A History of Regional Governments (Part 1)

Cities have historically been compact hyper-dense communities. This is because cities have been constrained in size by the average resident’s capacity to reasonably travel throughout the city within a day. Cities built before the dawn of the automobile are often noted for being walkable. It is doubtful that the walkability of these cities is due to any planned attempt to make them so as the urban planning profession is a relatively new discipline. Rather older cities are walkable because they had to be. For most of history the average man could only travel as far as his own legs could take him. Horses and other beasts of burden substantially increased one’s travel range, but even up to the 19th century ownership of such beasts was beyond the reach of the every man. Any real estate developer who attempted to build outside a city’s natural growth boundary would as such find it difficult to attract the necessary foot traffic to make his endeavor economically feasible.

This constraint in outward growth also led to older cities being easily dominated by a single local authority. This changed with the creation of the automobile. As noted above, a beast of burden was already capable of extending the effective range of their owner. The automobile similarly would have done little to influence the growth of cities if it were inaccessible to the average man. What made the automobile such a game changer to the future of cities was that it was within the reach of the average man’s finances.  In their early days, as in our own, automobiles presented a serious financial investment but were nonetheless cheap enough to afford.

With the advent of the economic automobile the general public was no longer constrained to the urban core. Attracted by cheap land prices in the periphery an increasing portion of the city settled in the periphery region – the so called suburbs. The development of suburbs had several immediate effects, but of interest to us is its effect on local government. At first cities attempted to annex the suburb regions but it was not before long that some suburbs rejected annexation. One of the first such cases was in when Brookline, a wealthy suburb of Boston, rejected annexation in the late 19th century. Even some suburbs which originally agreed to annexation changed their minds and fought to regain their independence.

Suburb residents had been driven to migrate from the cities in search for cheap housing, but they also valued their new found independence from urban politics.  Many suburbs elected to instead incorporate as cities by their own right. Despite their political independence the suburbs remained economically tied to the mother cities. It did not take long for the limits of this style of organization to be realized. In the greater New York metropolitan area New York and New Jersey local governments found themselves unable to settle basic questions regarding their common port. Meanwhile in Los Angeles the various local governments were unable to efficiently synchronize their electric current systems. Los Angeles proper synchronized its electrical system with the rest of the nation in 1936 but the rest of the metro didn’t make the switch for another twelve years. In greater Boston the suburbs found themselves unable to provide for quality running water and other basic utilities. These problems only increased as population growth increasingly favored suburbs and urban sprawl intensified.

Early reformers suggested the creation of a new layer of government, between state and local government, which would preserve the independence of the suburbs whilst creating a central authority capable of providing for regional needs.  Attempts to create regional governments were retarded by the actions of local governments who jealously guarded their own powers. It is unclear what would have happened if things would have been allowed to play out without federal intervention.

It was at the height of the New Deal era that the modern regional government was born. The Roosevelt administration began to encourage regions to form councils of government and other regional government associations if they wished preferential federal aid. The Truman and Eisenhower administrations codified this policy with the Housing Act of 1949 and 1954 respectively. Section 701 of the 1954 Housing Act in particular would serve as the benchmark for years to come in promoting the creation of regional governments. As a result of these actions almost one hundred regional governments were formed. The regional governments formed tended to be in name only. Local governments agreed to their formation in order to secure federal funding but granted their regional counterparts little actual control in day to day affairs. Regional governments were relegated to providing technical advice to local government and to aiding state government with paperwork, but were unable to pursue their own objectives. Meanwhile the growth of the suburbs continued strong, aided in part due to the return of WW2 veterans and the preferential mortgage packages offered to them.

The federal government attempted to bolster the strength of regional governments with the passage of the Highway Act of 1962. Thus far federal legislation had merely given preferential treatment in aid allocations towards regional governments. The Highway Act of 1962 made federal aid contingent on having areas with a population greater than 50,000 create a regional development plan. In practice the act gave regional governments little power as the language was broad enough to allow state and local governments to circumvent them. Once more regional governments found themselves with little teeth and better termed advisory bodies.

