Posts Tagged ‘decentralization’

Having finally turned the corner on a brutal, 11-day (and counting) cold, I feel up to getting back to my blogging routine. First up: a followup to last month’s post, “Why So Little Decentralization?”

To review, that post posed a puzzle (a problem for political scientists to ponder, you might say). The puzzle is this: developing countries are far more centralized than developed countries. That is so despite the fact that some developing countries are much larger and more diverse than developed countries, and many of them have now been democratic for quite some time. Furthermore, if decentralization were simply a relict of post-medieval state-building (some might venture that sort of claim about Switzerland, for instance), then the fact that developing countries have lower state capacity and a more recent independence than almost all developed countries deepens the puzzle.

I went through two explanations that do not actually explain the puzzle very well: shallow local talent pools and illiberalism. In particular, they cannot explain why developing countries are often very decentralized along some dimensions (allowing discrimination against goods and workers from other regions, linguistic and cultural rights, etc.), but not others (chiefly tax policy).

I think there are two explanations that actually work: secession prevention (in ethnic federations) and excessively personalist electoral systems (in nonethnic federations). In this post I’ll talk about secession prevention.

Some developing democracies are ethnoregionally diverse, that is, they contain minority ethnic homelands that could form the basis of independent states. Examples include (more…)

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Many scholars (for instance) have noted a trend around the world of greater decentralization, at least on certain dimensions. Many non-federal, unitary states have tried to devolve some spending and decision-making authority on local or regional governments. Virtually every democratic government nowadays at least feigns some interest in decentralization.

Yet what strikes me is how little decentralization there has been, especially in the developing world. Some developing democracies that are sometimes described (or describe themselves) as “federal” or “semi-federal” include Mexico, India, Indonesia, Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela (before it went authoritarian some time in the 2000s), South Africa, Malaysia, Pakistan, Iraq, Nepal, and Nigeria. Yet none of these countries, other than Mexico, affords its constituent state or regional governments autonomy commensurate with that found in federal and semi-federal “Western liberal democracies” like Spain, Canada, the U.S., Switzerland, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Australia, and Italy. For instance, in Brazil, states do not have exclusive powers, and the federal government may overrule any state law with its own legislation. In India, the federal government may suspend state governments from operating at all and impose “President’s Rule.” Of all developing democracies, only India, Mexico, and Brazil routinely allow subcentral governments to raise significant revenue through autonomous taxation policies. (I count 9 Western democracies with such fiscal autonomy.)

Some of these developing countries are both huge and ethnically and regionally diverse, India and Indonesia most notably. One might think that these governments would have even more reason to decentralize than would the governments of comparatively homogeneous Western democracies. Therefore, the relative lack of decentralization in developing countries remains a puzzle.

One explanation might be the smaller talent pool in developing countries. Decentralization might not be feasible because uneducated or politically unsophisticated local officials require close supervision from a small cadre of Western-educated central administrators. While this explanation might have some weight in very poor democracies like Mali (before the recent coup), it likely does not apply to the majority of the cases just mentioned. If the talent pool in developing democracies were desperately shallow, then small developing democracies should have little state capacity plus all the adverse sequelae political scientists typically attribute to state weakness. Yet many small democracies in the developing world have performed fairly well: Costa Rica, Jamaica, Trinidad, Botswana, Mauritius, and Namibia, not to mention Slovenia and the Baltic republics in central and eastern Europe. There is no obvious positive relationship between country size and economic or political performance in the developing world.

Furthermore, many of the cases just mentioned do boast significant decentralization along some dimensions. For instance, India and Indonesia lack a unified internal market, allowing local and state or provincial governments to impose trade barriers on products from other regions. This is an economically perverse form of decentralization and one that has been nearly stamped out in the West, apart from certain discriminatory government procurement regulations. In addition, many developing democracies feature significant decentralization of expenditures: local and regional governments control significant budgets, but those budgets are funded by central grants, and most policy authority lies with the center. This set of policy choices is also likely economically perverse, as “vertical fiscal imbalance,” whereby subcentral governments depend heavily on grants or mandatory revenues from the center, tends to encourage fiscal irresponsibility. In Argentina in the 1980s and 1990s, provincial governments established their own banks, which were forced to lend money to those governments, leading to repeated fiscal crisis.

