Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Learning From Athens

I appreciate Judith Brown’s posts about the idea of a district representative-council. Last night, while reading a town planning book on patterns found all over the world, I came across this research of how large a body of people can be represented most fairly. I found it inspiring. It was almost as though it were written expressly for us. I post it here as something to consider as we continue the discussion on how best to represent ourselves here and also think about future development in Middletown.


Individuals have no effective voice in any community of more than 5000-10,000 persons.

People can only have a genuine effect on local government when the units of local government are autonomous … small enough to create the possibility of a link between the man in the street and his local officials and elected representatives.

This is an old idea. It was the model for Athenian democracy in the third and fourth centuries, B.C.; it was Jefferson’s plan for American democracy; it was the tack Confucius took in his book on government, The Great Digest.

For these people, the practice of exercising power over local matters was in itself an experience of intrinsic satisfaction. Sophocles wrote that life would be unbearable were it not for the freedom to initiate action in a small community. And it was considered that this experience was not only good in itself, but was the only way of governing that would not lead to corruption. Jefferson wanted to spread out the power not because “the people” were so bright and clever, but precisely because they were prone to error, and therefore it was dangerous to vest power in the hands of a few who would inevitably make big mistakes. “Break the country into wards” was his campaign slogan, so that mistakes will be manageable and people will get practice and improve.

Today the distance between people and the centers of power that govern them is vast – both psychologically and geographically. Milton Kotler, a Jeffersonian, has described the experience (1967):

The process of city administration is invisible to the citizen who sees little evidence of its human components but feels the sharp pain of taxation. With increasingly poor public service, his desires and needs are more insistently expressed. Yet his expressions of need seem to issue into thin air, for government does not appear attentive to his demands. This disjunction between citizens and government is the major political problem of city government, because it embodies the dynamics of civil disorder.

There are two ways in which the physical environment, as it is now ordered, promotes and sustains the separation between citizens and their government. First, the size of the political community is so large that its members are separated from its leaders simply by their number. Second, government is invisible, physically located out of the realm of most citizens’ daily lives. Unless these two conditions are altered, political alienation is not likely to be overcome.

1. The size of the political community…. Paul Goldman has proposed a rule of thumb that no citizen should be more than two friends away from the highest member of the local unit. Assume everyone knows about 12 people in his local community. Using this notion and Goodman’s rule, we can see that an optimum size for a political community would be 12 x 12 x 12 or about … 5500 persons.

2. The visible location for local government. Even when local branches of government are decentralized in function, they are often still centralized in space, hidden in vast municipal city-county buildings out of the realm of everyday life. These places are intimidating and alienating. What is needed is for every person to feel at home in the place of his local government with his ideas and complaints. A person must feel that it is a forum, that it is his indirectly, that he can call and talk to a person in charge of such and such, and see him personally in a day or two.

For this purpose, forums must be situated in highly visible and accessible places. They could, for instance, be located in the most active marketplace of each community of 5000 to 7000.


Decentralize city governments in a way that gives local control to communities of 5000 to 10,000 persons. As nearly as possible, use natural and geographic and historical boundaries to mark these communities. Give each community the power to initiate, decide, and execute the affairs that concern it closely: land use, housing, maintenance, streets, parks, police, schooling, welfare, neighborhood services.

Excerpted from A Pattern Language, by Christopher Alexander et al., 1977, pages 71-74.


Ron Klattenberg said...

The issue of at-large vs. district representation in Middletown is intellectually interesting but for every potential advantage there will be corresponding risks. Here is an interesting study abstract published in Economics and Politic in 1997, vol,9; issue 2pages 173-203. I think the conclusion has merit. Be careful what you wish for.

