December 2010, Volume 96, Issue 8|
Decentralization and Development
96 Va. L. Rev. 1837 (2010)
Significant intellectual and financial resources have been committed to decentralization projects in the developing world based on the idea that federal constitutional systems and local government autonomy will encourage economic growth. These efforts have been premised in part on scholars’ claims that the federalism of 19th and early 20th century-America generated the nation’s enormous economic growth. This Article challenges the claim that political decentralization promotes economic development in two ways. First, by looking closely at the legal history of local autonomy in the United States, it shows that the shifting legal status of cities vis a vis their states—which has resulted in alternative bouts of centralization and decentralization—did not cause economic growth. If anything, shifts in the degree of formal local power can be better understood as a consequence of economic growth. Second, it invokes newer work in economic geography that suggests that economic development is unavoidably uneven across jurisdictions and that the reason some places do well economically and others do poorly may have more to do with luck or path dependency than with particular legal institutions. For lawyers the stakes are high for we are told that law and legal frameworks—like the vertical division of authority—can make a great deal of difference to economic welfare. But this understanding of law does not take into account the spatial reality of economic development or the circular relationship between economic growth and legal change. This does not mean that the vertical distribution of powers does not matter—it does, but not in the ways that the decentralization-growth thesis presumes.
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