Another explanation might be that there is something about the Western liberal tradition of political philosophy that encourages decentralization. Many developing democracies fit within the category of “illiberal democracies,” where majorities use their political power to trample the rights of minorities. Sri Lanka might be just such a country, where the Sinhalese majority has repeatedly refused to countenance significant autonomy for the Tamil minority, and the central government fought a brutal civil war against Tamil rebels, complete with vast numbers of civilian killings and other human rights violations.

There may well be something to this explanation, but there are also hazards. As Vito Tanzi noted (PDF), demand for decentralization rises with size of government. A nightwatchman state can afford to be centralized because no one really cares about who controls it. Developing countries have bigger governments than Western democracies, not in the government spending as a share of GDP sense, but in the sense that the distribution of resources in such societies is more elastic with respect to the distribution of political power. So demand for decentralization should be higher there. True, the constraint might instead be supply: the views of political leadership in such societies. But then why the “perverse” decentralization in some countries?

To examine the extent and form of decentralization in developing democracies, I have, with the help of University at Buffalo Ph.D. student Govinda Bhattarai, developed a new dataset of regional self-rule in consolidated democracies worldwide. The coding scheme extends that introduced by Liesbet Hooghe, Gary Marks, and Arjan Schakel for Western democracies and various postsocialist European countries. Without going into details here, I will simply note that we coded the scope of policy powers of subcentral governments, the scope of taxation powers of subcentral governments, the local electoral accountability of subcentral officials, and the ability of the central government to veto subcentral laws.

Using those indicators, I then construct two higher-level, multiplicative indices of economic self-rule and political self-rule. Economic self-rule takes into account political self-rule as well as the tax autonomy of subcentral governments. Economic self-rule ranges from 0 (none) to 48 (maximum). Political self-rule ranges from 0 (none) to 16 (maximum).

The scatter plot below shows regional self-rule on the economic (Y axis) and political (X axis) dimensions in 2006, the latest year for which data on regional self-rule in the Hooghe, Marks, and Schakel dataset are available (our data go to 2010, however). Each observation in this plot is a type of region: either a particular region with its own autonomy statute (like Aaland in Finland or Scotland in the UK), or a type of regional government with the same autonomy arrangement (like states in the U.S. or in India).

economic & political self-rule(You can click the image to get a better view.)

Look at how few (more…)

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I recently read Daniel Treisman’s brilliant book, The Architecture of Government: Rethinking Political Decentralization. This book is particularly important for classical liberals who defend decentralization as an important institutional reform for promoting and protecting individual freedom. Treisman’s thesis is essentially that decentralization is overrated. He doesn’t argue that decentralization generally has bad consequences, even under readily identifiable circumstances, but that the consequences of decentralization are so unpredictable and case-specific that few generalizations, even highly conditional ones, can be made about them. The book is largely architecture of governmenttheoretical, and Treisman takes on standard justifications of decentralization like Tiebout sorting, the role of mobile capital in keeping government small, and keeping government “close to the people.” While Treisman’s counterarguments to decentralization’s defenders are well thought out and in many cases persuasive, I remain more optimistic about our ability to make valid generalizations about decentralization. Still, any defender of “competitive federalism” or more local governance will need to grapple with Treisman’s challenges. I’ll take some of the most important of these challenges in turn.

One common argument for decentralization comes from Charles Tiebout: competition among local governments providing public goods allows residents to reveal their true preferences for these goods and incentivizes local governments to act on those preferences. Treisman argues that key assumptions of the model are so thoroughly violated in reality that the predictions of the model are not likely to hold true in the real world.

First, he argues that if “public service differentials are capitalized into property prices, then pressure on governments may disappear completely” (79). Residents then won’t leave districts that provide poor public services, and local officials will not be disciplined. (more…)

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There are many angles to the ongoing protests in Istanbul and throughout Turkey, as there are to Turkish politics in general, but the one thing that struck me about this story when it first broke was: In what other country in the world would a national government have the power to decide whether a park in any city would be turned into a shopping mall?

