Untidy Business: Disaggregating State-Local Relations
The language of political science abounds with metaphor; indeed, upon careful examination theories often dissolve into metaphors writ large. Governmental institutions are portrayed as systems (cybernetic, mechanical, hierarchical, or otherwise), games, ships, partners, raging beasts, rational actors, irrational actors, cesspools--the list is virtually endless. The study of intergovernmental relations offers some colorful figures as well; layer cakes, marble cakes, picket fences, and bamboo fences adorn the literature of American federalism.
With few exceptions, these images mislead by their simplicity. Most local government officials would rejoice if their work were as simple as playing a game or even a series of games if they participated only in clear and explicit partnerships, if governing could be reduced to the logical calculation of strategic decisionmaking or rational choice theory. The multiplication of metaphors should alert observers to the messiness of the reality they try to depict. In general, the reigning images err by characterizing governments as relatively self-contained spheres with a relatively clear ("sovereign") source of authority. To describe state-local relations adequately one must instead disaggregate them into all their complicated particularity.
At the risk of injecting still another metaphor into the discussion, I contend that students of governmental relations might do well to reflect on the changes in modern biology's view of the cell. In place of the nucleus embedded within a relatively rigid membrane, modern biology envisions the cell as internally complex with complicated information and com-