A Normative Theory of Local Government: Connecting Individual Autonomy and Local Self-Determination with Democracy


  • Gissur Ó Erlingsson Linköping University, Centre for Municipal Studies, Department for Studies of Social Change and Culture
  • Jörgen Ödalen Linköping University, Political Science, Department of Management and Engineering




local self-government, local autonomy, democratic theory, constitutional heory


The issue of local government reform is high on the agenda in many developed democracies. The discussion is often framed in narrow terms, focusing on functional efficiency. In this article, we construct a normative argument for local government that values local government because it fulfills morally desirable purposes in itself, regardless of its functional efficiency. The argument is that the same foundational value – individual autonomy – constitutes the normative underpinning of both democracy and the right to local self-government. The implication is that if we value democracy, we must defend a strong and constitutionally protected local government.

Author Biographies

  • Associate Professor

  • Adjunct Senior Lecturer


Askim, J., Klausen, J. E., Valbo, S. I. & Bjurstrøm, K. (2016) What Causes Municipal Amalgamation Reform? Rational Explanations Meet Western European Experiences, 2004–13, In: Kuhlmann, S. & Bouckaert, G. (eds.) Local Public Sector Reforms in Times of Crisis (Houndmills: Palgrave).
Baldersheim, H. & Rose, L. E. (2010) Territorial Choice: Rescaling Governance in European States, In: Baldersheim, H. & Rose, L. E. (eds.) Territorial Choice. The Politics of Boundaries and Borders (Houndmills: Palgrave).
Blom-Hansen, J., Houlberg, K., Serritzlew, S. & Treisman, D. (2016) Jurisdiction Size and Local Government Policy Expenditure: Assessing the Effect of Municipal Amalgamation, American Political Science Review, 110(4), pp. 812-831, doi: 10.1017/S0003055416000320.
Boudreau, J. A. & Keil, R. (2001) Seceding from Responsibility? Secession Movements in Los Angeles, Urban Studies, 38(10), pp. 1701-1731, doi: 10.1080/00420980120084822.
Buchanan, A. (1998) Democracy and Secession, In: Moore, M. (ed.) National Self-Determination and Secession (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
Chandler, J. A. (2010) A rationale for local government, Local Government Studies, 36(1), pp. 5-20, doi: 10.1080/03003930903445657.
Chandler, J. A. (2008) Liberal justifications for local government in Britain: The triumph of expediency over ethics, Political Studies, 56(2), pp. 355-373, doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9248.2007.00700.x.
Copp, D. (1997) Democracy and Communal Self-Determination, In McMahan, J. & McKim, R. (eds.) The Morality of Nationalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
Dahl, R. A. (1989) Democracy and its Critics (New Haven and London: Yale University Press).
Erlingsson, G. Ó. & Ödalen, J. (2013) How Should Local Government Be Organized? Reflections from a Swedish Perspective, Local Government Studies, 39(1), pp. 22-46, doi: 10.1080/03003930.2012.744967.
Falch, T. (1999) Stat, kommune og velgere: Kommunesektorens politiske økonomi, Norsk Økonomisk Tidsskrift, 113(2), pp. 89-113.
Hirschman, A. O. (1970) Exit, Voice and Loyalty (Cambridge: Harvard University Press).
Kant, I. (1785/2002) Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (London: Routledge).
Kjellberg, F. (1995) The Changing Values of Local Government, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 540, pp. 40-50, doi: 10.1177/0002716295540000004.
Mackenzie, W. J. M. (1961) Theories of Local Government (London: London School of Economics and Political Science).
Mill, J. S. (1861) Considerations on Representative Government (London: Parker, Son, & Bourn).
Moore, M. (1998) Introduction: The Self-Determination Principle and the Ethics of Secession, In: Moore, M. (ed.) National Self-Determination and Secession (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
Philpott, D. (1995) In Defense of Self-Determination, Ethics, 105(2), pp. 352-385, doi: 10.1086/293704.
Philpott, D. (1998) Self-Determination in Practice, In: Moore, M. (ed.) National Self-Determination and Secession (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
Pratchett, L. (2004) Local Autonomy, Local Democracy and the ’New Localism’, Political Studies, 52(2), pp. 358-375, doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9248.2004.00484.x.
Sunstein, C. R. (1991a) Preferences and Politics, Philosophy and Public Affairs, 20(1), pp 3-34.
Sunstein, C. R. (1991b) Constitutionalism and Secession, University of Chicago Law Review, 58(2), pp 633-670.
Smith, J. T. (1851) Local Self-Government and Centralization (London: John Chapman).
Vetter, A. & Kersting, N. (2003) Democracy versus efficiency? Comparing local government reforms across Europe, In: Kersting, N. & Vetter, A. (eds.) Reforming Local Government in Europe. Closing the Gap Between Democracy and Efficiency (Opladen: Leske & Budrich).
Weinstock, D. (2001) Constitutionalizing the Right to Secede, Journal of Political Philosophy, 9(2), pp. 182-203, doi: 10.1111/1467-9760.00124.
Wolman, H. & Goldsmith, M. (1990) Local Autonomy as a Meaningful Analytic Concept, Urban Affairs Quarterly, 26(1), pp. 3-27, doi: 10.1177/004208169002600101.