Maybe France. In the 1970s.

(And yes, I’m aware of all the ironies here. Kemal Ataturk admired Jacobin centralization and brought it to Turkey; the AK Party hates the Kemalists, and vice versa; the AK Party nevertheless has adapted Kemalist institutions to their own purposes; etc.)

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In my last post on this topic, I described an ideal system of federalism and its advantages and disadvantages. One of the concerns that progressives often have about this kind of federalism, which I wish to take seriously, is that it will lead to a growing gap between the incomes of rich and poor regions (such as states in the U.S.). In this post, I’m going to summarize my findings on the empirical evidence on the relationship between federalism and inequality.

What I want to explain here is the extent to which different countries feature regional convergence or divergence in per capita incomes. That is, in some countries rich regions grow faster than poor ones, and in others poor regions grow faster than rich ones. The way to measure that is with the “annual rate of convergence,” which represents the average rate at which the differences in per capita income between a poor economy and a rich economy disappear, all else equal. A figure of 2% would mean that 2% of the average income difference between a rich and poor economy disappears each year. Even when convergence is happening, that does not mean that measured inequality between regions necessarily goes down, because random shocks can intervene (such as oil discoveries or real estate busts). But it’s a key question whether federalism can cause regional economies to convergence faster or more slowly (or even diverge).

Here is how some countries differ in their measured rate of regional convergence over the 1995-2005 period, the longest and most recent period for which consistent data are available (regions are defined as the subnational tier of government enjoying the greatest economic self-rule, which is in turn defined below: states in the U.S., autonomous communities in Spain, provinces in Canada, Laender in Germany, counties in Denmark, etc.):

Some countries actually experience regional divergence, in which richer regions grow faster than poorer ones: Slovakia, Poland, Ireland, Hungary, the Netherlands, and Japan, most notably. The fastest converger in the sample is the European Union (the 15-member EU prior to the entry of the postcommunist states and Cyprus). In other words, the gap between poorer EU states and richer EU states was erased at a 5% annual clip between 1995 and 2005. Much of this remarkable performance had to do with the steep rise of Ireland, but even when Ireland is excluded, the EU is a star performer among these “countries.”

In the chart above, there is no clear relationship between how (more…)

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Once upon a time, local governments accounted for the lion’s share of economic policy-making in the United States. Before World War I, not only was the federal government’s economic policy-making activity strictly limited to areas such as international trade, management of federal lands, trust-busting, and food and drug regulation, but state governments themselves were also internally decentralized. In 1913, local government own-source revenues (revenues raised autonomously by local governments, thus excluding grants) as a percentage of total state and local revenues (including federal grants to state and local governments) stood at a whopping 82%, according to my calculations based on historical Census Bureau data. If we assume that revenues track economic policy activity closely, this figure implies that four-fifths of all state and local economic policy activity occurred at the local level.

Today, of course, local governments are quite limited in their economic policy autonomy, with the most important remaining policy role left largely to local governments being K-12 education. Local revenue decentralization (the variable described in the last paragraph) was just 38% in 2008. This chart shows the evolution of local revenue decentralization over time for the U.S. as a whole:

So who killed local autonomy in the U.S.? The answer is: (more…)

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I am currently blogging from Roatán, Honduras, where I am participating in the “Future of Free Cities” conference, sponsored by Universidad Francisco Marroquín. The conference is about the economic and political preconditions for the establishment of free-enterprise zones in developing countries, as well as the internal governance of these territories. In his opening talk last night, Michael Strong used the rapid growth of Hong Kong, Singapore, Dubai, and Shenzhen to argue that economic freedom is an essential prerequisite to the elimination of poverty, and eliminating poverty is a moral imperative.

