Local Government Article 123 Harv. L. Rev. 482

Mobile Capital, Local Economic Regulation, and the Democratic City



This Article examines local efforts to regulate mobile capital. Despite the conventional wisdom that subnational governments cannot effectively control or redistribute capital, cities have increasingly sought to do just that. This Article describes these efforts, which include putting conditions on the entry of development dollars through contract, excluding capital through anti—chain and anti—big box store laws, and redistributing from capital to labor through local minimum wage laws and other labor-friendly legislation. The Article describes the economic and political factors that have given rise to these local regulatory efforts and assesses the viability of local regulation of mobile capital. In the course of doing so, I argue that the mobility of capital drives a set of local political pathologies, all of which revolve around the governmental promotion of, participation in, and subsidization of private commercial enterprise. Geographically fixed cities are inclined both to give too much away in trying to attract mobile capital and to extract too much from capital once it has become fixed in place. These two political problems – giveaways and exploitation – explain the historical development of local government law as well as current approaches to the division of labor among city, state, and federal levels of government. The new “regulatory localism” challenges the proposition that industrial policy, redistribution, and other responses to global economic restructuring must be addressed at the national level. It also challenges the proposition that local economic development policies must necessarily be biased in favor of corporate capital.