Location, Location, and the Third One

ImagePolitical scientists Erik J. Engstrom, Jesse R. Hammond, and John T. Scott, each with the University of California, Davis, have completed an insightful and clever examination on the location and relocation of capitals.

The article, published in the recent American Political Science Review, begins by invoking James Madison’s counsel regarding the importance of equal access and the proximity of government, then tests whether it holds true for the location of capitals.

It turns out that it does.

The move from New York City to the new District of Columbia illustrates this principle. The United States broke with tradition by making its capital also the seat of government, rather than traditional religious or traditional authority.

More tellingly, however, is the extent to which individual states have also reflected this principle. That’s why we get capitals like Springfield, Baton Rouge, and Albany, instead of Chicago, New Orleans, and New York City. This rang true, even when it meant moving the seat of government—sometimes more than once. In fact, within the first 30 years of independence, 11 of the 13 original states of the Union relocated their capitals. Georgia wins the prize for the most moves, with 7.

The authors build on previous research that has found location of capitals positively correlated to higher levels of economic development lesser instances of corruption. These studies together suggest very strong normative recommendations for newly democratizing countries.

The article comes on the heels of Robert Kaplan’s new book, The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate. In it, Kaplan surveys important lessons from geography’s past (e.g., climate, topography, proximity) to make predictions about political futures, regarding Europe, China, the Middle East, and nearly everywhere with a population and a border.

The study of political geography will be increasingly important as advances in technology and communications make it easier to overlook the politics of place.

The article is: Erik J. Engstrom, Jesse R. Hammond, and John T. Scott, “Capitol Mobility: Madisonian Representation and the Location and Relocation of Capitals in the United States,” American Political Science Review 107/2 (May 2013): 225-240.