Blind Faith

By Adam Magoon

On November, 26th Eric Liu, founder of “Citizen University”, a pro-government think-tank, wrote a telling article about having faith in government on the CNN opinion page. He begins the piece with a story about leaving his suitcase in a New York City cab saying:

“I had an experience recently that reinvigorated my faith in humanity — and bureaucracy.”

Keep that equivalency in your mind for a few minutes. Humanity and bureaucracy.

He goes on to explain that he did not even realize he left the suitcase in the cab for twenty minutes and only then began calling people for help. He explains this process in detail, emphasis mine:

“For almost three hours, various people tried to help me — two folks at my bank, whose credit card held the only record of the cab ride; three people at two yellow cab companies based in Long Island City; a service rep at the New York City Taxicab & Limousine Commission; people in my office back in Seattle.”

So Eric was helped by no less than eight individuals (counting the cab driver) in his successful search for his luggage. Eight people helped improve Eric’s business trip. He then claims this experience taught him three lessons.

First:

“Always, always get a receipt.”

This, as he says, is obvious.

Second:

“Another is that New Yorkers, contrary to popular belief and their own callous pose, are essentially nice.”

As someone born in New York I would like to think this is true, but I adhere to the maxim that terms such as “New Yorker” can only describe places where someone lives or is born. Saying “all New Yorkers are nice” is equivalent to saying “all Scots are drunks” or “all Scandinavians are attractive”. Essentially it is a non-statement that is easily refuted. There are just as many people who would have taken anything of value from his case and threw it into the nearest dumpster.

That is just the appetizer though, here is the main course.

His final lesson, and where the train totally leaves the rails, is this:

“But the third, even more deeply contrary to popular belief, is that government is not the enemy.”

Wait, what?! What kind of logic is Mr. Liu using? Of the eight people who helped him only one (the service representative at the New York City Taxicab & Limousine Commission named Valerie) even worked for a governmental organization and “she insisted she was just doing her job”. How did Mr. Liu get to “government is not the enemy” from that series of events? He goes on to claim that:

“Government is not inherently inept. It’s simply us — and as defective or capable of goodness as we are”.

Mr. Liu tries to rationalize his faith in government with a single good experience with a few select people. What he ignores though, is that many people are not “essentially nice”. If that were the case crime, corruption, and violence simply wouldn’t exist. There are people in the world who only seek to exploit and profit from the work of others and to quote the great classical liberal theorist Frédéric Bastiat:

As long as it is admitted that the law may be diverted from its true purpose — that it may violate property instead of protecting it — then everyone will want to participate in making the law, either to protect himself against plunder or to use it for plunder”

Even if we were to assume that most people in the world are “essentially nice” the very nature of government attracts precisely the opposite type; the corrupt, the malevolent and the lazy. His agenda finally becomes clear nearly two-thirds of the way through the article when Mr. Liu unabashedly asks us to not wonder what our country can do for us, but rather what we can do for our country in response to the failed Obamacare launch.

Individuals are expected to bail the government out when it fails at intruding into our lives? How can we expect the government to run healthcare without kickbacks and corruption when they cannot even get someone to build the website without it being a disaster?

Mr. Liu fails to offer any helpful advice on how to improve things but he does offer one revealing suggestion. He says that citizens should not expect the “state…to serve us perfectly” and that individuals should not “forget how to serve”.

The argument often goes that taxes pay for services provided by the government but Mr. Liu suggests we shouldn’t expect too much from those services. That we shouldn’t get upset when we pay a third of our labor to the government and it spends that money on things we do not want; in fact he implies we should fix for free the broken things they have already spent our money on.

If Mr. Liu goes out to dinner and his silverware is dirty when he sits at the table does he go back to the sink and wash them? Or does he expect more from the things he spends his money on? At least in that situation Mr. Liu could choose to spend his money elsewhere. With the government spending our money for us we aren’t even afforded that meager victory.