* April 2001
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
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
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
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 (firstname.lastname@example.org) is co-author, with Frank Bryan, of The Vermont Papers: Recreating Democracy on a Human Scale (Chelsea Green).