Beneficial Political Competition …?
No, that’s not an oxymoron. Seriously. …
When political units are small and decentralized, competitive pressure can create market-like outcomes. It’s imperfect, because consumers — i.e., citizens — have to purchase bundles of services rather than purchasing each service separately. However, it’s much better than a large, centralized polity. The key is that the cost of switching to a new political jurisdiction is low. The smaller the polity, the smaller the cost when everything else is equal.
The Post-Dispatch reports on this sort of competition at work in Missouri. The small town of Albany has passed an ordinance legalizing the use of golf carts within city limits. Each golf cart must have an attached seven-foot orange flag, and an annual permit costing $15. Why, exactly was this ordinance passed? Well…
City Administrator Derek Brown said several residents asked the city to legalize the use of golf carts, saying the practice would be cheaper than traveling around town in a car.
It seems gas prices have played a large role in this, but the point is that residents asked for it, and got it. Sure, this sort of thing happens on the federal level, too, but the difference in this case is that residents who don’t like it can leave at a much lower cost. If they do leave, the city’s coffers will begin to dwindle, pressuring city officials to change the law — or, perhaps, become a niche city for golf carr lovers.
This sort of system is exactly what the founders had in mind with federalism. A central government is better apt to provide a few things like defense and dispute resolution between the smaller political units. At the same time, smaller competing polities, like states, counties, and municipalities, provide a somewhat competitive market for government. This does a better job of providing each citizen with the bundle of policies they want. The problem seems to be preventing the transfer of political power from state and local governments to the national government.