The following is a simple map of all 3,000+ counties in the continental US.
Does is strike anyone as odd that so many of the counties are perfectly sharp geometric forms (e.g. rectangles)? Think of what a county, as a political unit, is supposed to be capturing. Isn’t it supposed to be capturing an area where the transactions costs of debating, organizing and implementing political decisions are the lowest for a given population of people? Does anyone find it reasonable that hundreds of miles of straight lines demarcate those areas? Now, I can be persuaded that when surveying techniques were primitive it was, perhaps, cost effective to map areas in this way, and looking at the somewhat less “neat” shapes of the counties east of the Mississippi does give some credence to this.
Think of the problems with drawing county lines this way (and a related problem that we have discussed in the past — that it is rare for counties to change, disappear, merge, grow, etc.). It is sort of like a doctor trying to do a lung transplant not by cutting out just the damaged organ, but by drawing a large rectangle around the area that the lung occupies and pulling out any and everything that occupies that space. No careful consideration of what other organs or veins or arteries or muscles may be in that shape. No careful appreciation for whether the new lung would work as well in this stunted environment. You get the idea.
Now imagine that the establishment of county boundaries was actually the product of the actual choices of citizens about county rules and bureaucrats they would most prefer to be affiliated with. Do you think the county lines would look anywhere near what they do today? Or if they did, would they be so … pretty? Think about how changes might work. For all homes on the border of current counties, perhaps they get to choose, as part of their annual tax filings, which set of institutions and taxes they wish to be governed by. For example, our home here in Rochester is in Monroe County, but we are very close to Wayne County. Our kids do not go to public school and we patronize as many amenities outside of our county (probably more) than inside of it. Would it make sense for us to decide whether we’d like to be governed under the Ontario county rules? I would say so, and I do not see how this would be any more administratively confusing and difficult than picking a cell phone service provider. You probably would not even have to do it only for homes near the borders. Maybe the way to do it is that every two years, all residents within a county get to choose from a bundle of governance structures that prevail in any of the 5 closest counties. Or perhaps even get to choose bundles of services from across the different counties.
These are not new ideas. But the map should be a real shock to anyone who appreciates the spontaneous order of other institutions as compared to these. And the idea that we could possibly have a modicum of political choice but yet there has been virtually no effort, anywhere, to institute such choice demonstrates the rigidity, lack of real “change”, and lack of entrepreneurialism in the political sphere that is obviously not a feature of the market sphere.