Much of the discussion here has revolved around a recent constitutional amendment passed in Honduras to establish “special development regions.” Here is a summary of the features of this amendment:

  • The government of Honduras has the option to create one or more REDs, but is not required to do so.
  • To create an RED and establish its basic system of governance, the amendment requires that the Congress pass a piece of enabling legislation that they call a Constitutional Statute. This requires a two-thirds majority to pass. A subsequent Congress can change this enabling legislation only with the same two-thirds majority and approval by referendum from the citizens living in the RED.
  • The REDs would be areas with their own legal personality and jurisdiction, their own administrative systems and laws. An RED can also negotiate international treaties with partner countries or organizations. Congress would need to ratify these international treaties with a simple majority.
  • Judges for its judicial system will be nominated by the governing authority in the RED but subject to approval by a 2/3rds majority in the Congress. The judicial arrangement would allow the use of an external body that acts as the court of final appeal for judicial decisions from the zone.
  • Laws developed by the governing authority of the RED require a ratifying vote by the Congress. This vote would be a simple vote to approve or reject. Approval requires only a simple majority.

From discussions with people here, I have gathered that (more…)

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The latest Economist has an interesting feature on inequalities among regions within countries. The article compares countries on their ranges in GDP per head (the ratio of richest region to poorest). Thus, we get charts like the following:

But range is an extremely crude concept for measuring inequality. In the U.S., the District of Columbia is by far the “richest” “state,” because its large number of commuter workers generate large GDP without figuring into the denominator. Moreover, the use of the range to illustrate dynamics over time is misleading:

This chart makes it appear that the U.S. has rapidly growing regional inequalities. But the increase here is being driven by D.C. again. The growth of the federal government has concentrated ever more GDP in the District, causing its numbers to look increasingly out of whack with the rest of the country.

A better approach is to compare rates of regional GDP per head convergence. Convergence is the phenomenon whereby poorer economies tend to “catch up” to richer ones. A rough-and-ready benchmark for “good” convergence is an annual rate of about 2%. Econometricians derive rates of convergence in GDP per capita by regressing annualized GDP per capita growth on initial GDP per capita for a dataset of economies. I have calculated regional convergence rates for Canada (provinces and territories), the U.S. (states and D.C.), and the European Union (member states before 2006) over various periods. Here are the results:

The “equalization” column indicates whether the federal system has extensive equalization payments that give grants to poorer regions. The EU does have a nominal equalization program, but it does not redistribute much money. Of these systems, only Canada has a truly extensive equalization program.

Despite this, Canada’s convergence record is the worst of these systems, although the differences between the U.S. and Canada are small. Over the entire 1981-2005 period, U.S. states converged at 1.9% per year, while Canadian provinces did so at 1.6% per year. The EU clearly has the best convergence record, with a massive 8.0% annual convergence rate during the 1995-2005 period, which saw the rapid rise of Ireland, Greece, Spain, and Portugal, relative to the rest of the EU. (Eastern European countries are not included in these numbers, because they had not joined the EU yet.)

This evidence suggests that decentralized federal systems do a pretty good job of getting rid of regional inequalities, even without equalization programs. In a paper currently under “revise-and-resubmit” at an economic geography journal, I present much more formal and systematic evidence to this effect. If and when it is published, I will revisit the topic.

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By now, virtually everyone knows about the corruption in Bell, California, a small city of 40,000 residents where the median household income is $40,000, and the city manager made more than $800,000 a year and the part-time city councillors around $100,000 a year, while raising property taxes and overcharging their residents for sewage services. The reason that Bell officials were exempt from state salary limits was that they had adopted an ordinance turning Bell into a “charter city,” which enjoys a measure of home rule that other localities lack, including autonomy over setting the salaries of public officials.

More generally, local governments are often corrupt. Several Connecticut mayors have gone to jail, and cities like New Orleans and Chicago have made the news for the wrong reasons plenty of times. In Democracy in America, Tocqueville observed that Americans generally thought of local government as least corrupt and the federal government as most corrupt. If perceptions matched reality, why did that reality change?

Over at Front Porch Republic, Pete Peterson fingers Bell’s citizens’ disengagement from the process as the culprit. Fewer than 400 people voted in the special election that made Bell a charter city, and they overwhelmingly approved the measure, 336-54, which made no mention of the salary issue. The political class generally advocates consolidation as the solution.

As a political scientist, I don’t see much to gain from blaming Bell’s citizens for their disengagement. That’s a choice they’ve made, and I don’t think it differs much from the norm across most of America’s cities and towns. How many people vote in those school board and budget elections? Local elections tend to be dominated by people with conflicts of interest (public employees). The real question is: Why are citizens so disengaged from their local governments?

