NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


October 1, 2004

Municipalities are important drivers of social and political change, originating many good ideas (and some bad ones) that the states and federal governments later adopted. Because municipalities are able to partly displace the powers of the state government, they are permitted a certain level of independence to perform a variety of social and political experiments, says the Cato Institute.

Change initiated at the city-level has proven efficient because:

  • If a city-level experiment is successful, other municipalities will tend to imitate it, and may well filter up to the "higher" governments.
  • If an experiment is a failure, then only a small area has to suffer its consequences.

Though this other face of federalism -- the bottom-up version -- is somewhat neglected, it allows for a variety of experiments in governments that have generally produced positive results. For instance:

  • The primary impetus for public schools came from the localities, not the state or national governments.
  • The American decentralized system of local governance produced public high schools decades before most European nations with their nationally controlled education systems.
  • The advancement of civil rights, such as for those of homosexuals, originated from the municipal level where citizens are able to muster the necessary political presence to generate change.

Source: William A. Fischel, "Revolution or Evolution?"Cato Institute, Summer 2004.

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