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Why Conservatives Must Protect Local Government by Brandon Zicha, Joes Gordon de Natris

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Essay

Why Conservatives Must Protect Local Government

"Village Feast" (1590), an oil on canvas by Gillis Mostaert (1528–1598).

Knytt med din sterke hånd, hellige troskapsbånd, om folk og drott! (Tie with your strong hand a holy bond of trust around people and king.)
—Norwegian royal anthem

“Symbols matter. Uniforms, flags, banners—even mascots. They’re like pieces of your heart that you can see.”
—Helo, Battlestar Galactica

On March 16th, the Netherlands held the fewest regular municipal elections ever. In four years there will certainly be even fewer elections. Indeed, there has been no year since 1960 where it would not be true that ‘four years from now, there will be even fewer municipal elections.’ The sureness of this forecast is a testimony to the inertia of what is surely the quietest death of community and self-government on the continent: municipal amalgamation.

Processes of municipal amalgamation, where preexisting municipal or regional governing jurisdictions are merged, began in Portugal, Sweden, and Belgium before the 1990s, and in Estonia, Finland, Belgium, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Latvia, the UK, and several German bundesländer and Swiss cantons since then. As a consequence, these countries often also have relatively large municipalities (all well over 15,000 citizens) compared to the European average (around 6,000). But, among the most striking images of this phenomenon may be the Netherlands, where the number of municipalities has decreased from around 1,000 in 1950 to 343 in 2022. At the current rate, which has been strikingly geometrically linear since around 1960, there will be one municipality left in 2051.

Figure 1. The number of municipalities in the Netherlands

Source: Hoeben et al., 2021.

A (Slowly, Technocratically) Conquered Territory? An Evergreen Conservative Concern

Dutch amalgamation happens at the same time as leaders call for ‘increased citizen participation’ and greater regional autonomy by having larger administration tasks delegated to them. However, we know that, paradoxically, the recent decentralizations have not led to more local autonomy because they are paired with strict centralized regulations in a context of a long trend of ever larger, fewer, amalgamated municipalities, as pointed out by a report by the ROB, a public advisory body to the Dutch government. Indeed, the policies are designed in such a way as to assume that ever larger municipal governments will administer them. Policy isn’t made for the municipalities the Netherlands has now, but for the larger ‘more efficient’ ones there will soon be. Indeed the central government crafts policy that often necessitates such amalgamation.

Even if larger municipalities are more efficient—and there is no conclusive evidence of this—might there be a cost to this ‘growth’? Might not ever larger, shifting, more ‘efficient’ municipalities weaken local civil society, cultural heterogeneity, and the very foundations of self-governance?

That concern was articulated right at the beginning of radical nationalization and centralization dramatically inaugurated by the French Revolution in the commentary of Edmund Burke. In Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, The National Assembly of Revolutionary France, similar to the Dutch municipal reform of 1798, erased the pre-revolutionary historical provinces into 83 departments of equal size, geometrically rationalized, and identical governance structures, without regard for prior borders or distinctive local governing traditions. Burke dramatically characterized this action as synonymous with those of “the harshest” conquerors, who, like colonial powers, draw borders and assert structures with the efficiency of the central authority most in mind, rather than the good according to the citizens on the receiving end except insofar as all the citizens needs are best met by the the standard of rationalization chosen by the central government.

Burke was concerned by what this process would do to the social fabric and quality of governance in these new districts, warning that: 

[w]hen the members of these new bodies of cantons, communes, and departments… begin to act, they will find themselves in a great measure stranger to one another… frequently without any civil habitudes or connections, or any of the natural discipline that is the soul of a true republic.

Burke’s concern with the severing of the connections like those linking the representatives to specific local organizations, while possibly efficient purely from a budgetary perspective, ignores qualitative values in local governance that are harder to measure—and therefore overlooked in the reasoning of the liberal public economist.

Burke anticipated the potential dangers of this reductivist rationally efficient administrative culture. When comparing the post-Revolutionary French administration to that administrative ethos of the communitas of the Ancien Regime, he noted that these old-fashioned administrators “knew that their business was too arduous to be accomplished with no better apparatus than the metaphysics of an undergraduate and the mathematics and arithmetic of a tax-collector. They had to do with men, and thus these administrators were obliged to study human nature. They had to do with citizens, and were obliged to study the effects on the habits that are communicated by the circumstances of civil life. They were aware that the operation of this second nature on the first produced a new combination… all of which made them so many different species,” and was the engine of local character and diversity.

