State and local campaign signs hang along a bridge outside of Charleston, West Virginia, 2018.
State and local campaign signs hang along a bridge outside of Charleston, West Virginia, 2018. Lexi Browning/Reuters

The United States is an amalgam of places and people. As long as essential values are preserved we should appreciate the ability of local government to respond to unique communities.

For the last 25 years I have either been a local official—a district attorney, mayor, and deputy mayor—or worked at Harvard Kennedy School with local officials. These officials tend to be pragmatists, looking for ways to build consensus and solve real day-to-day problems. Yet increasingly they find themselves thrust into battles with officials in other levels of government as polarization manifests itself into efforts from politicians to impose their views on as many others as possible.

Currently at the state level, Republican legislatures impose their will on more democratic cities by precluding initiatives like a higher minimum wage or gun control. Historically, the federal government has also attempted to impose controversial liberal policies like an individual mandate under the Affordable Care Act and a variety of requirements in federal funding programs prescribing wages that far exceed local norms and financial capacity.

These efforts undermine the local differences that are critical to democratic success. Prescriptive policies limit the ability of local governments to connect with their particular residents and reflect their preferences. Breaking away from the anti-democratic principle that the winner should exert power and influence on as many of the vanquished as possible, a better approach, more conducive to pragmatic problem solving and respectful of difference, would be for higher levels of government to defer to elected officials closer to the people they serve.

Localism allows cities to play to their unique competitive advantages, needs, and politics. Take gun regulation. As Duke law professor Joseph Blocher has argued, enacting different gun laws in different jurisdictions is a sensible solution to seemingly irresolvable differences among communities. Large cities are victim to most of the gun violence in the United States, as about 60 percent of the country’s gun homicides happen in the 50 largest cities. Unsurprisingly, these cities also tend to support stricter gun regulations. On the other hand, rural communities enjoy many more of the benefits of guns. Residents are more likely to use guns for hunting and recreation.

Municipalities are particularly well situated to understand and reflect the perspectives of their residents. City council members are a part of the communities affected by their policies, and residents and local advocacy groups can attend council meetings and comment on policy, as well as weigh in via crowdsourcing platforms, GIS service maps, and a host of other technical tools now provided by local governments. As these engagement efforts have gotten better in terms of reach and inclusivity, public input has become increasingly representative of the diverse perspectives that exist in cities.

It therefore seems perfectly natural that different jurisdictions should represent the different opinions of their constituencies, creating, for example, stricter gun regulations in cities than in rural communities. That way, cities can experiment with their efforts to curb gun violence and rural communities are able to maintain a piece of culture they value highly. Not only does this greater freedom improve outcomes for local residents, but also cultivates diversity of perspectives throughout the country, encouraging civil debate, an engaged democracy, and political tolerance.

An added advantage of localism is that when local governments have the power to enact distinct policies, they can compete to attract residents and therefore tend to offer better services. A study by economists John Hatfield and Katrina Kosec revealed that metropolitan areas with more distinct counties—and therefore more competition among local governments—have higher wages, higher wage growth, and better educational outcomes than areas with fewer counties. The authors offer that these better outcomes reflect the need for counties in more competitive areas to enact policies that will encourage residents to stay.

And better-tailored policy on the local level not only incentivizes better services, but also produces efficiency gains for government as a whole. While policy wonks have long hailed the consolidation of local governments as a creator of efficiency, a paper by economists Howard Husock and Wendell Cox shows that in fact, consolidation often increases total local expenditures. While this isn’t true in every scenario—I’ve been involved in consolidations that produce value and those that don’t—the ability to focus on areas with comparative advantages can make localism more efficient than consolidated efforts that force localities to operate outside their strengths.

One problem with this type of localism is coordination. Back to the gun control example, how do you keep people from going out to suburbs with lax regulations to buy a gun, then coming into the city to shoot somebody?

In the case of gun control, research in Washington D.C. and Pittsburgh has shown that city gun regulations can significantly reduce gun-related deaths even when surrounding areas maintain lax laws. However, in other policy areas, coordination problems will be so severe as to make local legislation effectively impossible. For example, Hatfield and Kosec showed that cities would be unlikely to enact legislation to curb pollution when competing with surrounding localities. Jurisdictions enjoy benefits like jobs and tax revenue when a polluting facility moves in, but pay little of the cost, since much pollution is exported to neighboring localities. As a result, if a city were to pass environmental regulations, businesses would simply move next-door to a neighbor with lax policies.

It is in these areas that a state or national body must intervene. Cities should look to their own experiences as well as research like that of Hatfield and Kosec and determine those areas where they are perfectly able to create good outcomes themselves, and petition states and federal agencies to step in where they need help.

The other caveat to localism is that there are certain rights and services that are so fundamental that the federal government must ensure they are respected in all cities. For example, the federal government has a responsibility to ensure equal protection under the law as guaranteed in the 14th Amendment and of course should guarantee that no city enacts discriminatory practices.

Politicians on different sides of the aisle of course will have fundamentally different opinions on what constitutes basic rights or necessary control of these negative externalities. While liberals might argue that universal healthcare and a handgun ban are on the same plane as nondiscrimination, conservatives would undoubtedly disagree. These debates are an important part of the democratic process, but if they happen on a foundation of respect for localism, this will allow governments to make decisions closer to home—in the city or even within the local neighborhood organization—enhancing both resident benefit and political civility.  

Chris Bousquet, a research assistant and writer at Harvard Kennedy School, contributed to this column.

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