Op Ed: No: Don't be fooled by finger-pointing and buck-passing

December 24, 2020

This op ed originally appeared in the Sacramento Bee on May 26.

The highly politicized and much talked-about Flint water crisis has triggered the usual response from activists, bureaucrats and politicians: finger-pointing and buck-passing.

Michigan’s attorney general has even filed criminal charges against two state officials and a city employee, promising more indictments would come.

Whether criminal charges are justified is beside the point. What we all need to keep in mind is this: Delivering clean water to homes and businesses is the responsibility of local authorities.

The city of Flint website makes that clear: “The (city) Utilities Department is responsible for the supply and maintenance of all water and sewer services within the City of Flint,” it says.

The same is true in other communities across America. There are about 155,693 public water systems in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

These systems supply tap water to more than 286 million Americans. Local authorities are responsible for seeing that the water the networks distribute to homes, businesses and schools meets federal and state safety standards.

When problems arise, however, nobody wants to take responsibility. So villains are sought. Lawsuits are filed. We get mired in the blame game.

The public confusion that results is understandable. As government grows larger and more intrusive, lines of responsibility get blurred. The CDC tells us that the Environmental Protection Agency “is responsible for the nation’s drinking water regulation.”

But EPA officials in Washington suggest Michigan’s Republican governor, Rick Snyder, and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality are responsible for Flint’s woes. Local Flint authorities are only too willing to agree. And so it goes.

One of the beauties of our federalist system of government, as designed by our Founding Fathers, is that we have a pretty good understanding of who should be responsible for what.

Washington has limited and clearly defined responsibilities: defending the nation, delivering the mail, minting the currency, regulating interstate commerce and certain other responsibilities delineated in the Constitution.

All powers and responsibilities not constitutionally delegated to the federal government, or constitutionally denied the states, are “reserved” for the states or “the people.”

While subject to federal and state law, the city of Flint – as a so-called charter city – has considerable autonomy and authority, details of which are spelled out in the 1974 city Ccarter, which was adopted by a vote of the people.

Via the charter, the city assumes responsibility for the “health … and safety of persons and property in the City,” including responsibility for clean air, clean waterways and “a sanitary City.”

Alexis de Tocqueville, writing in “Democracy in America,” observed in the early 19th century that American cities provide a nearly perfect education in freedom and self-government, or self-reliance.

It’s in the city, he believed, that closely connected individuals learn to rule themselves, without looking to external controls or oversight to save them from what they can properly handle on their own.

Should Americans ever relinquish this freedom, Tocqueville predicted, the time will come when “instead of occupying himself with removing the danger, he crosses his arms to wait for the nation as a whole to come to his aid.”

And during the debates that preceded ratification of the Constitution, a group of individuals known as the Anti-Federalists expressed concern that local and state governments eventually would become subservient to and dependent upon the national authority.

Today, we are seeing the fears of Tocqueville and the Anti-Federalists come to life in Flint. We should listen to their prescient warnings before our capacity to govern ourselves as a liberty-loving people is poisoned forever.

Jason Stevens is a visiting assistant professor of political science and history with the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University in Ohio.