For conservatives generally, and Burke specifically, the test of a political arrangement was and is definitively multidimensional and richer than that of pure rationalized utilitarianism. Success is judged by arrangements where those in its jurisdiction are rendered “happy, united, wealthy, and powerful” by that arrangement, beyond mere functional and budgetary efficiency. The common good is cultivated by good governance, not the hypothetical “aggregated bliss for the greatest number.” An appropriate governing philosophy of local administration, in Burke’s view, is focused on fitting local administration to the unique types of people and industry of each locale. This would encourage administrators to see their roles in community more holistically, allowing them to form people similarly loyal to, suited to, and shaped by their locale. This, for Burke, is the way to cultivate a sustainable social order built on connections close to the individual person.

Burke’s perspective is also embedded in the role local government plays in the founding thought of the modern Dutch political order. Johan Thorbecke, a founding father of Dutch parliamentary democracy, argued that strong local civil society could help ward off autocracy and that local autonomy is essential to developing this strength. Indeed, his vision is built into the structure of municipal government in the Netherlands, where the government is not composed of professional administrators, but a lay government with representatives with both feet in civil society.

Likewise, historically there are many European conservative defenders of the characteristics of distributed authority and the high degree of local autonomy and subsidiarity of the Ancien Regime such as George Sanyayana as well as the largely Christian Democratic founding architects of the EU, who envisioned a subsidiarity-oriented EU that cultivated a ‘Europe of the regions’, where municipalities set boundaries and developed self-governing regions around local particularly. There are solid European conservative grounds for a more localist orientation.

This contrasts with an approach that views all municipal governments as essentially decentralized service administrators serving to implement efficient central government policies. That is, what Burke would recognize as the administrative perspective of the radical Enlightenment administrator, whom Burke characterizes (presciently for our technocratic present) as

the economist, disposer and shepherd of his own kindred, [who elevates] himself into an airy metaphysician… resolved to know nothing of his flocks except as men in general… [and consequently]… run all sorts of citizens together into one homogenous mass: and then they divided this mass of theirs into a number of incoherent republics. They reduce men to loose counters, merely for the sake of simple counting, and not to figures whose power is to arise from their place in the table.

Gone is any view of the sociological and formative aspects of local government. All that is left is local government’s role in administering policy pronouncements ‘efficiently’ according to the dictates of the sovereign central authority.

Thankfully, the amalgamation of Dutch municipalities since 1960 has not been geometrically arbitrary like the French revolutionary reform. However, one cannot help but notice that the rate of decline is strikingly geometric, seemingly unperturbed by any considerations that might slow the inexorable dilution of Dutch jurisdictions into ever larger, more diverse, less unified amalgams. Not national crises, not economic decline or booms, not a thing seems to perturb the linear demise of the Dutch municipality. It’s a striking image for a sociopolitical phenomenon to ever find data so neatly arranged (particularly not for nearly 80 years) without a specific implemented policy process at its root.

Thus, vibrant local government is an important foundation of successful democracy, but it also is an enemy of centralized power. Any true local autonomy should allow for actions different from those of the center of national power, should local values require it. This reality, however, is fundamentally threatening to centralized authority. Consequently, more robust democracies that limit state power reliably tend to either be smaller or to have greater levels of decentralization. Conversely, more autocratic and elite-driven regimes tend to be larger geographically and have less internal decentralization. Recently this very magazine published a piece detailing the constitutional backsliding in the rule of law in the Netherlands. Might this gutting of local democracy be related?

The potential consequences of municipal amalgamations

There is surprisingly little research on the effects of municipal amalgamation on local communities. As yet we have no convincing evidence that Burke is either right or wrong. But the use of ‘thin simplifications’—simplistic and reductionist measures to judge the outcomes of policies or institutional frameworks favored by the liberal economistic administrator—in policy often results in unexpected and significant negative side effects in a variety of contexts.

As James Scott convincingly shows in his research on “high-modernist” urban planning, an approach which assumes that one can design a city in detail based on generic rules that are applicable anywhere. The geometric simplicity of the street and zoning plan is a crucial part of this. Local influence on urban planning should be avoided precisely because it leads to ‘unscientific and irrational chaos.’ Scott shows that in practice, cities designed in detail, based on generic rules, such as Brazil’s capital Brasilia, turn out to be uninhabitable unless there is a deviation from the official planning. This is because only things that were directly relevant to the government were taken into account. Think about whether officials could drive to the ministries by car. No consideration was given to where people spend their leisure time, congregate, or need or provide services, except in specially designated locations, which are spatially segregated from other parts of the city that have been assigned a different function. Consequently, alongside the planned Brasilia, an unplanned city has emerged, with a much larger population and a much livelier streetscape and civil society and on which the planned Brasilia depends for all kinds of services and products. Likewise, Jane Jacobs, and the research inspired by her, has shown precisely that a city can only be planned to a certain extent—and that all kinds of local knowledge are needed for this. 

The livability of a city requires a high degree of flexibility within the overarching plan so that citizens and businesses can live, work, and relax in locations that suit their local needs. The farther away local administrators are from the citizen, the more they have to rely on generic rather than local knowledge, and the less urban planning will connect to local preferences and communities. Within urban planning, then, Burke’s warnings apply. But does this also apply to amalgamation policy?

