Courtesy Hartford Courant, Josiah H. Brown

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Tuesday, April 18, 1995










Josiah H. Brown
Josiah H. Brown, a 1992 graduate of Yale, grew up in Hampton. Heis special assistant to the director of The Freedom Forum Media Studies Center in New York.









My eastern Connecticut hometown, Hampton, seems a perfect foil for the government excesses and social decline politicians typically condemn.

Settled in 1712, Hampton has roughly 1,500 residents. It's a village where folks chat at the general store and gather to watch their children march in the annual Memorial Day parade. There's a neighborly spirit in this community, which is said to have the lowest incidence of crime in the state, despite the lack of a single police officer. Volunteers largely run things, from the fire department to the school board. The part-time first selectman is also a full- time dairy farmer.

Even as the electorate becomes increasingly suburban rather than rural, such small towns remain potent symbols of qualities including thrift, industriousness and responsibility. In 1992, Bill Clinton campaigned as the candidate from ``a place called Hope.'' House Speaker Newt Gingrich recently recalled his boyhood in Hummelstown, Pa., as ``an idyllic `Andy Griffith Show' small town.'' And some members of Congress -- decrying unfunded mandates and unbalanced budgets and calling for welfare reform -- contrast rustic virtue with urban, bureaucratic vice.

There is government waste, and some laws are ill-advised. But in the crusade for devolution, we should remember that our towns are not blissfully self-sufficient, and that the economic pressures they face cannot be attributed simply to inordinate taxes and regulation.

It's wrong to view places such as Hampton in a vacuum distinct from the region, state and nation. With the burdens of larger government entities come substantial subsidies and protections as well. Moreover, some local shortcomings can best be addressed through centralized policy.

Directly or indirectly, Hampton benefits significantly from state and federal money. Residents who appreciate highways, education, Social Security and Medicare all rely on our town's links to the outside world.

Were it not for public roads, Hampton residents wouldn't be able to commute to jobs in Hartford or New London -- jobs that, in this state, still disproportionately result from federal defense dollars. If not for government appropriations, the nearby University of Connecticut couldn't survive as a source of employment, enlightenment and social uplift. And without entitlement programs, Hampton's elderly residents would suffer.

Taxes clearly bring tangible rewards, not just pain. The relationship between localities and their state and federal masters is one of mutual dependence. Overall, though, most of the difficulties that communities such as Hampton confront are inevitable or indigenous.

Hampton has fights over school budgets and tensions related to development. Even in Hampton, some teens use drugs, drive drunk or get pregnant, and a few families endure domestic violence.

Certain problems would be worse if left to local isolation. Food stamps alleviate Hampton's pockets of poverty, for instance, and a new state law encouraging racial integration in education may eventually help to improve learning and diminish prejudice.

These are examples of how central governments can implement thoughtful standards of decency and equity. If left to the mercy of local whim, these goals might be neglected -- especially if property-tax increases were needed to offset losses in state or federal aid.

Generally, there is a deep resistance to any proposal limiting a community's power. This position, however, can be counterproductive and expensive. Broader regional solutions deserve wider use. Regionalism promises important efficiencies and economies of scale.

No matter how quaint our village or how virtuous our neighbors, we live in a multi-layered, dynamic society -- a nation of interdependencies as well as independence.

While cherishing Hampton and similar locales, we should realize that even they can't escape problems that exist in various forms anywhere. We should also acknowledge that they can't solve those problems by themselves. When politicians exalt the glories, values and autonomy of small towns, be skeptical. A more complicated web of reality belies the familiar myths.