Power to the municipalities!

Here is my latest “could not happen in the real world but I find the thought so fascinating it keeps me up at night.”

Relevant Problems:
* Our votes rarely count for much of anything on anything other than the extreme local level – simply because of how many people there are and(in the same of some elections) because of the way the electoral college works.
* If town ordinances drive you crazy, it is do-able to move to a neighboring town with friendlier rules.  But most of the laws we deal with are state-level, and moving to another state is pretty painful.
Proposed Solution:
* Remove the geographic monopoly current states governments have.  By geographic monopoly I mean “all municipalities within [borders] belong to [State’s Name].
* Every municipality can, by local referendum, chose which state government it wishes to belong to.  This can be done multiple times (maybe once every 10 years?)
* Allow new “states” to be created so long as they have a constitution compatible with the federal constitution and so long as they have a some minimum population (say that of the smallest state we have in today, around half a million people).
* Adjust federal legislature voting rights to reflect changes in population via municipality “migration”
What I like about this idea:
* Provides state leaders a powerful means to attract more population (and tax base) – but to get that population they must MAKE PEOPLE HAPPY.  And what they can GAIN they can also LOSE if they are foolish in their governance.
* Allows a state’s federal legislators a means to increase their voting power – but again they can only do so if the state level folks do their job right.
* Gives you, me, and the common voter a much more impactful way to effect change.  Now we need to simply be a majority in our own municipality. OR, if we can’t convince Amherst to defect from MA, maybe Hadley could be convinced to and then you only need to move one town away instead of across a whole state.
Issues & Random Thoughts: 
* Obviously this is not something the US would/could ever do – let’s just accept that right off the bat.  Instead I focus on what an alternative history USA could be like, or what some future nation might be like if it used such a system.
* Decentralized states could not be expected to do an efficient job of administering geographically centralized issues.  Who would build and maintain the infrastructure that spans between municipalities?  I imagine this would have to be done by a federal government in the place of state governments.
* With MODERN technology, running a decentralized government is easier than in decades and centuries past.  Perhaps this would allow some current-USA federal roles to be moved to these new de-centralized state governments?
OK, enough from me.  Now to you my friends.  What do you like about this idea?  What would scare you about it?
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15 thoughts on “Power to the municipalities!

  1. Interesting. Ive read about how members of Episcopal churches can vote to get out of the American organization and be part of the African or South American congregations. So in religion, the idea is not so crazy.

  2. This actually fits brilliantly into my latest attempt at writing a novel. It’s sci-fi, set in Brattleboro. And it’s not too far along . . . but part of the idea is that the town of Brattleboro and some of the surrounding towns had succeeded from the rest of Vermont and had also annexed part of New Hampshire, in particular the mountain (or hill if you live in the West) to the East of Brattleboro because at one point someone fired a few mortars from that location into Brat.

  3. It’s probably a lot easier for East-Coasters to imagine than West-Coasters; all the little states around these parts make it easier to imagine what it would be like to have towns near each other under different State regulations. Heck, the zoning regulations in Hadley versus Amherst make it seem like they’re two different states…There would be lots of practical issues: if you’re a licensed (plumber/lawyer/hairdresser/dog-groomer) in New Hampshire but your town votes to virtually move to New York… do you have to jump through the bureaucratic hoops again to get re-licensed in the new state? I suppose school systems work that out all the time for students (I don’t know what happens for teachers…).Maybe we should flatten the bureaucratic org chart, and go to local towns and a national government instead; working out all the practical issues to allow towns to choose their states might just mean creating an even more powerful federal government anyway (one that could say stuff like “A Plumber licensed in any State Shall Be Able to Unclog Toilets in Any of the States.”)

