Charter Cities

Article XI, section 3(a) of the California Constitution authorizes the adoption of a city charter and provides such a charter has the force and effect of state law.  Article XI, section 5(a), the “home rule” provision, affirmatively grants to charter cities supremacy over “municipal affairs.” 

The above quote taken from this website. What this means in theory, if not always in practice, is that the people of a city in the US state of California can create for themselves a charter and using this they can in effect over ride state laws and operate as a near autonomous region bound by the same state consitution but not by most actual state laws. In essence a city can become a secondary state within a state.  According to Wikipedia “112 of California’s 478 cities are charter cities”.

When it comes to writing constitutions those Americans have sure been an innovative bunch. Paul Romer also has some innovative ideas on how the Charter City concept might be extended and used creatively to help end poverty and other global problems. He talks about the idea in the following TED video.

Of course Australia also has the equivalent of a charter city. It’s called Canberra. The equivalent of a micro state within the state of NSW. Perhaps a few other cities should also attain independance from state laws. Or perhaps we should set aside space, as we did for the national capital, where new cities can emerge. Even better if they represented zones that avoided federal laws.

26 thoughts on “Charter Cities

  1. I had a similar idea. There is a debate over if we should have new states, or if we shouldn’t have states, or if we shouldn’t have any local or state government, or if states should be smaller and incorporate powers of local Government (“regions”).

    My idea was to allow the decision to be made at the local Government level if people wish to join other shires and form a state or a region – a shire going it alone would then assumed to have the status of a region – I suppose places could even ask to be ruled directly from Canberra or as a shire within the “Federal State” as territories if they wished.

    As for this system avoiding Federal law, all of the above matters on how Federal-State relations are outlined from the beginning.

  2. Hutt River is hilarious. IT seems they acquired defacto recognition because of government errors.

    The government of Western Australia determined they could do nothing without the intervention of the Commonwealth. The Governor-General of Australia, Sir Paul Hasluck, later stated that it was unconstitutional for the Commonwealth to intervene in the secession.[3] In correspondence with the Governor-General’s office, Casley was inadvertently addressed as the “Administrator of the Hutt River Province” which, under the application of Royal Prerogative, makes this recognition binding on all courts.[

    They have also declared war on Australia too when the government refused to allow them mail service.

  3. I really don’t understand why the Australian has left them alone though and not claiming taxes from this group.

  4. They’re probably worried that harassing them and giving them too much publicity will cause them to get too much of a following and others will follow suit. Liberty can be contagious.

    Then again if they successfully avoid taxes, that could catch on too. Any farmer subject to monopoly export quotas could be tempted succede as well.

  5. Dividing power up geographically has a certain theoretical appeal (Ayn Rand thought it made sense), but practical experience suggests it has substantial disadvantages.

    In NSW we still have largely unamalgamated Councils responsible for relatively small areas in inner Sydney. They are a nightmare of nanny-state busy-bodies as they tend to get captured by those with time on their hands. The result is rules determining the colours you are allowed to paint your house, with no positive outcomes to compensate.

    In the US, cities with high levels of autonomy have also led gun control campaigns. Right now, Chicago is arguing that its ban on pistols is valid notwithstanding the 2nd Amendment, State laws and last year’s Supreme Court case overruling Washington DC’s ban. The case is also heading to the Supreme Court.

    What I don’t see are examples of moves in the opposite direction attributable to city autonomy.

  6. You have a point David. Anecdotal evidence suggests you find the more insane elements at local government level.

  7. True, but one of the reasons you get nutters in local government is a lot of more reasonable people couldn’t be bothered, and no one really gives a damn who they vote for, as long as the garbage is picked up. Why do you think my local council has the only elected member of the Socailist Alliance in the country?

    It has been argued that if you give local governments more autonomy (and thus more power), it will attract better candidates, and voters will take council elections more seriously.

  8. The fact that Australians have a slightly lower tax burden than Americans also somewhat supports Davids point. However in terms of what Paul Romer is advocating if otherwise empty land is subject to different rules and people then flock there in numbers the alternate rules must by definition be quite satisfying to humans.

  9. I agree Papachango – the less relevant a political office appears, the less attention and care it will recieve from the public.

