Private Neighborhoods and the Transformation of Local Government


In Private Neighborhoods and the Transformation of Local Government, Robert H. Nelson effectively frames the discussion of what minimal government might look like in terms of personal choices based on local knowledge. He looks at the issue from the ground up rather than the top down.

Nelson argues that while all levels of American government have been expanding since World War II, people have responded with a spontaneous and massive movement toward local governance. This has taken two main forms.

The first is what he calls the “privatization of municipal zoning,” in which city zoning boards grant changes or exemptions to developers in exchange for cash payments or infrastructure improvements. “Zoning has steadily evolved in practice toward a collective private property right. Many municipalities now make zoning a saleable item by imposing large fees for approving zoning changes,” Nelson writes.

In one sense, of course, this is simply developers openly buying back property rights that government had previously taken from the free market, and “privatization” may be the wrong word for it. For Nelson, however, it is superior to rigid land-use controls that would prevent investors from using property in the most productive way. Following Ronald Coase, Nelson evidently believes it is more important that a tradable property right exists than who owns it initially.

The second spontaneous force toward local governance has been the expansion of private neighborhood associations and the like. According to the author, “By 2004, 18 percent—about 52 million Americans—lived in housing within a homeowner’s association, a condominium, or a cooperative, and very often these private communities were of neighborhood size.”

Nelson views both as positive developments on the whole. They are, he argues, a manifestation of a growing disenchantment with the “scientific management” of the Progressive Era. He thinks the devolution of governance below the municipal level to the neighborhood should be supported through statutory and state constitutional changes.

Although about one-third of all new housing since 1970 has been built within some form of neighborhood association, the majority of older neighborhoods fall outside this trend. Establishing neighborhood associations in these areas is difficult because the requirement for a homeowner to join is typically written into the deed, and this would be extremely costly to do for every home in an older neighborhood.

Nelson proposes a six-step solution that involves (1) a petition by property owners in a neighborhood to form an association, (2) state review of the proposal, (3) negotiations between the city and the neighborhood, (4) a neighborhood vote on the proposal, (5) a required supermajority, perhaps 70 percent, for passage, and (6) a transfer from the municipality of legal responsibility for regulating land use in the neighborhood to the unit owners of the association.

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Why Universalism Trumps Targeting in Social Policy

How  we provide justice to the disadvantaged – An ongoing situation of too few resources and too many needy. I believe this post and its embodied reports would be well to be read and heeded by our governments and their instruments in South africa as the system of targeting is so embedded in our hand-outs and the sad results of dependency in the face of great need breeds despair.  From [polis]  Posted by Katia Savchuk

These women in Ocotito, Mexico, participated in Oportunidades, a government program that pays women to send children to school. Conditional cash transfers are an example of targeting in social policy. Source: World Bank / Adrian Mealand

In the 1960s and 1970s, a universalistic approach to social policy – under which the entire population is eligible for social benefits as a basic right – prevailed in developed and developing countries. Since the 1980s, however, policymakers have increasingly embraced targeting, which limits eligibility for social benefits to beneficiaries who meet specific criteria. Proponents of targeting claim that it is most efficient to direct scarce resources to those who need or “deserve” them most. The shift away from universalism was conditioned by fiscal deficits, the rise of neo-liberal ideology and shifting priorities for aid.

The choice between universalism and targeting is ideological. If the primary objective of social policy is combating social exclusion, a return to universalism is warranted. Social inclusion involves not only decreasing disparities in material well-being, but also in citizenship, sense of belonging, voice, autonomy and power relations. A universalistic approach promotes inclusive citizenship, equal rights and social solidarity, and has historically been associated with more equitable societies. Targeting, on the other hand can reinforce social disparities, reduce autonomy, exclude vulnerable individuals from accessing benefits and buttress uneven power relations.

Universalistic social policies, by making eligibility for benefits a right of citizenship, define citizens as equal before the state. They also enhance the legitimacy of rights-based claims, which members of society can call upon on equal terms. By placing citizens on equal ground rather than emphasizing difference, universalistic policies can also increase social cohesion and reduce discrimination. Empirically, societies that adopt universalistic policies have had lower levels of social inequality. In a 2000 UNICEF study of developing countries that made the most progress in providing widespread access to social services in the last 50 years, a universal approach to provision was the key commonality.

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