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Perspective

The Positive Power of Preemption

Sometimes, state lawmakers can step in to force cities to do the right thing.
Can a meddling statehouse be good for recalcitrant cities? You bet.
Can a meddling statehouse be good for recalcitrant cities? You bet. Madison McVeigh/Wikipedia/CityLab

A recurring narrative today involves the battle between progressive-leaning cities and more conservative state governments, which often step in to preempt local laws on minimum-wage increases, immigration enforcement, environmental protection, and other hot-button issues. From an urbanist perspective, such state preemption efforts are typically framed as attacks on the sovereignty of cities. But is taking power away from city hall fundamentally a bad thing?

Americans love local government after all. But local governments face their own set of bad incentives that predictably lead to bad policymaking. Cities are apt to misbehave in many areas that impact the quality of urban life; sometimes, state preemption should be a welcome corrective.