Part of the problem is the lack of local control. Apart from exceptional moments like the revelations about the corruption in Bell, local government seems low-salience to most people. Why bother to get out and vote when the issues don’t get anyone excited? If local governments had more control over setting policy rather than merely administrating, more people would be interested in having say in how the local governments govern.

Another problem is that local elections seem designed to be low-turnout affairs. They’re often held in odd-numbered years in months like March. Who’s thinking about voting then? And who has the time on a busy work day?

Here’s a package of electoral & institutional reforms I would like to see state & local governments embrace:

1) Move all state and local elections to the same day, the first Tuesday after the first Monday of November – every odd-numbered year. Since state and local governments are symbiotic, it makes sense to elect all these candidates together. Furthermore, state autonomy is enhanced when state elections are de-linked from federal elections. One of the failings of today’s American federalism is the fact that people vote in state elections based on what they want to happen at the federal level. This November, many good Democrats at the state level will be swept out of office because people are mad at Democrats in the U.S. Congress. In 2006 and 2008, it happened to Republicans.

2) State elections should be partisan, and local elections should be non-partisan. Local elections should not be about ideology, and partisan labels in local elections probably cause more confusion about candidates’ positions than they dispel. At the state level, it should not be easy to vote a party line.

3) Every voter in state/local elections should receive a ballot-by-mail several weeks before election day. (S)he can return this ballot up to a week before election day, and the vote will be counted, or can vote on election day instead. This reform raises turnout but also makes voters think of themselves more as stockholders with a right and duty to participate in the governance of their community.

4) Allow the formation of functional overlapping competing jurisdictions (FOCJs) through neighborhood participation. These are special-purpose administrations responsible for managing service delivery over a particular geographic area. There is no reason why water & sewer and garbage pickup have to be handled by the same entity. Allow neighborhood precincts to fluidly opt in and out of different service-providing jurisdictions. Those that provide the best service at lowest cost will tend to attract the most neighborhoods. Again, this is a process that should be citizen-driven, with all of the above electoral reforms in place.

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So what do we think about the district court ruling overturning California’s same-sex marriage ban? To my knowledge, this is the first time a court has asserted a federal constitutional right to marriage.

As a longtime supporter of getting government out of marriage licensing and of legal equality for same-sex and nonmonogamous relationships, I am nevertheless somewhat ambivalent about the decision, because a nationwide ban on same-sex marriage bans would undercut the meta-ideological argument for decentralization of policy-making on controversial moral issues: majorities in different jurisdictions could have their own policies, leaving more people content with the regime under which they live than they would be with a single nationwide rule. For the same reason, I would be ambivalent about a federal court overturning all state and local gun laws. Some human rights are so basic that there should be a minimum federal standard, but when it comes to same-sex relationships, civil unions afford exactly the same rights without the terminology.


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A bit late, but trying to keep this feature alive.

Adam Smith.  The Wealth of NationsVol II, Book 5, Chapter 1:

“The abuses which sometimes creep into the local and provincial adminstration of a local and provincial revenue, how enormous soever they may appear, are in reality, however, almost always very trifling, in comparison of those which commonly take place in the administration and expenditure of the revenue of a great empire.  They are, besides, much more easily corrected.”

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It is probably fairly obvious to our readers that many (all?) of us here at Pileus support a more robust form of federalism (and decentralization) than we currently enjoy in the U.S.  So it is with much chagrin that I relay news from this weekend that President Obama wants more federal dollars to bail out irreponsible supposedly needy states.  I know, you are shocked, shocked to see the administration argue for more spending. 

Fortunately, Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center is on the watch and makes a case here for why this is a bad idea.

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In the 2005 case Gonzales v Raich, the Supreme Court pulled back on its federalism jurisprudence and ruled that the federal government may prosecute someone for growing marijuana at home for personal use under the authority of the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which grants Congress the right to regulate commerce among the several states. This year, Congress passed a bill essentially federalizing Massachusetts’ health insurance regulations, mandating pure community rating, guaranteed issue, and individual purchase of health insurance, fairly extreme left-wing policies previously unknown to much of the country.

