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The Organization of Government in Metropolitan Areas: A Theoretical Inquiry

  • Vincent Ostrom, Charles M. Tiebout and Robert Warren

Allusions to the “problem of metropolitan government” are often made in characterizing the difficulties supposed to arise because a metropolitan region is a legal non-entity. From this point of view, the people of a metropolitan region have no general instrumentality of government available to deal directly with the range of problems which they share in common. Rather there is a multiplicity of federal and state governmental agencies, counties, cities, and special districts that govern within a metropolitan region.

This view assumes that the multiplicity of political units in a metropolitan area is essentially a pathological phenomenon. The diagnosis asserts that there are too many governments and not enough government. The symptoms are described as “duplication of functions” and “overlapping jurisdictions.” Autonomous units of government, acting in their own behalf, are considered incapable of resolving the diverse problems of the wider metropolitan community. The political topography of the metropolis is called a “crazy-quilt pattern” and its organization is said to be an “organized chaos.” The prescription is reorganization into larger units—to provide “a general metropolitan framework” for gathering up the various functions of government. A political system with a single dominant center for making decisions is viewed as the ideal model for the organization of metropolitan government. “Gargantua” is one name for it.

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1 The term is taken from Wood, Robert C., “The New Metropolis: Green Belts, Grass Roots or Gargantua,” this Review, Vol. 52 (March, 1958), pp. 108122. Wood defines gargantua as “the invention of a single metropolitan government or at least the establishment of a regional superstructure which points in that direction.” We do not argue the case for big units vs. small units as Wood does in his discussion of gargantua vs. grass roots. Rather, we argue that various scales of organization may be appropriate for different public services in a metropolitan area.

2 We use this term for want of a better one. An alternative term might be “multinucleated political system.” We do not use “pluralism” because it has been preempted as a broader term referring to society generally and not to a political system in particular.

Polycentric political systems are not limited to the field of metropolitan government. The concept is equally applicable to regional administration of water resources, regional administration of international affairs, and to a variety of other situations.

3 By analogy, the formal units of government in a metropolitan area might be viewed as organizations similar to individual firms in an industry. Individual firms may constitute the basic legal entities in an industry, but their conduct in relation to one another may be conceived as having a particular structure and behavior as an industry. Collaboration among the separate units of local government may be such that their activities supplement or complement each other, as in the automobile industry's patent pool. Competition among them may produce desirable self-regulating tendencies similar in effect to the “invisible hand” of the market. Collaboration and competition among governmental units may also, of course, have detrimental effects, and require some form of central decision-making to consider the interests of the area as a whole. For a comprehensive review of the theory of industrial organization see Bain, Joe S., Industrial Organization (New York, 1959).

4 Dewey, John, The Public and Its Problems (New York, 1927), p. 15.

5 Krutilla, John V. and Eckstein, Otto, Multiple Purpose River Development: Studies in Applied Economic Analysis (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1958), p. 69 ff. Krutilla and Eckstein develop the concept of “internalizing” external economies as a criterion for determining scale of a management unit in the administration of water resources.

6 In practice, shopping centers may also give favorable rents to large supermarkets as “traffic generators.” This recognizes the externalities they create.

7 John Dewey, op. cit., pp. 15–16.

8 Musgrave, Richard, The Theory of Public Finance (New York, 1959), esp. ch. 1.

9 Tiebout, Charles M., “A Pure Theory of Local Expenditures,” Journal of Political Economy, Vol. 64 (October, 1956), pp. 416–24.

10 Op. cit., pp. 4–5. Dewey's use of the terms “acts” and “transactions” implies that only social behavior is contemplated in public action. But physical events, e.g., floods, may also become objects of public control.

11 See the discussion of “district boundaries and the incidence of benefits” in Smith, Stephen C., “Problems in the Use of the Public District for Ground Water Management,” Land Economics, Vol. 32 (August, 1956), pp. 259269.

12 The boundary conditions of a local unit of government are not limited to the legally determined physical boundaries but should include reference to extra-territorial powers, joint powers, etc.

13 This factor might be separately characterized as a criterion of equitable distribution of costs and benefits, but we have chosen to consider it here in the context of political representation.

14 This analysis is confined to competition between units of government and makes no reference to competitive forces within a unit of government. Competition among pressure groups, factions and political parties is a fundamental feature of the democratic political process, but is not within the primary focus of this paper and its concern with the polycentric system.

15 Sidney, and Webb, Beatrice, English Local Government: Statutory Authorities for Special Purposes (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1922), p. 437 ff.

16 For further detail see: Ostrom, Vincent, Water and Politics (Los Angeles, Haynes Foundation, 1953), esp. chs. 3, 6 and 7.

* Ostrom is Associate Professor of Political Science, U.C.L.A.; Tiebout is Associate Professor of Economics, U.C.L.A.; and Warren is Assistant Professor of Political Science, University of Washington.

Ostrom and Warren wish to acknowledge the early support of their work by the Bureau of Governmental Research at U.C.L.A. Background for discussion of the final section on “conflict and conflict resolution” was derived from research supported by the Water Resources Center of the University of California, help which Ostrom wishes to acknowledge.

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American Political Science Review
  • ISSN: 0003-0554
  • EISSN: 1537-5943
  • URL: /core/journals/american-political-science-review
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