  4. For my money, the trend I see these days is in the other direction. The general economic/negotiation principle is that the more individuals who are at the table, the higher the transaction costs. There are excessive free rider concerns when everyone has something akin to a veto; being able to walk away from the table is the most important power there is. The idea of fixed boundaries and negotiations happening with a limited set of options (i.e. we settle this on the state legislative floor) shapes the game to be one of continuing interactions – so you get effects like the iterated prisoners’ dilemma. People learn to play nice(r) because they pay the price next go-round for not doing so. You need a certain amount of fracture to get disparate views at the table. Too much fracture, and you get paralysis.The push these days from business is towards federalization – keeping separate SOPs for 50 jurisdictions is a pain in the butt. The old idea of using the states as “laboratories of democracy” seems to be falling under the spectre of the Supremacy Clause and federal statutory/agency law. One case up for review this term is Wyeth v. Levine, in which a drug company was sued in a state with more stringent labeling requirements than the FDA has. The governmental argument is going to be that “hey, the FDA doesn’t just set minimums – they set ideal national balances considering both economic and health/safety.” That was the argument in the 1992 case of Gade v. Nat’l Solid Waste Ass’n, and I wouldn’t be shocked if the court buys it here too. Scalia will complete his preemption tri-fecta.By and large, I think excessive mobility will lead to “races to the bottom.” The same way that trust law is ever-broadening (thanks, Alaska) and the same way that financial instruments became increasingly more risky. Normally, that ends in either catastrophe or some steady state like unionization or gentleman’s agreements. Personally, I think that is just metagaming that would sap resources inefficiently. On matters of morality and dogma, I can understand. With economics and public welfare, not so much.

  5. First – thanks for responding folks!Second – some follow up…Like Gavin, my major concern with a system like this is that it might concentrate more power (relative to what we have now) at the federal level. However, this could perhaps be avoided. What if: Instead of re-allocating previously state powers to the federal level, why not let states with interspersed territory negotiate directly with each other? States in such negotiations would have to abide by federally mandated rules of negotiation, but the actual treaty/legislation that comes out of it would be created by the state’s instead of by federal people.

  6. This may be a little bit parochial of me, but states negotiating with states doesn’t always work so well without Papa Bear (and I don’t mean Bill O’Reilly) keeping them in line. I apologize for the positively criminal choice of font:http://consensus.fsu.edu/academic_directory/casestudies2003/Garrett_-_ACF_case_study.pdfAt the risk of being a touch elitist, I think moving economic decisions down the org chart has a sincere “brain drain” concern. The past few years have made me skeptical of the “rational” assumptions of classic conservative economics, and I have no confidence in the invisible hand affecting a more behaviorally-influenced decisionmaking class. I think Gavin’s right that increased federalization would be the eventual result.

  7. My thought is that it would slide to one of two extremes depending on how you change our present federal congressional system.1) If you switch to a purely population-based representation system, then I think over time you would end up forming two states. These large voting blocks would wield tremendous power and it would be insane to try and split away from them. If you did, then you would not get your allocation of tax dollars for infrastructure projects. It would be a contest to try and get towns to switch from one side or the other.I think that the issue of gerrymandering would be dramatic to say the least. It seems to me that in this situation you would get “settlers” moving to a new area to convert the area to voting for the other party along with all the other dirty tricks. Some of the same stuff that happened with the states in the 1850’s that were allowed to vote to determine if they would be a slave state. It seems like you would have permanent majorities in most regions. I think when a group is literally fighting for land and territory it is more likely to turn ugly. This situation would be ripe for civil war. 2) If you were to maintain our present congressional system, the push would be to balkanize. By breaking up in to a series of loosely aligned city-states you would maximize your potential power. Although I do not feel this is as disastrous as the previous scenario, in the end, I think it would still cause long-term problems of identity. Gavin’s point about certification of professionals being overly burdensome is also a excellent point here.Another separate point is that most of the country (spatially) is not in cities. There are vast areas with people living in them that are in villages (i.e. county government controlled) or just plain live in the county. This might be a foreign idea to people on the east coast, but it is common for the rest of the country. Growing up, the city next to us was not a city, but a village, so it did not have a city government, but was ruled by the county government.In the end, this reminds me of the early days of the republic, when the New York militia invaded Pennsylvania over a border dispute. This kind of stuff did not stop until the federal government put a stop to it by defining the states boundaries. I think that if it were put into play again… things would degenerate quickly.Just my two cents…