Oddly, these blows to the remnants of American fiscal federalism are coming just as scholars have recognized the virtues of the system. In the 1990s, Barry Weingast’s market-preserving federalism research agenda showed how mobility of people, goods, and capital across borders of a fiscal federation defined by decentralized policy-setting under hard budget constraints could restrain the growth of government and promote economic development. In the 2000s, scholars such as Jonathan Rodden, Erik Wibbels, and Sebastian Saiegh have investigated the economic consequences of federal institutions. What they found was that when subnational governments are responsible for “paying their own way” with own-source revenues, debt is lower and government is smaller. The reason why fiscal federalism constrains Leviathan is that it allows taxpayers to seek low-tax jurisdictions, which in turn encourages these jurisdictions to compete with each other.

Among the true fiscal federations in the developed world – Canada, Switzerland, and the U.S. (that’s it!) – the U.S. is the most centralized. The chart below shows tax decentralization (subnational own-source revenues divided by total government revenues) in 1999, the latest year for which data are available, for a number of OECD countries.

Tax Decentralization, 1999In Switzerland and Canada, over half of all government revenues are raised by provincial/cantonal and local governments through taxes over which they control either the rate or the base. In the U.S., that figure has generally been around 35-40%. Sweden and Japan actually score higher on tax decentralization than the U.S., although subnational units in those countries don’t enjoy nearly the policy and political autonomy that American states do.

Will Americans eventually realize that fiscal federalism actually works and reverse the decades-long trend toward greater centralization? For that to happen, voters and federal politicians would have to realize that the things they want to have done, from gun control to health care policy, are best handled at the state and local level. They would have to take a stand on principle to reject one-size-fits-all federal solutions. Either that, or the Court is going to have to acquire the nerve and intellectual honesty to realize that it’s their job to safeguard important institutions from marauding politicians, regardless of what their personal views might be on the issue before them.


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Libertarians tend to like political decentralization and the principle of subsidiarity (” do everything at the lowest feasible level”). The standard reasoning is that decentralization provides a check on government, especially when combined with mobility across jurisdictions. Thus, if one jurisdiction becomes too overbearing, people can flee to a more welcoming environment, and this possibility will actually prevent governments from running roughshod over their citizens’ liberties, for fear of losing their tax base. Dressed up in the language of rational-choice institutionalism, this is all Barry Weingast’s “market-preserving federalism” model really is.

I would like to posit that, under certain conditions, decentralization can in and of itself represent an increase in freedom, even if government does not shrink as a consequence (even if it grows!).

The argument

Why do radical libertarians think that taxation is theft? Presumably because taxation takes away citizens’ justly acquired property without their consent. But what if they did consent, e.g., through a social contract? Then taxation would be fine, so long as it is levied pursuant to the terms of the contract. But – “I didn’t sign no stinkin’ social contract!” Fair enough, neither have most people – and, eliding a long stream of philosophical argument, it ultimately seems clear that the arguments for empirical anarchism (“very few existing governments have a moral right to rule”) are compelling.

But could a government established illegitimately come to enjoy some legitimacy after a certain period, during which it has performed certain actions? Think about property entitlements. The long history of theft, extortion, and murder in human societies might seem to render virtually all property entitlements illegitimate. But then there are good reasons to think that the moral stain of illegitimate transfer eventually fades as the victims die out and the holdings are transferred justly to subsequent generations. Thus, property entitlements that are illegitimate in origin can eventually be “redeemed.”

In the same way, governments are generally not established by initial unanimous consent (the Mayflower Compact was an interesting historical exception). Therefore, they are morally illegitimate because they violate the rights of nonconsenters. But can governments eventually become legitimate through the establishment of consent? Clearly, no government (that I know of) has ever tried to obtain the signatures of all its citizens to a constitution after the fact. But surely, living under a government can, under some circumstances, convey consent. John Locke’s theory of tacit consent to government holds that “enjoying the dominions of a commonwealth” makes you morally subject to that government – you must obey its laws, or at least not interfere with their enforcement. This theory is inadequate when applied to national states, however, for their very size makes emigration impractical for most. It doesn’t really count as consent if you have no choice.