    For local council elections, I’d say that somewhere in the order of 2% of voters could even name five candidates. There is no percieved need – no matter what clown they elect, the garbage will get collected and the poo will get flushed away down a magic system of pipes.

    I feel that it is largely the problem with the NSW state government as well. Seriously, a bag of potatoes should be able to unseat the current government, but we have developed a nasty habit of reelecting them. Of course, this isnt helped by the utter ineptitude of the opposition, but it reflects the percieved irrelevance of state politics – all things that people percieve as important are handled by the Federal government, which has progressively emasculated and sidelined the states since federation.

    Now, give local councils control over emergency services and school cirriculums and people will stand up and take notice. Give states real powers to tax, and just watch how fast the dross is cleared!

  10. Todd, you’re completely correct.

    David L, while I completly understand your point about councils in Sydney, the fact is those concerned with liberty and individual empowerment should always defer to devolving power to the lowest level. Sometimes through reason we can determine a better level for that power to sit, for example, national defence could be argued as best ‘owned’ by the federal government. However, if we’re not sure we should always err on the side of devoluton of power. You often put up the Jefferson quote “I would rather be exposed to the inconveniencies attending too much liberty than to those attending too small a degree of it.”; this is exactly that situation.

    Another aspect of devolving power that libertarians should take great interest in is the ability to create communities with different ‘flavours’. If your council is fucking up then look for a council that better suits what you want. People are reluctant to move, but eventually there would be ‘free’ suburbs and collectivist ones. Libertarian types would be able to have less involvement with statist types. This is a way forward we should not ignore. Of course, as accurately stated above, we haven’t devolved any real power to the local level, so all suburbs are the same and it doesn’t really matter at this time.

    As for the whole second amendment and charter cities, it’s a load of shit. Everything gets tried in the US and that’s why it’s such a great place. There is no logic to a state being party to the US constitution but allowing within it areas that are not subject to the US constitution. While the intention of the writers of the constitution was to devolve power, it was clearly never the intention to let the states ignore the overarching rights granted by superior constitutions (unless the state succeeds, which is it’s right but a whole other hypothetical argument). So certain cities can ignore the second amendment? Can they ignore the rest of US constitution like the first and fifth amendments? If they can ignore the very constitution then they can surely ignore all subordinate law? So citizens of charter cities may not have to pay federal taxes? It’s a load of crap and the sooner it’s challenged in the Supreme Court the better. It’s virtually the same situation as DC vs Heller, so a related precedent has been nicely set.

    (BTW, this would be a great challenge because it would put the liberal judges in a quandary; they’d want to rule that charter cities can ignore the second amendment, but it would effectively permit charter cities to ignore all federal laws, and the last thing the left liberals want to do is devolve power).

  11. If taxes were all local then people would care about local politics. The reason people care about federal politics in Australia is because they are the mob who take most of our money and they are the mob that spend most of the tax revenue. The voters interest in governments follows the power. If we had small government across the board we would have little interest in politics in general. If we had powerful local governments then we would be more interested in local politics.

    Take a look at the EU. Most people are indifferent to EU elections because the EU has no tax powers. If the EU was given tax powers then people would suddenly become very interested in EU politics. The fact that most people in Europe are uninterested in EU politics is the product of a good situation (ie little real power). However they are more interested than they were when the EU had absolutely no power at all.

    The argument that people ignore the local sphere of government in Australia does not go against the case for decentralisation of power. In the extreme if we gave all power back to individuals I doubt most individuals would be suddenly more interesting to the world. However they would be more interested in their own decision making.

  12. G’day,

    Its the provision of essential services were I see the most benefit in expanding local government powers. Local policing, hospital and school administration come to mind. The state governments have let their bureaucracies take control of such services with resulting increased costs and decreasing services. However the smaller Sydney councils are often run by useless nutters, the last thing you would want is to give them more power.

    What is required is a major restructure of local government (I’m speaking of Sydney here). It would include:

    1) Restructuring council boundaries into economically viable units. Its ridicules that a council like Ashfield has as many people as a single Parammatta ward. That why you get the nutters, they don’t have much to do besides whinging about their lack of funds.

