The Mobility Paradox

44 Pages Posted: 11 Dec 2008 Last revised: 13 May 2010

See all articles by Todd E. Pettys

Todd E. Pettys

University of Iowa - College of Law

Date Written: March 1, 2004


Half a century ago, in an article spanning a mere nine pages, Charles Tiebout revolutionized the way many think about American federalism. Using the analytic tools Tiebout gave them, numerous scholars now contend that, in our mobile society, citizens' interests would best be served by dramatically shrinking the federal government and permitting state and local governments to regulate a far greater number of important matters. If we stripped the federal government of a significant portion of its current power, these scholars contend, state and local governments would be better able to distinguish themselves from one another in a wide variety of meaningful ways, thereby giving mobile citizens many different regulatory regimes from which to choose when selecting a place to live. I contend in this article, however, that citizens' mobility - the very mobility on which Tiebout's model relies - paradoxically also gives citizens powerful incentives to oppose decentralization and to seek federal legislation embodying their preferences. Indeed, citizens of all political persuasions remain determined to achieve federal legislative victories on a host of issues they regard as important, notwithstanding many scholars' urgings to the contrary. I contend that these citizens are not irrational and that the ongoing debate about the ideal distribution of power between the state and federal governments will remain incomplete-and often irrelevant - until the incentives that frequently drive citizens to prefer federal regulation are taken fully into account.

Keywords: Tiebout, federalism. mobility, centralization, decentralization, externalities, devolution

JEL Classification: H23, H41, H77, J60, K40

Suggested Citation

Pettys, Todd E., The Mobility Paradox (March 1, 2004). Georgetown Law Journal, Vol. 92, No. 3, 2004, Available at SSRN:

Todd E. Pettys (Contact Author)

University of Iowa - College of Law ( email )

Melrose and Byington
Iowa City, IA 52242
United States
319-335-6814 (Phone)
319-335-9098 (Fax)

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