Would a Ward-System Mean More Government in Arlington?

Eileen writes about the fascinating debate in Arlington, Virginia, over how the County should be structured. Under the current “at-large” system, each of the five County Board members is elected by the entire County. But a petition is underway to change that. Under the new proposal, the County would be divided into separate districts or “wards,” each with a council member representing it.

That got me thinking: what are the likely consequences of such a change? At least theoretically, one would expect a ward-organized government to be a bigger government. The reason is that ward representatives can vote to concentrate benefits on their particular districts, and diffuse the costs over the entire County. Public choice economists usually consider such schemes to be inefficient because they permit marginal costs to exceed marginal benefits.

As one might guess, someone has studied this. A 1997 study by Lawrence Southwick of the State University of New York at Buffalo found that, indeed, ward governments were bigger governments. He gathered data from 1,254 cities and controlled for other factors that might affect government size such as the demographic characteristics of the residents and the size of the population. He found that, compared to ward-cities, at-large cities average 11.1 percent lower total expenditures, 14.8 percent lower per-capita taxes, and 53.3 percent lower per-capita debt levels.

The current system, it seems, tends to favor a limited government. This is somewhat ironic because the party whose platform explicitly endorses limited government is apparently one of the groups backing the change.