How Crises of Democracy in Flint & Buffalo Hollow Reflect Adam Smith’s Theory of State

Little Miss Flint (2016)

The nature of the relationship between the populace and the government is revealed by the state’s response to crises. Claire McClinton describes the crisis in Michigan, where financial trouble was met by the state’s usurpation of citizen’s right to elect representatives and, subsequently, of integral communal assets and access to clean water. John Gaventa describes the crisis in an Appalachian mining town — Buffalo — where the potential for financial gain was met by the state’s obstruction of citizens’ ability to argue on behalf of their own safety, and in a broader sense, usurpation of citizens’ right to protest. The Flint water crisis and the situation in Buffalo Hollow are quite similar in terms of the nature of the losers & winners and the intentional subversion of the will of the people; these situations both reflect a government acting in accordance with Adam Smith’s theory of state.

The losers in the Flint, Michigan situation are, of course, the citizens, who have simultaneously lost their representation in government, integral parts of their communities, and their ‘unalienable’ right to life (as denied access to water). Michigan, and particularly the Detroit area, has experienced a sharp economic decline as a result of the changes in the auto industry in that state; many of the citizens are displaced auto workers. McClinton’s speech acknowledges the significance of the auto industry relationship and its illustration of the dynamics in the Flint water crisis. She explains,

“In December 2014, GM engine plant alerted the city that ‘we cannot use this Flint water, because its rusting our parts’ — they let GM go back to the Detroit water system, they made the citizens stay on the Flint System” (36:53).

She continued,

“Something good happened though…some of these disposable people, that are no longer desirable to work in the auto plant, came together about the water” (37:05).

The corporations are prioritized and the citizens are neglected. Additionally, the emergency manager who made the decision, who exemplifies the will of the state, literally said, when asked why GM could change its water source & the citizens could not, “that’s apples and oranges”, making clear that the government weighed the needs of corporations and citizens differently — and the corporations’ interests took precedence. This also proves the willful ignorance by the state of the well-being of its citizens — water rusting metal parts is obviously unsafe to use for human consumption, but the state continues, two years later, to refuse to take action.

Over time as the mining industry’s presence in Buffalo, Tennessee dwindled, so too did the economic prosperity of the town. Gaventa notes, “Economically, Buffalo is a poor community. Its residents are mainly unemployed, work intermittently in the mines, or are retired” (228). He goes on to explain that once the safety issue in Buffalo Hollow became clear, even receiving recognition abroad from a film on the subject, the community organized to petition the Charles King Coal company from further mining that would increase the risk of danger. However, the regulatory agency that would grant the relevant permit ignored the community’s petition request completely; Gaventa explains,

“the permit had already been granted — on 6 December, the day before the Commissioner had mailed the citizens the information needed to register their protest. The Commissioner had known of the intent to challenge. The permit had been granted in under the minimum time required by law for the period of consideration. An administrative fiat had rendered the voicing mechanism ‘voiceless’” (232).

In other words, citizens of a community ravaged economically and potentially environmentally, by the mining industry, would see their democratic rights to protest and representation nullified in favor of the economic interests of the state. Additionally, the industry responsible for rendering the community poor and therefore powerless stood to benefit from the government’s favor in the situation. This dynamic quite closely parallels the dynamics of power in Flint today.

Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations explores many facets of economy, polity, and human nature; one such topic was “the expense of Justice [in a Commonwealth]”. He postulates the inherent inclination of the wealthy to greed and the poor to laziness and instant gratification, and thus concludes that given the existence of a Hobbesian state of nature, a “civil magistrate” (i.e. a government) must be instituted in order to preserve order and ensure the security of property. He further expands on this point, saying,

“Civil government, so far as it is instituted for the security of property, is, in reality, instituted for the defence of the rich against the poor, or of those who have some property against those who have none at all” (584),

a statement that contradicts the narrative of the U.S. government’s role in protecting and enabling the pursuit of the American dream, which is primarily economic mobility, but also importantly includes equal protection under the law and power through representative democracy. Michigan’s abuses of power in denying representation, subverting the result of a referendum, and refusing to act to ensure the safety of the powerless seem to align with a government of property defense. Tennessee’s abuses of power in preventing the hearing of a petition, ignoring the spirit of the right to a fair trial, and again, refusing to take action to ensure citizens’ safety, also aligns with such a government.

The failures of democracy in Flint and Buffalo Hollow prove that American government operates, at its core, according to Smith’s philosophy of governance. These crises also prove that the American system exerts Gaventa’s third dimension of power over its people — the appearance that all individuals share the same rights and same ability to be heard, despite the reality of the ruling class’s explicit control of the law and implicit control of the popular conventional wisdom.