Local Governments and Economic Freedom: A Test of the Leviathan Hypothesis

Publication Date



Geoffrey Brennan and James M. Buchanan, in their 1980 book The Power to Tax, hypothesize that “the potential for fiscal exploitation varies inversely with the number of competing governmental units in the inclusive territory.” This paper tests that theory at the local level using data for US metropolitan statistical areas (MSA). MSAs are constructed on the basis of commuting patterns and are meant to delineate the local economy. Because of their construction, MSAs typically contain several distinct and nonoverlapping political jurisdictions, each with the power to tax residents, mitigate local externalities, and provide local public goods. Following previous literature, we measure “competing governmental units” using the number of general-purpose local governments within an MSA, adjusted for land area and population. In contrast to previous work, which uses less comprehensive measures of “fiscal exploitation,” we test Brennan and Buchanan’s “Leviathan hypothesis” using various measures of MSA economic freedom, rather than more limited measures of spending or revenue, as our dependent variable. We find mixed evidence that the number of competing jurisdictions is positively associated with economic freedom. When examining the individual components of economic freedom, we find a positive and statistically significant relationship with labor market freedom but only a weak relationship with government spending or taxes. These results offer mixed support for the Leviathan hypothesis, though support strengthens when metro areas in the South are excluded.

Document Type



federalism, local taxation, decentralization, regional migration, economic freedom


Other Business




SMU Cox: Other (Topic)