The global importance of local government

Published in Insights, The New Zealand Initiative’s newsletter, 26 July 2013

Throughout most of human history, cities were the dominant force of political affairs. From the very first cities of Mesopotamia in the seventh millennium BC, to Athens and Rome, and the city states of the Middle Ages, cities drove the development of political affairs, of culture, of democracy, of finance, of the arts, of education. History was made in and by these cities.

Reminders of this proud history of cities can still be found at every corner in Europe. Visit Florence and you can see a city built by the Medici family’s business sense. Visit any of the port cities of the Hanseatic League, and their civic pride and their connectivity to other trading places can still be felt.

Cities were not only driving economic development – they were also promoting individual liberty. Serfs fleeing from oppression in the countryside could gain citizen’s rights after one year of living in a city. In this way, cities made it possible for people to escape the narrow confines of the feudal system. This was applied in what is now Germany and is known as Stadtluft macht frei (urban air makes you free).

The system of governance that we have come to take for granted has little in common with these historical origins. Since the fifteenth century, and certainly since the Treaty of Westphalia which ended the Thirty Years’ War in 1648, a system of nation states has replaced the previous dominance of cities.

Over the last four centuries, a centralisation of power has swept across the world. This process occurred at different speeds and to different extents in different places. For example, local democracy and municipal autonomy play greater roles in some places than in others. But with very few exceptions such as Singapore, Hong Kong, Monaco or the Vatican, we live in a world in which cities have been relegated to a lower tier of government – often a second tier and, in federal systems, a third tier of government.

Unfortunately, it also means that local government is now often seen as a second or third rate form of government. It is regarded as a mere recipient of orders, targets and goals determined in a national or state capital. City government is no longer the driver of politics – on the contrary, in some jurisdictions it is now defined as a mere creature of higher tiers of government.

The decline in the global importance of local government is deplorable. Although it makes sense to centralise some aspects of government in modern, industrialised societies, let us not ignore the side effects and plausible objections – philosophical and economic – to this centralising tendency.

This is an extract from Dr Hartwich’s keynote address to the Local Government New Zealand conference in Hamilton on Tuesday.

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