Law & Principles

Jonathan Small & Trent England | March 2, 2015

Limits on 'Local Control'

Jonathan Small & Trent England

The radical environmental movement favors centralized, top-down control ... except when it doesn’t.

In Oklahoma’s two big college towns, Norman and Stillwater, environmentalists are pushing local regulations against the oil and gas industry. It is a feat of political jujitsu, since conservatives often favor local control. Proposed state legislation to preempt these local ordinances has been met with accusations of hypocrisy. Indeed, some conservatives seem unsure about using state power against these local proposals.

Local control, however, is an idea about how government should work, not what government is for. It is a principle about means, rather than ends.

One theme of The Federalist Papers is that structures and processes must always be measured in terms of their purpose. The American Founders believed the purpose of government is justice, not just carrying out the whims of a powerful few or a vast majority. While legitimate government power comes only from the people, this does not mean majorities are always right.

In Federalist No. 10, James Madison writes about this conflict. The great challenge of “popular government,” what many people today call a democracy, is the risk of people using legitimate means (elections, judicial process, etc.) for illegitimate ends (violating the rights of others). Every expressed limit on government power, each check and balance, the multiple separations of powers, the Bill of Rights--all are designed to frustrate attempts to abuse government power, whether by few or many or even a majority.

Local communities are often the best place to make policy decisions. Local control makes possible greater customization and experimentation in public policy. It increases the potential for all citizens to participate. Of course, local control can also permit or perpetuate abuses of minority rights.

In the United States, the fundamental level of government is the state. The Constitution was ratified by “We the people,” but the people acted within their separate states. Presidential elections, congressional elections, constitutional amendments—all these seemingly national acts take place state-by-state.

States also create local governments. This is why “federalism” is not simply a synonym for “local control.” Constitutional federalism is the system of divided sovereignty between the states and the federal government, where the federal government’s powers are “few and defined” and everything else is left to the states. States policymakers, like the Framers of the Constitution, are responsible for ensuring the organization of local governments leaves as much power with the people as possible while also preventing abuses of justice.

Of course, this brings us back to Norman and Stillwater. State policymakers would hardly sit by if a mob of environmentalists decided to storm local oil and gas facilities. And the question of whether rights are violated is separate from the question of how they are violated. The most important question is not the means, but the ends. State policymakers ultimate responsibility is to protect the rights and prosperity of Oklahomans.

Jonathan Small President

Jonathan Small


Jonathan Small, C.P.A., serves as President and joined the staff in December of 2010. Previously, Jonathan served as a budget analyst for the Oklahoma Office of State Finance, as a fiscal policy analyst and research analyst for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and as director of government affairs for the Oklahoma Insurance Department. Small’s work includes co-authoring “Economics 101” with Dr. Arthur Laffer and Dr. Wayne Winegarden, and his policy expertise has been referenced by The Oklahoman, the Tulsa World, National Review, the L.A. Times, The Hill, the Wall Street Journal and the Huffington Post. His weekly column “Free Market Friday” is published by the Journal Record and syndicated in 27 markets. A recipient of the American Legislative Exchange Council’s prestigious Private Sector Member of the Year award, Small is nationally recognized for his work to promote free markets, limited government and innovative public policy reforms. Jonathan holds a B.A. in Accounting from the University of Central Oklahoma and is a Certified Public Accountant.

Trent England David and Ann Brown Distinguished Fellow

Trent England

David and Ann Brown Distinguished Fellow

Trent England is the David and Ann Brown Distinguished Fellow at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, where he previously served as executive vice president. He is also the founder and executive director of Save Our States, which educates Americans about the importance of the Electoral College. England is a producer of the feature-length documentary “Safeguard: An Electoral College Story.” He has appeared three times on Fox & Friends and is a frequent guest on media programs from coast to coast. He is the author of Why We Must Defend the Electoral College and a contributor to The Heritage Guide to the Constitution and One Nation Under Arrest: How Crazy Laws, Rogue Prosecutors, and Activist Judges Threaten Your Liberty. His writing has also appeared in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Washington Times, Hillsdale College's Imprimis speech digest, and other publications. Trent formerly hosted morning drive-time radio in Oklahoma City and has filled for various radio hosts including Ben Shapiro. A former legal policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation, he holds a law degree from The George Mason University School of Law and a bachelor of arts in government from Claremont McKenna College.

Loading Next