Local Government Spending and At-Large Versus District Representation; Do Wards Result in More "Pork"? by L. Southwick

Abstract: The issue of at-large versus ward representation has recently again become controversial. Wards are argued to better represent minorities, both ethnic and preference. However, an opposing argument is that wards encourage spending. It is suggested that one reason for this is that, with ward representation, a coalition can be put together to exploit other areas of the city. This question is tested empirically and it is found that spending, debt, and taxes are both significantly and substantially higher in cities where ward representatives have greater power than in cities where at-large representatives have the greater power. It is conjectured that this same effect results in higher state and federal expenditures than would be desired by the majority of voters. Copyright 1997 Blackwell Publishers Ltd..

Vijay Pinch said...

Thanks Commissioner Catherine Johnson for the insights from Athens, not to mention Monticello and Beijing. And thanks Councilman Ron Klattenberg for pointing to an interesting body of social science literature on the subject of at-large versus ward voting. I had a vague notion that the issue had been written about from a civil-rights perspective. I wasn't aware that there was such a robust literature on spending patterns based on the structure of the electorate. As it happens, the conclusions reached by Southwick in the article cited by Councilman Klattenberg are by no means universally shared. An article in _Public Culture_ from 1996 (vol. 88, pp. 275-293) by Langbein, Crewson, and Brasher vigorously dispute the general claim that ward voting causes more 'pork' spending. They argue that the decisive factor is the size of the council. And they are careful to note that there are many other factors. Like all such articles, it suffers from specialized poli-sci jargon, but the salient takeaway point is that the risk of overspending is easily controlled by a variety of structural checks. The article is particularly noteworthy as well for its comprehensive review of the literature to date, in which it is made clear that there is little unanimity on the issue. We have piles of political scientists living in town; I hope they're listening in and can comment. In any case, here is the abstract from the _Public Choice_ article:

"Abstract. This study shows why the conventional wisdom that cities with ward elections will spend more than cities with at-large elections is too simple and explains why the empirical findings have been so mixed. Ward vs. at-large elections will only affect the policy choices of city councils when the policy choice is one that is decided by the median legislator. When the policy is one that is decided by the rule of universalism, the relevant institutional determinant of choice is the number of legislators, and not whether they are elected at-large or by wards. Universalism is politically rational for divisible policies that all constituents deisre [sic] ("pork"); the majority rule equilibrium (at the median) is more rational for divisible policies that are generally desired, but only when they are not located too close to any one constituent's home ("LULUs"). The expectation then is that larger city councils will provide more parks than smaller ones, and that election by wards or at- large will be irrelevant for these policy choices. By contrast, community centers and libraries are thought to be generally desireable, but not when they are in one's backyward. The size of the council is not predicted to be relevant for these decisions, but councils elected by wards are more likely to have a median legislator who represents geographically concentrated constituents, such as the minority poor; their preferences will have a bigger impact on councils elected by wards than on councils elected at large. Data from a sample of council-manager cities with weak mayors who have no veto uphold these hypotheses."

Jen Alexander said...

I am totally distressed by the assumption in the text that we can only expect each citizen to be "connected" to about 12 people locally. I hope there aren't too many people in town who only know 12 people in Middletown. I understand that it can take a while to put down some roots, and some people are naturally reclusive, but 12 people seems to set the bar pretty low!

I'm guessing that by a connection, the writer means it in the "social capital" sense of knowing someone well enough that you might say to them, "say, what's going into that empty storefront down the street" or "my dentist just retired, who do you use?" or "I wish the boy scouts would come and clean up that park downtown, don't you?" There are deeper connections (one hopes) but these are the minimum required for someone to begin to care about the shared future of the community.

As the writer surely intended, it's probably true that if a person has a problem or idea that they want to pass on to their leaders, they need to know people who know people who know those people. It's a giant grapevine, but it only works if people come out of their rooms and join in.

Maybe it was a typo? Even without email or TV, I have to believe that the ancient Athenians kept up with more than a dozen fellow citizens.

Last year there was a hullabaloo about the idea that people tend to create networks of people and 150 is a manageable number (Robin Dunbar wrote a book about it.) That sounds more realistic to me.

Personally, I'm still agnostic on the issue of district representation, but if there's anyone reading this who only knows 12 people in town - I consider that a civic emergency.