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The entrepreneurial powers of local government: Dillon's Rule revisited

Kenneth F Payne, University of Massachusetts Amherst


This dissertation shows that Dillon's Rule, which holds that local governments have no powers except those conferred on them by state constitution or law, is no longer a reasonable basis for limiting the economic development powers of local government in the United States. The Rule was a nineteenth formulation. Economic development, it is now understood, requires local governments to act creatively and be responsive to locally specific conditions and opportunities. However, according to Dillon's Rule, which is the fundamental expression of local government powers in the United States, local governments enjoy neither negative nor positive liberty; they cannot be creative except as authorized by the state. An express purpose of Dillon's Rule was to prevent local governments from fostering or engaging in economic activity that could be undertaken by the private sector. Dillon's Rule was promulgated in the nineteenth century and definitively adopted by the U.S. Supreme Court in the early twentieth century. Judge John F. Dillon, architect of the Rule, argued that the Rule was historically correct, prudent, derived from sound theory, and consistent with precedent. This dissertation critically examines these four arguments in light of subsequent scholarship. It also questions whether the Rule remains useful and concludes that it does not. It contextualizes the Rule showing that its promulgation made sense in terms of the early history of Iowa local government, that its adoption was in keeping with laissez-faire capitalism and Progressivism, and that its acceptance was consistent with the cultural logic of the welfare state. The dissertation uses history to provide a liberation from an embedded formulation. The dissertation is the first work to analyze Dillon's arguments supporting the Rule in the light of subsequent scholarship and participates in “unthinking” the nineteenth century. It contributes to the understanding both of the relationship between planning and power and of the constitutive role that economic development can play in the formation and maintenance of vibrant local communities.

Subject Area

Urban planning|Area planning & development|Political science

Recommended Citation

Payne, Kenneth F, "The entrepreneurial powers of local government: Dillon's Rule revisited" (2003). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3110542.