But what about a condominium association? Let’s suppose a CA was established improperly without all the proper signatures, but carried on governing. It was a morally illegitimate government at its founding. But if you continue to live there for a certain period of time without making a complaint, it seems fair to infer that you have consented to the arrangement. In these circumstances, tacit consent does seem to do some work. Why? Because a condominium association is so small, territorially, that it is easy to leave if you do not like it.

Now replace “condominium association” with “municipal government.” It is reasonably easy to move across municipal jurisdictions. I would venture to guess that there are many towns across the United States where, if all adults were surveyed, none of them would volunteer the belief that their municipal government is illegitimate and has no right to rule. In effect, these town governments enjoy unanimous consent to the basic contract (this does not mean, of course, that there is unanimous consent to every decision the local government makes – but all that matters for “right to rule” is unanimous consent to the basic procedures by which decisions are made).

So if radical libertarians were to go into a town like this and proclaim that resistance to local taxation is just, or that enforcement of ordinances against, say, houses of prostitution is wicked, they would be in the wrong. These policies would not necessarily be violating anyone’s rights, because everyone has consented to the town government’s right to make these decisions. (As an aside, libertarians would probably make more headway with their ideas if they openly acknowledged that local communities should have the right to zone out crack dealerships and brothels, thus cutting the legs out from under the easiest and most unfair reductios of libertarianism.)

In conclusion, decentralization, by placing political decisions in the hands of small-scale governments, can, under conditions of good mobility and respect for basic integrity of the person, inherently improve liberty. “Big government” at the local level need not be unjust, because it often enjoys the consent of the governed. Libertarians need not be complete anarchists, just radical decentralists.

UPDATE: In the comments, Mark LeBar poses a strong challenge to my view that really existing local governments enjoy a moral right to rule. In response, I concede that the right to rule is somewhat impeached by the lack of express consent, but maintain that what matters most is the contents of residents’ “choice sets,” i.e., their real ability to withhold or withdraw consent by moving. In practice, what an impeached right to rule may mean is that there are certain, very fundamental rights that citizens cannot give up except through express consent under conditions of a highly favorable choice set, while there are other rights that may reasonably be considered to be alienated simply through residence and absence of explicit dissent. Local governments would then enjoy a right to rule in the latter areas, but not the former. Levying low taxes might fit the latter category, while imprisoning private drug users might fit the former. This is admittedly a bit arbitrary & not totally satisfactory. Nevertheless, I don’t think I need the strong claim that local governments enjoy any kind of right to rule in order to make the weaker claim that limitations on freedom enacted by local governments are inherently less oppressive (if not totally non-oppressive) than the same limitations enacted by higher-level governments.

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Daniel McCarthy has some interesting thoughts on Phillip Blond’s ideology “Red Toryism” in the latest American Conservative. Red Toryism sounds a bit like what James Q. Wilson and others have called “populism”: an ideology favoring tight regulation of the market combined with conservatism on social issues. As something of a virtue libertarian, McCarthy actually has sympathy for the concept, at least if it is operationalized as distributism and a relatively benign “hearth and home” social ethic. But a concept that may have some value in Britain would have vastly different implications for America, he says:

What happens if one injects an uncompromising critique of rights, individualism, and liberalism into [the United States'] national machinery? The product may not be Red Toryism, but more executive secrecy, deficit spending, war, torture, and disempowerment of civil society. No wonder, then, that for all our national-greatness conservatives laud Benjamin Disraeli, they never sound like Tories. They are instead in the tradition of Caesar and Napoleon, of mass democracy and militarism.

I’m a bit more skeptical of the concept’s utility even for Britain (it’s odd to blame liberalism for the British surveillance state, when politicians there have been mouthing “broken society” mantras for decades), and I would prefer to draw a bright line between promoting decentralization of wealth and strong social responsibility through voluntary social action and using the machinery of the national state to enforce them. Nevertheless, I think libertarians too often ignore some of the good intuitions that both socialists and conservatives have about capitalist modernity.

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