Localism, Self-Interest and the Tyranny of the Favored
93 Pages Posted: 18 Jan 2000
Date Written: December 1999
This article tests the normative theories offered in support of decentered local government against the empirical reality of modern metropolitan politics in the United States. Localism, or the ideological commitment to decentralizing power to local government, is premised on the normative values of promoting democratic citizen participation, efficiency, and community. The localist, public choice vision would vest maximum authority in individual municipalities, empowering citizens of like tastes and preferences to chart their collective social and economic destiny. In contrast to this normative vision, the article offers empirical and anecdotal evidence of the "tyranny of the favored quarter," drawing heavily on the political science, economics and metropolitan policy literature.
In most American metropolitan regions there are high-growth, developing suburbs which typically represent about 25 percent of the entire regional population but which also tend to capture the largest share of the region's public infrastructure investments and the largest share of its job growth. Yet, through retention of local powers, the favored quarter is able to avoid taking on any of the region's social service burdens. And the majority of the metropolitan population--citizens who live in central cities and older suburbs--often subsidize and are negatively impacted by the growth of the favored quarter. Viewed from a regional perspective, this dominance of the favored quarter is decidedly anti-majoritarian.
In light of this evidence, the article concludes that the "localist" normative values are not well served by the localist paradigm and that these values are best vindicated in a regionalist model. The article offers an alternative vision of metropolitan governance--New Regionalism--that better distributes regional benefits and burdens and that better serves the purported values of localism. Under this model, local governments would continue to exist but would administer a smaller domain of local powers: they would cede control to regional fora on policy matters, like transportation and land use, that are truly regional in scope. But the citizens of the metropolis would collectively decide where to draw the line between local and regional powers. Thus, the New Regionalist model is premised upon an energized, democratic process that builds cross-border coalitions among citizens who are geographically stratified by race and income. Through such coalition building, metropolitan regional majorities can reclaim democratic processes and begin to redress some of the social and economic disparities of opportunity that flow from fragmented local governance.
Note: A revised version of this working paper is forthcoming in Georgetown Law Journal, July 2000
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