  8. Trev, in response to some of your comments…I know the trend is away from the 50 laboratories of democracy, and I know that corporations would prefer unified standards – but for whatever it is worth I don’t like that trend. 1. 50 different sets of standards is a pain, but the federal government has a pretty poor track record of picking the best (or even a non-lousy) system to force down everyone’s throats. 2. If you centralize all of that economic decision making, then changes in legislation become even MORE political (vs responding to actual market needs). The big corporations have strong incentives, and resources, to lobby for rules that limit competition. 50 separate sets of rules does not get rid of this problem, but it certainly decreases its severity. 3. Regulation of our economy by our government is necessary. That said, I think there is AMPLE evidence that government has proven to be a regulating tool with limited (albeit REAL) ability to do good, and significant ability to do harm. Politicians simply do not have the proper incentives (beyond warmth and fuzz) to “do the right thing.”

  9. Not disagreeing at all, mate – I’m all about checks and balances and find the overfederalizing trend to be a dangerous one. Who here thinks the FDA has all the answers (Wyeth v. Levine) or that the toxic waste disposal regime set up by Congress was no more, and no less training necessary to keep big business rolling and people safe (Gade v. Nat’l Solid Waste)?But, I can respect the idea behind the federalization, which is that, as Tom points out, the kids don’t play nice in the sandbox together. Adding /more/ players to the game, and we’re already stretching the talent thin at 50 states, could be more problematic. I’m not in a position to say whether 20 or 50 or 80 states would be better, but somewhere in that range seems like just about enough for us to handle.

  10. RE Anarchy, wow, great point. I had not even considered that possible danger. Quite frankly, I think this is something libertarians (at least the ones I read) gloss over a lot when they propose ideas vaguely along the lines of what I proposed. There are areas where unrestricted freedom can be a fountain of incredible creativity. Human language has evolved without any master plan or constraints. Genetic evolution seems to be doing just fine without any “federal” authority (that we know of :P) directing things. Many amazing economic phenomena are spontaneous order emerging out of chaos. However, it would appear that governments don’t have the same tolerance. Or if they do, they require very long timescales and involve annoying little inconveniences like mass murder and genocide along the way. That said, I’d like to continue to advocate for my crazy idea (that keeps the discussion going :)). If the Federal government retained a monopoly on military power, then states could not invade one another. Also, border disputes would be settled by a relatively transparent elections (compare this to the vague notions we had in 1776).Tom brought up the example of settlers moving en-mass to new states to help ensure those states become pro or anti slavery. This is a real and important concern. I think it could be mitigated by several factors:1. The issues at stake are much, much smaller. Moving to a town gives that town one more vote to change its State affiliation, not to make a permanent power adjustment (as was the case in the free/slave state). Moving is relatively expensive for any small maneuver like that (IMHO)2. There is already a president for residency requirements for some state benefits. Perhaps this concept could be extended to voting. “You must live in a town for at least X years before you may vote for a change-of-state. Until such time, your vote is affiliated with your last municipality.”The threat of Balkanization is one I had not thought of and would worry me. Perhaps this could be addresses by setting the minimum population required to form a new state to be fairly high (Maybe 5% of the nation’s population?).

  11. RE devolving into two mega-states…Wow, another great point. In a way that is how our political party system has evolved. I am not comfortable in either party – and neither are may of the people I know. Yet, the nature of the system has created these two big tents and you just "gotta deal."I agree that would be a possible problem with system I proposed. Now the question is – if you wanted to keep the spirit of what I proposed, what changes would need to be made to address this concern? What if… K* Keep our current 50 state constitutions with associated two-house structure and composition of senators & representatives* remove from my original post the power to create new states. Instead, municipalities can simply chose to become a part of one of the other 49 states.With these changes, you can't get balkanization – there are 50 states no more no less. You also can't get two mega-states, so you maintain a nice divers pool of laboratories for democracy.If we look at the extreme cases… Situation 1. Vast numbers of municipalities defect to join one state. Well, in that case that state would have a huge amount of power in the House of Representatives, but no more power than it had before in the Senate. Also, if your town is considering where to join – joining a huge state means that your municipality will have a smaller relative impact on state politics than if it joined a smaller state. And hey, if this state can offer something people want, then YEE HAW. Good for them. Situation 2. All municipalities in a state except one defect away from it. Well, such an state can offer other municipalities a heck of a carrot to come over (Hey, I've got 2 senate votes and if you join, you can have a huge say in how those votes get cast). And because they are so small, changes to their constitution should be relatively easy to make.What do you think of this adaptation?

