In the Washington circles where Great Ideas are conceived and circulated before being released upon an unsuspecting public, the idea of metropolitan area government has been circulating for several years. Most big city governments, unlike the governments of towns, villages, and small cities, have been doing a very bad job of providing their citizens with public services and doing it at a very high cost. The idea is that this problem could be solved by making these governments even bigger. New York, which with eight million people has proven virtually ungovernable, would, so this thesis holds, become as easy to govern as West Fairlee, Vermont, if it annexed its neighboring suburbs and expanded itself into a metropolitan monster of 15 to 20 million. This idea was originated by the same genius who discovered that poverty, which is declining, is the cause of crime, which is increasing.
I do not believe that if small governments are good and large governments bad, mammoth governments must be better. The proper lesson to be drawn is that our city governments are already far too large. Those who advocate decentralization as a solution to this problem usually mean administrative reorganization of the city governments. What is needed is decentralization of a more fundamental sort. Our cities should have elected subcity governments, complete with mini-mayors, controlling areas with populations of no more than a hundred thousand. These governments should take over the provision of police protection, schooling, and many other governmental services.
Such governments are not, of course, too small to be practical; the great majority of the American population lives under local governments governing populations of fewer than a hundred thousand and most of them get better government services at lower cost than those of us who live in big cities. Some services, such as public transportation or city throughways, might best be handled by present city governments; if so, such services should be retained by them. Where the advantages of scale are less clear, in garbage collection, for example, the city government might offer subcities the option of leasing the service from the city.
This decentralization would strengthen local control of education, an objective shared by a wide range of well-meaning people, from black nationalists to anti-busing whites and from William F. Buckley to John Lindsay. Yet it need not prevent children from going to school anywhere they wish; children from one subcity could go to school in another, provided that their own subcity paid an appropriate per capita cost. Such a system is frequently used in rural areas, where some towns cannot afford their own school. Similar arrangements would make possible special schools, such as Bronx Science in New York, run either by the city or by one of the subcities.
Decentralization is equally important for the police force. A major complaint, especially in ghetto areas, is that the police do not protect the residents and are not there to protect the residents, that they are an occupying army sent by City Hall to protect the property of the rich and influential. Local police, hired and paid by local governments, would do their job or lose their jobs. And the job would be easier because the local residents would view police as their employees and protectors, not as their enemies.
There still remains the question of who should collect the taxes. One possibility is for the city to collect all taxes and allocate part of its receipts, on some simple basis, to subcities. Other alternatives would be for the subcities to collect their own taxes or, perhaps more efficiently, for the city to define the tax base and collect the taxes, while each subcity sets tax rates within its borders and receives taxes collected there. One subcity might offer a high level of government services paid for by a high level of taxes while another compensated for its low level of services with low taxes.
A radical proposal, if it is to have any immediate effect, must be politic as well as prudent. Decentralization of the cities is politic because city and county governments are creatures of the state government from which they receive their charters. State constitutions can be changed only by the voters of the state, not by Congress. City charters, in contrast, can be changed only by the state legislature or with its permission. It happens that most big cities are run by Democrats and located in states run by Republicans. Chicago is the most striking example; others include New York, Los Angeles, Cleveland, and Philadelphia. Under present institutions, a Democratic mayor who controls 60 percent of the votes in a large city controls all of the spending, all of the patronage, all of the power. If the city were broken up by act of the state government, those subcities where Republicans or independent Democrats had a majority would be out of the mayor’s hands; even Democratic subcities would be one step further from his direct control. His power would go from 100 percent down to, perhaps, 70 percent and his opponents would be able to build their own power bases within the subcities he did not control.
Decentralization, in addition to being desirable on its own merits, is also a means for stealing a big city out from under the feet of a Sam Yorty or John Lindsay. Ronald Reagan and Nelson Rockefeller, please note.
[This chapter was written in 1969, when Ronald Reagan was Governor of California; readers should feel free to substitute current examples.]