. Below that there are separate parliaments or assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Nothern Ireland (but not in England). A different range of powers and responsibilities is devolved to each. Below that each country within the UK has an entirely different structure of local government bodies, involving any or all of (in descending order of size) regional councils, county councils, district councils and parish councils. Stick in municipal corporations and town councils somewhere there as well. All of these bodies are elected. They deal with a variety of issues. They have a variety of revenue-raising powers. They are subject to various degrees of control by national or central government over what money they can raise and what they can (or must) spend it on. And that’s just within the UK. Other structures will be found in other European countries.

(And, in response to your specific question, issues such as zoning and local transport will be addressed at the level of local government, not central government. But the powers of local bodies in this regard – e.g. whether the local government has the power to operate bus services or merely to licence service operators – are usually decided centrally. Revenue-rasing powers vary from country to country and from authority to authority.)

It is interesting to look at what issues are controlled from the centre in the US and the EU respectively. The OP mentions the death penalty but, for the purposes of an argument that the US system is superior, this is not a good example. The US has long accepted that issues of basic human rights are the concern of the central government – hence the Bill of Rights. For a period, as has already been pointed out, the death penalty was prohibited by federal law (specifically, a Supreme Court judgement) in the US, and other issues of penal and police policy – the rights of accused and suspected persons, the prohibition on “cruel and unusual punishments” - are still very much the concern of federal law. The difference between the EU and the US is, crudely, that the US does not regard the death penalty as a matter of fundamental human rights, while the EU does. But that has nothing to do with attitudes to contralisation versus devolution of power generally.

An interesting point to look at might be the US attitude to road safety. On the face of it, this looks very much like an issue for the states, but the federal government manages effectively to mandate speed limits and legal drinking ages by threatening to withhold federal highway funding from states of whose laws on these matters it does not approve.

Areas of trade and commerce are also interesting. In the US, commerce between the states is a federal matter, but commerce within any state is a state matter. In the EU, reflecting its origin as a free trade bloc, the EU authorities have very considerable power to legislate in matters of trade and, reflecting the nature of the EU as a single market, no distinction is made between trade between member states and trade within member states. Those who object to the “bureaucratic interference” of Brussels will typically, for example, be objecting to a requirement to display prices in metric units (e.g. to show the price per kilo rather than the price per lb.) and they see no reason why the UK (for instance) should not retain the imperial system. In principle a US state might be free to move to adopt a system of weights and measures unilaterally – I don’t know – but in practice it is unthinkable. And in the EU member states are still free to adopt their own monetary policy and issue their own currency (and several do so), which is certainly not the case in the US.

In any federation there will always be tensions between the centre and the regions, and this will reflect itself in a not always coherent approach to the distribution of powers and responsibilities. It should not surprise us that different federations have different experiences, and end up with different distributions of power and responsibility. History and culture has a lot to do with this. But it is dangerous to conclude that, because two federations have different experiences and end up with different distributions, one is more “democratic” than the other.

Most European countries are massively over-centralized by US standards.

In most European countries you have the same (or virtually the same) laws nationwide. They don’t have a federal system in the same way the US has one - so whole countries have the same rules on issues like the death penalty, sale of alcohol, abortion, public school curricula, public sector pay and conditions (teachers, police, etc). Given their small geographic size, maybe that’s not so surprising.

What is surprising is the reluctance of central authorities to allow local communities to run even minor affairs on their own. In the UK, towns, cities, counties, can’t devise their own rules on dog licenses, decide when to allow shops to open or levy any meaningful taxes. Fire and police services are not under elected local government control. Outside of some very minor areas, like fines for littering, local governments have zero legislative power. They’re just administrative structures. There’s a big debate at the moment on fox hunting - the idea of allowing each county to have a referendum on the issue has never arisen (SFAIK).

The contrast with the US, where rural communities look after themselves through voluntary and co-operative means like volunteer fire departments, is huge.

Basically, in Europe, communities look to elite-run central government to care for them, and in the US, they look after themselves. Europeans don’t know what “grassroots democracy” is. If you explain it to them, they will interpret it as a deriliction of duty by central government.

