Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Can't political boundaries help solve problems?

Administrative Boundaries Should Lend Themselves to Efficient Problem Solving.
Second in a series. You would think that self-governing political entities would have geographic boundaries that were crafted to solve some purpose efficiently. An entity might be established, for example, by an isolated concentration of people to provide themselves efficient and effective police services, or to manage a particular source of drinking water, or operate a transit system, or schools within the population concentration. A larger entity may well want heterogenous resources and land forms that can contribute to its economy in different seasons and economic conditions. Of course many political boundaries started out random or became so, like the southern city limit of Berkeley that wanders north and south of Alcatraz Avenue, or the fractured transit, air quality, and counties of the San Francisco Bay Area that endlessly fail to coordinate their efforts, and either do not answer to an electorate or are so structured as to make elections meaningless in terms of control of area-wide policies.
The court strikes down a district with too much cohesiveness
One of the few court cases I am aware of that dealt with an administrative/self-governing boundary came down squarely against using boundaries to solve a problem. This was a U.S. Supreme Court case in 1994. A group of non-conforming and isolationist parents in New York State, who generally spoke a foreign language, wore unusual clothing and who regarded the wider society as corrupting, had already formed a recognized village in which they were approximately the whole electorate. They had successfully petitioned the state legislature to let them form a school district so they could get help for their disabled children who were ridiculed when they had to go to the surrounding public schools that could meet their special needs. As described by Justice Scalia: “The special district was created to meet the special educational needs of distinctive handicapped children, and the geographical boundaries selected for that district were (quite logically) those that already existed for the village.” In a thoroughly splintered decision the court said the school district must be dissolved. None of the justices on either side of the decision seemed to see the case outside the context that the proposed district, coterminous with the village of Kiryas Joel, was made up of Chassidic Jews, all belonging to a particular strict subgroup. Bounded by that set of lenses, the majority thought that the state legislature was violating the first provision of the Bill of Rights that says that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion....” Scalia speculates that David Souter, who wrote the plurality opinion, “would laud this humanitarian legislation if all of the distinctiveness of the students of Kiryas Joel were attributable to the fact that their parents were nonreligious commune dwellers, or American Indians, or gypsies. The creation of a special, one culture school district for the benefit of those children would pose no problem.”
Scalia, however, is the least secular of the Justices, and he demolishes his utilitarian argument, with a long praise of “accommodation” to religion. Whatever might be said of the Kiryas Joel decision, the framers of the Constitution knew well the dangers of too much accommodation to mixing religion and government.
Not all political boundaries have to be geographic
Governing and accomplishing something does not necessarily require geographic contiguity. Corporations, Unions, and non-governmental organizations do not control territory but do control resources with a distributed form of governance. With the internet and cell phone, there probably already exist more effective means of coordinating a cohesive group than by elections in a territory.

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