In physics,“power” is defined as doing work, or producing energy. In society, how-ever, we tend to think of power as integral to decision-making and action. We hopepower will flow on behalf of general progress, though we all know the adage that power corrupts.How to array political power was the central challenge facing framers of the U.S.Constitution. To them, the new nation came down to the question of how muchpower to vest in a central government and how much to vest with the states and withthe people. Each succeeding generation has redefined the balance in our Federalsystem, and the nation confronted outright dissolution over the question during theCivil War when states rightists exercised an extreme belief in state-based power bygrotesquely defining slavery as a state’s prerogative.Today, the role of the Federal government seems under constant re-examination, associety’s expectations change. The generation today coming into its own has nomemory of the Depression of the 1930s, the vast and restorative New Deal, or theshift in the role of government that those initiatives represented. Many recoil from the very word “entitlement” and do not share the belief that citizens are entitled to a min-imum level of support, even less that our Federal government bears an obligation toinsure the well-being of citizens unable to secure that well-being on their own.In this post-entitlement age, power—through accident as well as design—has beendevolving to less centralized decision-making units. At the same time, confusion hasbegun to creep in over where authority and responsibility ultimately lie. Power cancertainly be divorced from legitimate authority, as in dictatorships, where leaderscling to power through the rule of force. Equally, in democratic processes, “partici-pation” and “involvement” can be confused with responsibility. Do irate parents, forexample, who begin to monitor a poorly performing school indirectly acquire someresponsibility to maintain their involvement until the school improves?Increasingly, the public voice has numerous channels through which to flow. But where is true power and responsibility? The public cannot simply sit by and watchthe bouncing ball of power move from state government to local to Federal and backagain. According to the journal
, by the end of the 20th century localgovernments in the United States had become the most trusted level of Americangovernment. Proximity favors accountability, from which follows trust.But is being trusted enough? Do local governments have the stamina and resourcesto tackle the large issues that are being passed to them to handle? The nation’s fiftystate legislatures—not to mention the 3,043 counties, 19,279 municipalities and16,656 towns—have a need for staff and budget. But only nine of the state legis-latures have full-time legislators, supported by professional full-time staff. Accordingto recent data from the National Association of Counties, roughly 60 percent of thenation’s county governments were having difficulty recruiting staff, due to constraintsof cost and the competitive appeal of employment outside government. Meanwhile,despitepronouncement of budget surpluses, early in 2001, 23 states were expect-ing budget shortfalls. Yet power continues to shift to states through the block grant process as the Federalgovernment passes more decision-making away. Also, as the role of the public sec-tor changes, so does expectation of the private sector. Free market solutions are tout-ed as alternatives to regulatory approaches—long-standing emblems of publicpower. But what is the proper ratio of substitution? What is the optimum interplay?The Joyce Foundation has tried to remain alert to these questions, weighing costsand benefits and the impact on the work of our grantees.
This year, for each of our current Programs, shifts in power arrangements have beennotable forces in the development of public policies.In the case of Gun Violence, a keen dynamic has been a balance between Federaland state action and whether policies and laws at only one level can be effective. Also at issue is the balance between state and individual power. Those who arguefor the individual right to use and own a gun resist regulatory approaches as beingsubversive of personal power and individualism.