Hemlock, I think you may be a bit right and a bit exagerating. First, the European government would be the equivalent of the Federal Government and I think we can agree the Feds have much more power. Then the national governments would be the equivalent of the state governments and, again, I would guess the States have more power, at least nominally. All power in the states comes from the states which then give the cities and counties certain powers. In many European countries there are regional governments which constitutionally have more power than anything equivalent in the US. This is true in Spain, Germany, Italy, the UK and other European countries. Germany has regional parliaments which would be the equivalent of a county parliament in the US. Spain is divided into (15? - 17?) autonomous regions which pretty much deal with everything except stuff like foreign affairs, defense, etc.

France is more centralised than other countries, I believe. From what I know European countries are not as centralised as you seem to think. What happens is the governments, local and central, intervene more than they would in the USA. I happen not to like that and much prefer the government which governs the least but to equate that with lack of democracy or lack or freedom, as the article does, is plain ridiculous.

In some areas European governments intervene less. I believe prostitution and soft drugs are legal pretty much everywhere in Europe. Is the US a tyranny because they prohibit stuff which is private and hurts nobody?

I find the article is just ignorant stereotyping. The equivalent of the articles you see in Europe bashing America based on similar ignorant stereotypes.

BTW, as has been discussed in other threads different electoral systems have their strengths and weaknesses. The winner-take-all syetem prevalent in America tends to overrepresent majorities while the at large systems prevalent in continental Europe tend to be more proportional. This has a major effect on what we are discussing.

For the Big stuff (should we declare war on Irakia?) I think a proportional system is better as it more closely represents the group. But on the small stuff that affects only my small group, there is an advantage in having a representative you can complain to.

No system is absolutely better or worse, just different and people tend to like what they have grown up with as that is what they are familiar with and what they understand better.

It is probably worth making the point that the question is not “which system results in better government” but “which makes for a more democratic society”.

For example it is possible to make the case that local control of/influence over curriculum and/or funding of the educational system been damaging to the US education system. I’m not saying that it is so – just that it’s possible to make the case. But let’s not get sidetracked into a discussion of whether local direct democracy is an efficient or effective way to take the socially optimal decisions on any matter.

The issue is whether it leads to an engaged, participating citizenry? Do people take an interest in public affairs, and accept a responsibility for playing their part? Does it lead to a closer link between the government and the governed? Does it reduce a sense of alienation and powerlessness?

Well, the admittedly crude measures of participation in the process don’t necessarily suggest that it does. I haven’t seen any figures for participation in town meetings or other equivalent forums, but at the next level up – participation in elections – US citizens are famously disengaged. This source gives some comparative figures, putting the United States in 139th position out of 172 countries in a survey of turnout in all elections from 1945 to 1998 (with an average turnout of 48.3% of the population of voting age). All the members of the EU did markedly better – the best was Italy (1st place, average turnout 92.5% - but, then, voting is compulsory), the worst was Luxembourg (92nd place, average turnout 64.1%).

The same source analyses voter turnout by region of the Globe. Western Europe has the highest turnout of any region. Then, in descending order, Oceania, Eastern Europe and the former Soviet States, the Middle East, Asia, North America, Africa, South and Central America.

Obviously there may be explanations for the relatively poor showing of the US other than lack of engagement by citizens. But, for what it’s worth, these figures lend no support to the notion that direct democracy in the US fosters a sense of engagement and civic responsibility greater than is found in Europe.

Actually, the issue of fox hunting is a very good example as to why many issues in the UK are best dealt with at a national level. Local bans on fox hunting would simply mean that hunts would move to those counties where it was still legal. This is the big difference between UK local government and US states - moving across the border to the next council area in the UK usually takes no time at all, whereas moving across the border to the next state in the USA often takes time, money and effort. The fundamental reason why the UK is so much more centralised than the USA is that it is so much smaller.

On the general question, I agree with UDS that it is very silly to make such sweeping generalisations about the distribution of power within the USA and Europe. If one must make such generalisations, one might as well say that, on this, the way in which individual countries within the European Community organise these things is much more diverse than the differences between the individual states of the USA. It is, in any case, not at all obvious that what de Tocqueville found so admirable then (and some have accused de Tocqueville of idealising what he saw) remains true in the very different conditions of the early twenty-first century. Town hall activism is no longer the most immediate or most effective form of political engagement open to the individual citizen.