Feed on

Boxy, But Good?

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.

7 Responses to “Boxy, But Good?”

  1. Interesting points. Within those counties – at least here in Michigan and other states organized on the New England “township” plan – within those rectangular counties are even squarer townships. Within those, however, city corporation limits are more “natural.” However, as convenient as rivers are for forming the the boundaries that create rivalries there is nothing written in the stars that says that you are never allowed to cross the river. In other words, what borders are inherently objective?

    We choose a multiplicity of changing social memberships and we adhere to their many laws, bylaws, rules, and folkways.

    I helped write the Code of Conduct for the Michigan State Numismatic Society. As long as I am a member, I am bound by it. If I leave, I am not. However, not being a member should send a message to any potential client that I may not be trustworthy. We often warn the general public about doing business with coin dealers who are not members of the American Numismatic Association, the ANS, the Professional Numismatists Guild, or the International Association of Professional Numismatists.

    In addition, people join churches, lodges, teams, clubs, societies, and associations that govern their conduct. On one job we had a rule among the workers (not a company policy) that if your cellphone went off in a meeting, you had to fill the chocolate dish. We navigate them all.

    Some are more consequential than others.

  2. Sanket says:


  3. chuck martel says:

    Counties are political subdivisions much as states are. What’s amazing to me is that unlike school districts, adjoining counties have not consolidated to take advantage of the advances in technology and transportation. Most counties were formed in the 19th century when personal transportation was on foot or horseback and communication was by messenger or post. Can tax payers afford the administrative duplication inherent in adjoining counties? In fact, using the District of Columbia as a physical seat for the national government is an anachronism that should be abolished. Representatives and senators could just as easily communicate, deal and vote from their own constituencies as they do in Washington and their dispersal would at least make it more expensive for organized lobbying.

  4. Roger says:

    The pattern that seems interesting to me is how the size of counties keeps growing as you go West. This is not a simple function of density, as there are some REALLY sparse areas in the midwest.

    Is it a reflection of densities at some point in time? Is it a reflection of densities at point of statehood? Is it a reflection of the decrease in travel and communication times and increase in communication ease as we go West to newer counties? Or perhaps has the concept of county become less important over time?

    An anomaly is the super small size of counties in Georgia, Tennessee and Kentucky.

  5. Michael says:

    I’ve been told Missouri counties were based on the travel time; how far a man can go in one day on horseback.

  6. Harry says:

    I am not fooled, nor should be Unbroken Window fans. The map measures hits per hour to Wintercow’s blog when he was away retracing the steps of Jim Bridger minus the average posts per day by anyone named Rizzo, times the bucks created by QE2. Same info as the map to the right, just different colors.

  7. Rod says:

    Not only is our county, Montgomery County, PA, rectangular (more or less), but it is pitched at a diagonal, perpendicular to the city limits of Philadelphia.

    Seven years ago, I waged an editorial campaign in the newspaper for secession from Montgomery County and the formation of a new county, Perkiomen County, the county seat of which would be Pennsburg, in the northwestern corner of Montgomery County. While we are in a county adjacent to Philadelphia and only about an hour’s drive to City Hall, we have absolutely nothing in common, politically, with the Philadelphia suburbs. The current county seat is Norristown, a wretched borough where planners have tried and failed to bring prosperity to their dingy town. County government officials tend to regard our area as the frontier, as if it were 1720. We pay taxes to the county, and they reward the upper end of it by taking land and spending money on parks and horse trails. And their idea of a cutting the budget in tough times is to increase it by five percent. Secession is our only hope if we wish to revert to smaller, simpler county government. I say we combine the upper end of Montgomery and add to it the upper end of Bucks, the eastern part of Berks, and the southwestern corner of Lehigh. Oh, and that means the upper end minus Pottstown. Pottstown and Norristown are sister boroughs, perfect together.

Leave a Reply