The Los Angeles secession battle is a harbinger of things to come. Even in defeat, the Valley and Hollywood secession movements may spark similar efforts in far-flung cities like Houston and Phoenix, argues Fred Barnes in a recent Weekly Standard article. However, in order to more fully understand the national implications of the recent secession struggle, we must come to grips with the core principles behind both the pro- and anti-secession positions.
The Los Angeles civil war is just one of many such battles that have taken place across the nation over the past century. Two major schools of thought have developed over the years regarding the issue of local government fragmentation. First, there are the Consolidationists--consisting for the most part of liberal academics in university public administration departments-- who are overwhelmingly against local government fragmentation and, in their heart of hearts, favor a further consolidation of metropolitan areas into region-wide super governments. Second, there are the Public Choice theorists--a relatively small academic group consisting of a few nominally conservative economists and political scientists--who defend local government fragmentation. Within the hallowed halls of academia and within the frenetic world of punditry, the Public Choice scholars are vastly outnumbered. The conventional wisdom is heavily tilted against fragmentation and in favor of further consolidation. All of this, of course, is in spite of empirical studies that seem to favor the Public Choice theorists. However, one should never underestimate the penchant of a cadre of experts to sacrifice the facts for the sake of a theory.
THE CONSOLIDATIONIST POSITION
Metropolitan areas emerged in the United States during the late 19th century. Such areas are comprised of urban-suburban conglomerates that cover a wide geographic territory and contain several independent units of local government. Over the years, Consolidationists have identified several problems brought about by the modern metropolis: uneven allocation of fiscal resources; service level disparities; economically ineffective scales, excessive externalities; crime and poverty. The governmental fragmentation of the metropolis (Los Angeles, Pasadena, Fullerton, Santa Monica etc.) at best makes it more difficult to arrive at solutions to these problems and at worse is a major cause of these problems. Local government, so the argument goes, has become too complex. The metropolis is a maze. Consolidationists believe the separate units of metropolitan local government are artificially superimposed upon what is otherwise a single community.
A 1930 report by the National Municipal League provides a good illustration of the core Consolidationist view: "When the people pass daily from the city to the suburb or vice versa and cannot tell where one ends and the other begins, there is continually presented to them a picture of the whole area as forming one physical community." Therefore, according to this logic, the one community necessitates one government.
A sound local government structure would require the consolidation of these various units into one regional metropolitan government. Such a government would provide: geographic adequacy, economies of scale, adequate and equitable revenue sources, and responsibility to the public for a wide range of functions. In short, so the argument goes, consolidation is more efficient.
THE PUBLIC CHOICE POSITION
The seminal Public Choice work was that of the economist Charles Tiebout in his famous 1956 article "A Pure Theory of Local Expenditures." Tiebout's article was a response to the prevailing Consolidationist arguments of the time. Tiebout offered a radical new model for local government. If citizens are mobile, that is, if they can move in and out of different cities at will, a "market" of sorts develops for the "products" (services) of a city. The cost of these "products" is the level of taxation in any city. So far, this is nothing revolutionary. However, the twist in Tiebout's model is that cities are allowed to form rather easily. Incorporation and secession laws would be very permissive. In this open market of municipalities, movement of citizens will take place out of communities that are inefficient and into those that are more efficient. Eventually, a metropolis will consist of a large number of very small communities that will compete with one another and deliver the best possible services for the lowest price (taxes). Therefore, the Public Choice answer to the urban dilemma is the exact opposite of that proposed by the Consolidationists.
However, given recent events, it appears that the Consolidationist position is alive and well politically. Despite the seeming elegance and logic of the Public Choice argument, voters in Los Angeles seem to think that the Consolidationist position is more efficient. Perhaps one clue to the failure of the secession effort lies in the fact that the Public Choice theorists play into the hands of the Consolidationists by using the same vocabulary. Perhaps future arguments could move beyond the vocabulary of the public cost accountants and more towards questions of justice, the principled reason for the desire for human freedom.
The Public Choice position has theoretical elegance and empirical support, but it fails to capture the imagination and, therefore, languishes politically, be it in the school choice movement or in local government secession drives. The freedom implied in the Public Choice model cannot be fully comprehended outside the metaphysical propositions that shape the hearts of people. What drives the Public Choice model is not just consumer activity but, more fundamentally, human equality in light of what Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence called the "laws of Nature and of nature's God." People are more likely to engage in great political motion when they perceive themselves to be treated unjustly instead of simply being subjected to inefficient government. Certainly an inefficient government can be a symptom of a fundamentally unjust regime, but the critic must be sure to delve deep enough to uncover and expose the political cause for secession and not just the economic one.
A "PRINCIPLED" PUBLIC CHOICE ARGUMENT
The federal system in which we live--nation, states, counties, cities etc.--is more than just a scheme of government that was put on paper by the Framers. It is a way of life; a polycentric order that pervades every public institution and private organization in the regime. Consolidationists are wrong because they do not recognize that municipal independence is part and parcel of the right to self-government, the core principle of Western Civilization.
A patchwork of small communities is a system in which the average citizen can have an opportunity to participate directly in public affairs. This will enhance a citizen's natural loyalty to a community, producing a vital bulwark against the centralizing tendencies of state and national governments. The phenomena of suburbanization can be understood as an attempt by citizens to get back to smaller units of local government and enjoy, once again, the fruits of direct observation and participation in politics. The anti-large city animus that many Americans have is near the core of the most principled elements of the American regime: meaningful political participation on a scale that is accessible to common sense.
Furthermore, the physical appearance and design of our newer suburbs reveals something about the regime. Unlike their East Coast or European counterparts, California suburbs are built on grids, interlocking rectangles of major thoroughfares. Geographic accessibility implies political accessibility. The work of the famous anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss bears this out. The spatial organization of local communities in a culture reflects the metaphysical basis for the social relationships of groups in society. The seemingly quiet and bland order of the California suburb is, in effect, a metaphysical affirmation of the revolutionary core of the American regime.
The shrill cries of the Consolidationists notwithstanding, the nomadic, migratory habits of the local citizenry are paramount to the health of America. In fact, it is its most elementary characteristic. The ability of citizens to establish accessible local government and to alter or leave those governments if necessary in order to find others that will better provide for their safety and happiness is crucial. The myriad of municipalities that form our federal system make movement into and out of various political units a live and meaningful possibility. In effect, we live with the underlying comfort that if the situation in a city becomes intolerable, we have the right (duty?) to vote with our feet and leave for other towns or we could make a collective decision to ask the city, in effect, to "move" by declaring secession.
There is a radical soul to local government in America. Even if people choose to stay, the mere consideration of the question is liberating and edifying. A certain restlessness is at the heart of our multi-layered federal regime. After all, the word "federalism" is derived from the Latin word "foedus," which means, "covenant." If those who advocated secession had made this message clearer, then perhaps the fate of their cause could have been different. It would be very hard for a Consolidationist argument based on efficiency to trump an opposing argument derived from the justice that is at the core of the American regime. As long as those who favor Public Choice fight their battles on ground of the Consolidationists choosing, the results will most likely continue to be the same.
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