The dearth of research on this question is not a function of it being hard to imagine the kinds of effects declining and ever-shifting municipal and local government might have. Indeed, current trends should give us pause and make us ask whether we are in a quiet crisis of local democracy. 

For instance, increased geographical distance between citizens and ‘local’ politicians makes politicians less able to know what is going on in their community and also less incentivized to learn the particular problems locals face. This leads to politicians making decisions at increasingly abstract levels. Research shows that the exact same administrative pressures that induce municipal amalgamations also lead town councils to become increasingly burdened with work, with more and more pressure exerted on them to professionalize. Being a council member can no longer be a sideline job, and the time to have a chat with citizens is diminishing as a result. It is also more difficult to have another job besides being a council member (and thus to experience what it is like to be a citizen yourself).

As a consequence, we can expect social distrust to increase due to the greater distance between citizens and local administrators. In a small community, citizens meet their administrators regularly and informally at the supermarket or the soccer club, and then formally in neighborhood meetings. And meeting politicians regularly gives citizens a way to exercise influence and hold them accountable besides the regular electoral process. Research shows that amalgamation leads to lower political participation because such interactions disappear. And you cannot trust those who you deem you cannot hold to account. Moreover, through these links between local politicians and the local community, and through the links between local and national politicians, the local community is connected to the national community.

Through the affection that citizens feel for a community on a scale that is not yet completely abstract, citizens might feel affection for larger communities, of which their local community is also a part. The loss of the symbols of the local and those local affections may reduce the affection felt for the national because symbols matter. And through the experience of (the difficulties) of self-government by a representative government, as is possible at the small-scale level, citizens gain a better understanding of the difficulties faced by the national representative government, and thus cultivate more realistic expectations for government policy-makers.

Perhaps these last few likely consequences go some way to explain the explosion of local parties in municipal elections (e.g., Party of the Hague) and a shunning of national parties that seem disconnected and uninterested in the well-being of the locale so much as the ability of local politics to further their national agendas. This phenomenon naturally feeds back into the disconnection between elites and the populace, fueling populism as a necessary corrective.

Finally, in addition to a decline of accountability, trust, information transmission, and civic education as a result of amalgamation, we should also anticipate a loss of diversity and local flavor. Local life flourishes all the more with access to the institutions of community governance, which can use its powers to facilitate particular local concerns—be they the odd festival or religious observance, a local product, or the latest local sports craze. Amalgamation raises the costs for small groups of citizens to engage in such support, to the detriment of small group life itself.

Conclusion

Michael Oakeshott described the generally conservative attitude as one that is 

to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss… Familiar relationships and loyalties will be preferred to the allure of more profitable attachments: to acquire and to enlarge will be less important than to keep, to cultivate and to enjoy; the grief of loss will be more acute than the excitement of novelty or promise. It is to be equal to one’s own fortune, to live at the level of one’s own means, to be content with the want of greater perfection which belongs alike to oneself and one’s circumstances.

To the extent that these sentiments align well with the diverse array of conservatisms across the continent, European conservatives should find themselves the most impassioned and effective champions of local government and autonomy. The Dutch government and others to varying degrees appear to be pursuing a permanent revolution in local government in a revolutionary spirit if not revolutionary speed across the continent. Whatever local ties of trust and affection there once were between citizens and their local government have been ruptured and heal only slowly, or maybe never heal again. 

The general policy in the Netherlands is to loosen the ties between local communities and their leaders, rather than strengthening them; the exact opposite of what you should want to do to relations between government and citizens. In the ever more nationalized and internationalized political arena, political attention is often denied to issues of local government. European conservatives must not fall into this trap, for it is here at the local level where conservatism can be strongest. 

Besides the health of the local communities, government effectiveness and high-quality local democratic self-government are also important. The argument here is not that whatever level of local ineffectiveness is acceptable as long as the status quo can be preserved. Conservatives in Europe must inquire about and fight for those oft-ignored or hard to measure costs of amalgamations so that they may be balanced against these rationalistic concerns. Not only is the conservative perspective the best game in town for bringing to bear common sense responses to this rationalization, conservatives are naturally the defenders of the familiar, common, local, and particular. This is a natural niche for vibrant conservative parties to entrench, grow, and mature.

If European conservatives do not stand between national rationalization and local government autonomy, it is unclear who will stand against the self-conquering technocratic logic of administrative efficiency of the liberal state, and preserve the rich diversity and texture that makes Europe the continent of diverse regions and nations that we love—to say nothing of buttressing democratic accountability itself.

Brandon Zicha is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE) at the University College of Leiden University, in the Netherlands.

Joes Gordon de Natris is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.

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