REASON * April 2001

Going Bezirke
Where little platoons and little governments meet.

By John McClaughry

Solving Problems Without Large Government: Devolution, Fairness, and Equality, by George W. Liebmann, Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 170 pages, $55

About a decade ago, after years of managing public policy through large governmental systems in Maryland, George Liebmann was struck by an important insight: Why not make more use of "sublocal" governmental institutions? Operating at the neighborhood level and close to the people, these little governments are informal and inexpensive, sometimes quaint and funky. Most important, they perform services the way the people want, not the way the system-builders in far-off capitals desire.

This insight sent Liebmann, a graying Baltimore lawyer and one-time executive assistant to Maryland's governor, on an intellectual odyssey that so far has resulted in three exhaustively researched books. The first, The Little Platoons (1995), reviewed the historical uses of sublocal governments in seven countries and suggested that such forms would have value in the United States. The second, The Gallows in the Grove (1997), focused on the legal rules governing the sublocal governmental forms that do exist in this country. It examined how "recent adventures in American constitutional doctrine" have weakened the initiative and autonomy of local and state governments, unions, churches, neighborhoods, and families. Now this third, small (and regrettably overpriced) volume discusses the practical uses of sublocal governments and addresses the issues of efficacy, oppression of minorities, and effects on equality.

"What is here offered," Liebmann writes in his introduction, "is a repertory of techniques and safeguards that have been found useful at other times and other places and that may, if taken seriously and not impeded by the courts, provoke an unorganized 'release of energy' similar to that instigated by a nonprescriptive nineteenth-century commercial legal development, the general incorporation law, which favored 'dynamic rather than static property, property in motion or at risk rather than property secure and at rest.'"

Across his pages march a fascinating procession of little-known civic life forms. He offers not merely the familiar town, village, neighborhood, and special district but also more exotic forms such as the woonerf, roojinkai, phyle, and bezirke, governed by everything from the Lex Adickes to residential community association covenants.

Although this is not a book about theory, it is founded on de Tocqueville's well-known insight that centralization of civic power leads to regularity, social control, repression of small disorders, and preservation of "society in a status quo alike secure from improvement and decline." But when society is to be moved in its course, de Tocqueville argued, centralized power becomes impotent. It is unable to direct the activities of its citizens simply by issuing orders, or even by pleading for cooperation. For society to move forward and improve, it is essential that the people exercise the power to act creatively, especially when they recognize themselves as competent to act and are responsible for the results.

Liebmann's book offers more than a theoretical defense of this principle. It discusses Jefferson's advocacy of the small, independent "ward republic"; Kropotkin's anarchist dream of a decentralized Russia of fields, factories, and workshops; and Toulmin Smith's passion for the self-governing 19th-century English parish. Liebmann also draws support from such contemporary thinkers as Robert Bish, Fred Foldvary, Mancur Olson, Spencer MacCallum, and Robert Nisbet, all of whom have written on the merits of community, decentralization, and local autonomy.

Liebmann leads his discussion of creative techniques with a 25-year-old Dutch innovation, the neighborhood street government, or woonerf. Unlike a closed-off street, the woonerf requires the coexistence of vehicular traffic and people on the same space, a concept well known to generations of American city stickball players. Ramps, speed bumps, narrowings, axis changes, street furniture, planters, and trees -- all decided upon by a single-purpose and very local government -- have resulted both in a reduction of accidents and a high degree of resident satisfaction. The idea has spread to Denmark and Germany. In this country it is sometimes found where streets are privately owned, as in residential community associations and, uniquely for an American city, in St. Louis.

Another sublocal institution operating in the gray area between public and private is the Japanese roojinkai, or senior citizen mutual benefit organization. Funded by modest membership dues (60 percent), neighborhood association contributions (20 percent), and city government grants (20 percent), these groups manage hobby clubs, social events, trips, and community rooms. They also organize senior citizens in their areas for public health improvement programs.

The common principle of such civic forms is that they are not designed, imposed, or administered by some central authority. Rather, they are very, very local; they are very responsive to the desires of the people affected; and they are largely paid for by those same people. The efficacy of small, local, collective action has been established beyond much question, argues Liebmann, especially where (citing Bish and Hugh Nourse) "face-to-face service delivery by a labor-intensive bureaucracy is characteristic and where economies of scale are exhausted at a rather small size. Services such as police patrol, education, garbage removal, fire protection, and street maintenance [all] fit these criteria."

Why do these approaches work so well? For one thing, such sublocal services must be responsive to customer desires, because in such a small civic arena ordinary customers can have enough influence to force the providers to pay attention. If providers fail to pay attention, then customers have enough influence to have them replaced. Additionally, although Liebmann mentions it only in passing, real public decision making on a small scale elicits a healthy civic participation. Residents feel that their voices count and thus are willing to play a civic role they would be unable to play if decisions were made by unapproachable beings at a more remote governmental level.

Liebmann's catalog of techniques includes a long list of domestic, foreign, and historical examples. These include street privatization, eminent domain, land readjustment, and the residential community association. In such instances, decisions are variously made by unanimity and supermajorities; officials are chosen by election, sortition (i.e., by lot), and cooptation (i.e., new officials are chosen by existing ones); and disputes are settled by arbitration and judicial review. In such organizations, wrongdoers are brought to justice by the constable, the night watch, hue and cry, citizen militia, and posse comitatus. Results are measured by performance audits, funding achieved through assorted taxes, user fees, assessments, and tax base sharing. Irreconcilable conflicts are settled through secession.

One sublocal technique with great promise that is rarely used in the United States is what Liebmann calls "land readjustment." This is a technique, in use in Frankfurt since 1902, for rebuilding urban slums. Instead of condemnation by an urban renewal authority or disguised private land assembly, land readjustment allows a supermajority of neighborhood landowners to require a pooling of land for redevelopment. Dissenting landowners are forced into the program but are given a pro rata ownership share of the project. Liebmann notes the parallel with well-developed U.S. state laws for the compulsory unitization of oil fields that underlie different parcels of land.

As his subtitle, "Devolution, Fairness, and Equality," suggests, Liebmann is at pains to answer mostly liberal critics of his earlier works by showing that a judicious use of available techniques, including supervening review by some "higher" government, can prevent oppression of minorities.

By ransacking history for intriguing examples, and through his exhaustive footnoting of official reports, statutes, and commentaries both ancient and current, Liebmann has done a notable service. Indeed, it seems like everything is here but my own favorite sublocal unit, the wapentake, a single-purpose defense district created in the 10th century to protect the English from Danish invaders.

In 1978, as a member of the National Commission on Neighborhoods, I had occasion to meet with leaders of neighborhood associations in seven large cities around the country. In schoolrooms, church basements, and neighborhood centers from Atlanta to Seattle, commission members heard the same story from neighborhood leaders. They said they were willing to work to improve their neighborhood and thereby make a better city for everyone. Unfortunately, they faced determined opponents jealous of their power and patronage: city, state, and national governments.

This book shows how sublocal governments and quasi-governments in use in many other countries can contribute creatively to social and physical redevelopment and to human well-being. Those in charge of America's cities badly need to grasp both the philosophy and the practicality of the examples and techniques Liebmann describes. Perhaps one day soon astute mayors will get the word. When they do, they will find this little book to be a gold mine of valuable ideas and examples.

Contributing Editor John McClaughry ( is co-author, with Frank Bryan, of The Vermont Papers: Recreating Democracy on a Human Scale (Chelsea Green).