The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
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by Jesse Walker

Wednesday, August 06, 2003
piece on the Reason site today about "smart growth" and regionalism. This is a topic I used to write about a lot, but I moved away from it after smart-growth booster Al Gore started giving speeches on the topic, prompting other reporters to realize that there was a story here. Now Gore's brief crusade is forgotten, and the subject isn't getting the national attention it received a few years ago. But the movement's still out there, even if it doesn't have a major presidential candidate carrying its water.

The regionalists like to claim that we're entering a new era, one in which power will simultaneously flow upwards, to the global level, and downwards, to the metropolitan region. But if we follow their prescriptions, power will only flow upwards. National power, as they suggest, would be restricted by multilateral agreements and international bodies. Municipal power, meanwhile, would be absorbed by cross-jurisdictional agreements and regional bodies. The two processes reflect each other, like a fractal pattern. As above, so below: both local and national sovereignty get the shaft.

The regionalists have got things exactly backwards. The cities don't need more centralization, but less. We shouldn't hand the suburbs to the same giant governments that have wrecked so many cities. We should allow urban neighborhoods the same self-determination that the suburbs already enjoy.

There are several ways to do this. One is simple secession -- allowing a neighborhood or group of neighborhoods to incorporate and take over the city's tasks. If it doesn't have enough resources to handle a service, let it privatize, or contract with its former municipal overlord. Or perhaps it won't secede outright. Perhaps it could score itself an exemption from the city's provision of some services (and the taxes that pay for them), which it could then either provide itself or turn over to competing private companies.

The city can privatize services too, of course, bypassing the neighborhoods. I don't mean contracting out to an independent company. I mean getting the government out of the service entirely. When this happens, the problem of jurisdictional boundaries -- bête noir to the regionalists -- just disappears. No one wonders at the fact that Taco Bell manages to operate stores in both Dallas and Fort Worth. No one is shocked when a shoe store in Tacoma buys stationary from a supplier in Seattle, or when businesses in Flint trade with their counterparts in Ypsilanti. Why not apply the same principle to public policy?

What these approaches have in common is that they require city planners to give up control. Not to streamline bureaucracies. Not to "steer, not row." To abdicate. To drop the Progressive Era notion that it is possible and desirable to turn government over to a class of neutral, professional philosopher-managers.

And that, alas, is not on the regionalist agenda.

posted by Jesse 5:03 PM
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