  12. The thing I can’t get around is that any move is problematic on all kinds of logistical levels. The social waste far exceeds any benefit I can see. What it does do, however, in a mutual-assured-destruction sense, is embolden a municipality to play ultimatum games. And across the country, that’s putting a lot of power in the hands of the less-than-qualified. I think we saw something like that just recently…But to build on Gavin’s point about licensing, there are all kinds of extras. In some cases, state land is bound up within the municipality, as are state programs, offices, grants, law enforcement, and so on. What happens to actions pending in a municipal or county court in that jurisdiction? Building code standards need to be blended with the new state. People and businesses need to learn new traffic laws and health/safety codes. Companies need to print new letterhead. Existing wills and trusts may find themselves problematic when probated in the new jurisdiction. State police and other emergency services may not be readily available (if not contiguously connected), and you can imagine how the old state is going to respond when your town starts flooding. As far as I’m concerned, litigation that does not clarify poorly written laws is social waste (and of course the poorly written law was also social waste), and this is rife with it. I think the frustration factor would drive many things out of states altogether – for example, addresses would have zip codes but no state identifiers, a lot of law would go federal. Justice Thomas and his ilk would have a field day interpreting whether legislation was legitimate under the Commerce Clause or the Fourteenth Amendment.I think that the only way this works is to start from the ground up with a fundamentally different legal framework. To make mobility even plausible, I believe it’s one that would need to be context-sensitive and allow settled expectations – meaning your will is handled under the law that existed at the time you executed it, regardless of the law and your jurisdiction now. Of course, that makes code and other enforcement problematic (“Well, Bob, I know that doesn’t work to our building code now, but I believe this was… yeah, the addition was built in 1972 when they were part of Arkansas… and if I recall I believe they were experimenting with that joist-every-six feet thing”). I think it would also require a far stronger central government to handle certain aspects fundamental to the democracy like elections, for example.

  13. RE: social waste:Maybe I’m just getting crotchety and curmudgeonly in my old age, but I’ve come to appreciate more and more the benefits of a stable, mostly-predictable legal/financial/regulatory system.I think it is probably true that a mediocre-but-stable system is probably better than a excellent-but-uncertain system. Allowing towns to change states fairly easily might have the unintended consequence of damping investment, just because it introduces Yet Another Uncertainty.That said: we already have a taste of this in our current system. Companies commonly incorporate in Delaware, no matter where they’re actually physically located, because they like the corporate laws in Delaware.Internationally, there appears to be a competition among countries to attract companies by lowering corporate tax rates. And companies structure themselves to avoid taxes or regulations they don’t like (Wal-Mart set up an Italian shell company to avoid paying real estate taxes, for example).And there are serious proposals to change the law to allow us to buy health insurance across state lines– you could shop around for both the price and the regulations that you liked best.Long-term I think that we’ll see more and more power move from States to either Federal or Local governments. Even longer term, maybe we’ll see power shift from nations to regions (certainly in Europe with the EuroZone, maybe here in CanaMexAmerica…).

  14. Well I think this crazy idea can safely be put to bed :).It would appear there is general agreement that any system of the ilk I suggested would inject too munch uncertainty and instability into a government – increasing the likelihood of anarchy far more than the potential benefit.That said – is there something of the spirit suggested here that perhaps has value? I like Gavin’s reminder that a company can incorporate in just about any State it chooses and be mostly bound by that state’s laws. I also liked the idea floated around of letting us buy Health insurance from any state we wished. Is more of that sort of thing a good idea? And is there any way we can realistically increase accountability and incentives to our politicians to create better behavior?One fun side effect of this online conversation for me is that it has made me think about democracy much more. The more I look at it, the more I realize it is NOT a settled form of government – there are innumerable experiments yet to be tried. And being the geek I am, I find those thought experiments fascinating.

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