    2) Injecting democracy. This means popularly elected mayors with real executive power and elective referendums.

    3) Giving them some charter-like option. The rate payers could vote to take control of a state government service and at the same time be give the matching slice of the local land tax base. Not grants, but the base, it would be still collected by the state government but controlled by the council. They could increase/decrease it if they wished.


  13. If your council is fucking up then look for a council that better suits what you want. People are reluctant to move, but eventually there would be ‘free’ suburbs and collectivist ones.

    That’s the esssence of the argument being presented here, but at the risk of sounding repetitive I’m saying the evidence shows it is not valid.

    We already have six states plus two territories, each with their own taxing powers (think fees, charges, stamp duty, etc). Yet why do people move to Queensland? For the weather!

    It’s only when there were very high paying jobs in the mines that we saw significant numbers moving for economic reasons. And I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anyone moving because of lower taxes, in Australia or the US.

    I wish it were otherwise, but I think the assumption that geographic devolution of power contributes to liberty needs reconsideration. Evidence can’t be ignored.

  14. I say we start a free state project here and try and push for a ‘libertarian’ council. One without zoning laws, overly burdensome rates and few if any social projects. It would be interesting to see who we could attract

  15. David, I’d say both the history of the United States when compared to Canada or Australia, or the history of Switzerland when compared to other western European nations, demonstrates a clear trend that political systems with a inherent devolution of power naturally preserve individual civil liberties better than the alternatives.

    However, whatever you think of that, can we at least agree that the broad-based centralisation of political power inevitably results in a decrease in individual liberty with no other obvious benefits over the long term?

    Yet why do people move to Queensland? For the weather!

    It’s only when there were very high paying jobs in the mines that we saw significant numbers moving for economic reasons. And I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anyone moving because of lower taxes, in Australia or the US.

    I don’t know how you missed this but it’s not true. People have been moving to Queensland over the last twenty years because it was cheaper and there was less regulation. This trend is only just changing recently and has probably just been killed in the last few months by the re-election of the ‘progressive’ Bligh government and their recent inreases in land rates, car rego, petrol excise, water, etc due to their financial crisis spendathon. People were moving before the mining boom. The fact that housing was cheaper and the weather was warmer were certainly contributing factors, but over the years I’ve heard no end of people wanting to escape regulation, government expense and often multiculturalism!

    People leaving the military regularly try to stay in Queensland or the Northern Territory because they like the lower regulatory burden. I have a number of friends who are up here from the ACT and NSW because they wanted less regulation. My father-in -law, a retired NSW policeman, moved to Queensland about 10 years ago on his retirement because he openly claims NSW is a police state. Toowoomba, where I live now, is a conservative little ‘ville that broadly doesn’t like what the Bligh government is doing and it is openly stated that Queensland is changing because the South East corner is now running it. When Anna Bligh was re-elected as the first elected female premier she made a point of the changing nature of Queensland in her speeches, and how it had transformed from a backwards state to a now nation leading progressive one, which really riled a lot of people up here who see it as an encroachment on their liberty. it’s been going on, but it may be over now for Queensland.

    (And, of course, the Free State Project has interviews with people who have moved to gain greater liberty.)

  16. You can’t escape much of the tax burden by moving state because most of the tax burden is imposed by the federal government.

  17. Yeah, Terje, give taxation back to the states.

    If we had states empowered with things like the taxation, and charter cities, what would Australia look like? I think it would be closer to the US, and I’m pretty sure we’d have more liberty.

  18. I’m not sure I want Australia to be like the US. I’d prefer to see something like a hybrid between New Zealand and Switzerland with lower taxes. However I’d very happily see the federal government lose it’s power to directly tax the people. It could be granted a small fixed percentage of state revenue.

  19. I guess what I’m saying is that geographic devolution of power does not, by itself, assure a decrease in regulation or other government intrusion. I acknowledge it may have more potential than centralised power, but that’s not sufficient. A centralised government that did nothing would still be preferable to multiple devolved governments with nanny-state tendencies.

    Short of a constitutional limit on government power (which practical experiences shows is also no guarantee of less government), the only proven solution seems to be lower taxes. Irrespective of whether there is one government or many, if they don’t have enough money the buggers can’t do as much damage.

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