The power of localism


Tom’s excellent blog on the nightmare of ‘world government’ hits upon a very strong argument for localism. As Tom put it:

When all is said and done, there is one, final check upon a government’s ability to oppress its people. It is the mechanism used by Cubans when they tie empty oil drums to the chassis of old cars and try to paddle to Florida, or by North Koreans who manage to sneak all the way from the Yalu River to Bejing to try to slip into foreign embassies and beg for freedom. It is the ability to escape.

But this ‘exit option’ could be extended far beyond nation states. After all, even though it may be possible to move to a different, freer country, doing so is generally inconvenient. If we were to radically devolve power within nation states, however, that exit option would be very much enhanced. You could, in a sense, create a competitive ‘market’ in governments. And if you could change your government by moving from, say, Norfolk to Suffolk, you would have a far more genuine ‘choice’ about the policies you are subjected to than you could ever get at the ballot box.

The instinctive reaction of most English people to this suggestion would be incredulity. But look at Switzerland. Its 26 cantons exercise by far the greater part of that country’s political power, taking prime responsibility for healthcare, welfare, law enforcement and public education, as well as taxation. The most populous canton is Zurich, with some 1.2 million inhabitants, while the least populous (excluding the half-cantons, which band together) is Jura, with 70,000. And yet despite their small size, they seem to do rather well: the Swiss enjoy low taxes and excellent services.

There is no question that England’s traditional counties could operate effectively with a similar degree of autonomy. There would be numerous advantages to this: local governments would be more responsive and accountable than distant ones, they would be able to tailor policies more appropriately to local needs and conditions, and they would be able to innovate and learn from other jurisdictions. Moreover, competition between jurisdictions for businesses and residents would likely drive down average tax rates, while encouraging better use of taxpayers’ money.

Of course, in some areas the governments that resulted from localism would be even worse than the Westminster government. This is unfortunate. But if we believe in choice and competition, and further believe that those areas that adopt free market policies will prosper and inspire others, then we really should be prepared to let go of centralized power and see what happens.