Today I got around to listening to the A Not So Simple Majority episode of This American Life. The story is about the school board in East Ramapo in New York, where a group of people who all send their children to private religious schools took over the public school board, and have since been gutting the public school system and funneling the money to their private schools. The religion of the group in question isn’t really important. The story is infuriating on many levels, and at the end it left me thinking about how to prevent this sort of thing from happening. I think that the lesson is in the dangers of small-scale democracy. The school board in East Ramapo has a lot of power, not just to manage schools but also to set local property tax rates, and was subject to capture by a relatively small group of people.

At the other end of the spectrum we have the US Presidency. It’s a nationwide election, and separation of powers insures that the President can’t do that much anyway. The election cycle is long and painful. This all leads to low variance outcomes — President Bush and President Obama may not personally have that much in common, but America has not been a radically different place under one of them than the other. The entire system is built to reduce the variance between Presidents. Generally speaking, the smaller the electorate, the higher the variance. That’s why the House of Representatives features a much broader ideological spectrum than the Senate, for example.

Getting back to East Ramapo, I was reminded of the article about the small municipalities around St. Louis, Missouri that I recently linked to. They’re really too small to be well-governed or even governable. Similarly, there was the recent case of Bell, California, where the elected officials in a town of 38,000 made themselves the highest-paid municipal officials in the country. I wonder whether the problems in East Ramapo School District would never have occurred if the entire county had a single school district, rather than the nine it currently has.

People seem to reflexively romanticize small-scale democracy, but it’s exploitable and breakable in many ways. We should be warier of it.