Political fragmentation, the existence of multiple units of government in urban and surrounding suburban areas, is not new. It has existed in the United States since the late 1800s, when people began to move away from urban areas and establish independent suburban communities. Political fragmentation also occurs through the proliferation of special purpose governmental units, such as transportation authorities and school districts, whereby citizens are governed and taxed by many different governmental agencies at once.
Different theoretical perspectives—such as public choice, human ecology, and social reform theories— provide dissimilar ways to examine and deal with the ramifications of political fragmentation. While public choice and human ecology theorists stress the voluntary nature and positive impact of the racial/ethnic and class divisions that tend to arise in the wake of political fragmentation, social reform theorists note the negative implications of the segregation and inequality that tend to accompany political fragmentation. For example, while public choice theorists see such fragmentation as fostering healthy competition among local governments to offer residents more and better services for less tax money, social reform theorists note that only economically secure citizens actually have a choice as to where to reside. In turn, communities that can’t afford to offer the best services and opportunities for their residents tend to be populated by those with the fewest economic and social choices.
At various times over the past 100 years, movements have arisen to consolidate local governments in order to make them more efficient and fair. The first such effort was part of the Progressive movement’s late 19th-century drive to clean up corruption and decrease the power of political machines in local government. The second occurred in response to the great growth of the suburbs during the 1950s and 1960s. However, while many Americans have complained about inefficient government and high taxes, relatively few have voted to consolidate local governments into regional ones. According to the National Association of Counties, just 21 of the 131 referendums on consolidation put forth between 1921 and 1996 passed.
The few regional and metropolitan governments that have been created are not uniform. They vary as to how much power is given to larger, regional or metropolitan governments and local governments. For example, Jacksonville-Duval County, Florida, is a regional-level government with power to directly govern the region, while the Miami-Dade, Florida, county government shares power with cities under its umbrella.
Today, there is once again a strong movement to curb political fragmentation. However, the most popular proposals to address political fragmentation in this era call for cooperation rather than consolidation. Many members of local communities are wary of big government and afraid of losing their distinct political voices. While concerned about political fragmentation, they advocate for increased cooperation between local governments and consolidation of particular services across different towns and cities rather than the creation of large regional or metropolitan governments. Motivations behind the current drive to curb political fragmentation vary but include the following: making government more efficient and thus less costly; combating urban sprawl; allowing sectors of geographic regions to collaborate in order to better compete in the global marketplace; and spreading resources from richer to poorer areas of our nation. While consolidation has not been a popular answer to the social problems related to political fragmentation, cooperation may be a more politically viable and effective means of addressing this persistent social issue.
- Orfield, Myron. 1997. “Metropolitics: Coalitions for Regional Reforms.” Brookings Review 15(1):6-9. Retrieved March 25, 2017 (https://www.brookings.edu/articles/metropolitics-coalitions-for-regional-reforms/).
- Percy, L. Stephen, Scott Sager, Les Singer, and Jarad Parker. 2002. “Creating Metropolitan/Regional Government: The Tales of Five Cities.” Research and Opinion 15(2).
- Tiebout, Charles. 1956. “A Pure Theory of Local Expenditures.” Journal of Political Economy 64:416-24.
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