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On the Theory and Practise of Fiscal Decentralization

  • Wallace E. Oates

    ()

    (Department of Economics, University of Maryland)

The traditional theory of public finance has made a strong case for a major role for fiscal decentralization. This case is based on an improved allocation of resources in the public sector. And it has four basic elements. First, regional or local governments are in a position to adapt outputs of public services to the preferences and particular circumstances of their constituencies, as compared to a central solution which presumes that one size fits all. Second, in a setting of mobile households, individuals can seek out jurisdictions that provide outputs well suited to their tastes, thereby increasing the potential gains from the decentralized provision of public services (Tiebout 1956). Third, in contrast to the monopolist position of the central government, decentralized levels of government face competition from their neighbors; such competition constrains budgetary growth and provides pressures for the efficient provision of public services. And fourth, decentralization may encourage experimentation and innovation as individual jurisdictions are free to adopt new approaches to public policy; in this way, decentralization can provide a valuable Alaboratory for fiscal experiments. However, this basic economic rationale for decentralization of the public sector is not quite so simple and compelling as it appears. Some of the more recent literature provides, first, a thoughtful and provocative critique of the traditional view of fiscal decentralization, and, second, some new approaches that reveal its dark side, especially in practice. There is emerging, in short, a broader perspective on fiscal decentralization that raises some serious questions about its capacity to provide an unambiguously positive contribution to an improved performance of the public sector. My purpose in this paper is twofold. First, I want to review the basic theory of fiscal decentralization. There are some loose ends to the traditional argument that open up some intriguing issues. Second, I want to turn to some of new literature on fiscal discipline in multilevel government. This literature has focused attention on some basic and destructive forces that can undermine the economic performance of a relatively decentralized public sector. I find it helpful to begin by revisiting a Decentralization Theorem that I formulated long ago. As a point of departure, I want to explain briefly why I introduced the proposition and the rationale for its particular form and proof.

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Paper provided by CREI Università degli Studi Roma Tre in its series Working Papers with number 0701.

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Length: 20 pages
Date of creation: 2007
Date of revision: Jan 2007
Handle: RePEc:rcr:wpaper:07_01
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  1. Robin W. Boadway & Frank R. Flatters, 1982. "Efficiency and Equalization Payments in a Federal System of Government: A Synthesis and Extension of Recent Results," Canadian Journal of Economics, Canadian Economics Association, vol. 15(4), pages 613-33, November.
  2. Seabright, Paul, 1996. "Accountability and decentralisation in government: An incomplete contracts model," European Economic Review, Elsevier, vol. 40(1), pages 61-89, January.
  3. Jonathan A. Rodden & Gunnar S. Eskeland (ed.), 2003. "Fiscal Decentralization and the Challenge of Hard Budget Constraints," MIT Press Books, The MIT Press, edition 1, volume 1, number 0262182297, June.
  4. Wildasin, David E., 1997. "Externalities and bailouts : hard and soft budget constraints in intergovernmental fiscal relations," Policy Research Working Paper Series 1843, The World Bank.
  5. Kornai, J, 1979. "Resource-Constrained versus Demand-Constrained Systems," Econometrica, Econometric Society, vol. 47(4), pages 801-19, July.
  6. Prud'homme, Remy, 1995. "The Dangers of Decentralization," World Bank Research Observer, World Bank Group, vol. 10(2), pages 201-20, August.
  7. Rubinfeld, Daniel L., 1987. "The economics of the local public sector," Handbook of Public Economics, in: A. J. Auerbach & M. Feldstein (ed.), Handbook of Public Economics, edition 1, volume 2, chapter 11, pages 571-645 Elsevier.
  8. Yingyi Qian & Barry R. Weingast, 1997. "Federalism as a Commitment to Preserving Market Incentives," Working Papers 97042, Stanford University, Department of Economics.
  9. Antonio Estache & J. Cremer & Paul Seabright, 1996. "Decentralizing Public Services: What can we learn from the Theory of the Firm?," ULB Institutional Repository 2013/44016, ULB -- Universite Libre de Bruxelles.
  10. Lockwood, Ben, 1999. "Inter-regional insurance," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 72(1), pages 1-37, April.
  11. J. Kornai & E. Maskin & G. Roland., 2004. "Understanding the Soft Budget Constraint," VOPROSY ECONOMIKI, N.P. Redaktsiya zhurnala "Voprosy Economiki", vol. 12.
  12. Weingast, Barry R, 1995. "The Economic Role of Political Institutions: Market-Preserving Federalism and Economic Development," Journal of Law, Economics and Organization, Oxford University Press, vol. 11(1), pages 1-31, April.
  13. Charles M. Tiebout, 1956. "A Pure Theory of Local Expenditures," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 64, pages 416.
  14. Flatters, Frank & Henderson, Vernon & Mieszkowski, Peter, 1974. "Public goods, efficiency, and regional fiscal equalization," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 3(2), pages 99-112, May.
  15. Timothy Goodspeed, 2002. "Bailouts in a Federation," International Tax and Public Finance, Springer, vol. 9(4), pages 409-421, August.
  16. Qian, Yingyi & Roland, Gerard, 1998. "Federalism and the Soft Budget Constraint," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 88(5), pages 1143-62, December.
  17. James M. Buchanan & Richard E. Wagner, 1970. "An Efficiency Basis for Federal Fiscal Equalization," NBER Chapters, in: The Analysis of Public Output, pages 139-162 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  18. Yoram Barzel, 1969. "Two propositions on the optimum level of producing collective goods," Public Choice, Springer, vol. 6(1), pages 31-37, March.
  19. Besley, Timothy & Coate, Stephen, 2003. "Centralized versus decentralized provision of local public goods: a political economy approach," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 87(12), pages 2611-2637, December.
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