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The American county
New Jersey, Virginia, and the Holy Roman Empire
When I moved to Virginia, I went through that dismal rite of passage: exchanging my driver’s license. At the DMV, I filled out a form. I wrote down my address, starting with the familiar street, city, and ZIP code. But then I needed to check a box to indicate either “City of” or “County of” and fill in a blank. I had moved to Arlington County, so I checked “County of” and wrote “Arlington.”
After I finished the form, I passed the time by eavesdropping on the applicant in line ahead of me. They were confused.
Applicant: I just moved to Falls Church, Virginia. My postal address is Falls Church, so surely my “city” is Falls Church. What is the “county” checkbox for?
DMV employee: Do you live in the City of Falls Church, or the County of Falls Church?
Applicant: Well, I live in the city, and I guess the city is in the county? So both?
DMV employee: That’s impossible. The city cannot be in the county.
Applicant: Wait, why not?
DMV employee (spreading arms in a meaningful gesture): The city is the city, and the county is the county.
I understood why the applicant was confused. In New Jersey, where I grew up, every square foot of land is in one of 564 municipalities, and each municipality is in one of 21 counties. Every city is in one county, and every county is made up of cities. This is a sensible system, and many states have something similar.
Virginia is a little different. Virginia is divided into 95 counties and 38 “independent cities.” Every square foot of land in Virginia is either in a county or a “city.” The cities are functionally equivalent to the counties; they are just smaller in terms of land area. So a “city,” in this sense, cannot be in a county.
Confusingly, these “cities” are not the city in your postal address. And in four extra-confusing cases, a Virginia county and a city share the same name: Fairfax, Franklin, Richmond, and Roanoke. For example, Fairfax City is legally distinct from, but surrounded by, Fairfax County. If that wasn’t confusing enough, ponder this: Fairfax City is the county seat of Fairfax County, so the county’s “capital” is not actually in the county.
The US Census, which uses counties for tabulation purposes, collectively calls entities like Virginia’s independent cities “county-equivalents.” For example, Louisiana’s parishes are basically just counties, and the District of Columbia is considered a single county-equivalent. This system works neatly for 49 states and all the territories.
Alaska is the exception. Unlike any other state, Alaska actually doesn’t divide all of its land area into counties or county-equivalents. Instead, it has 19 “organized boroughs.” The rest of the land in Alaska, a huge swath larger in area than Texas but with fewer than 100,000 people, is “unorganized.” The Census divides the Unorganized Borough into 11 Census areas, which it considers county-equivalents for its own tabulation purposes.
The complexity of US counties reminds me of the “small states” of the Holy Roman Empire. The Empire was the most powerful monarchy in Europe during the early Middle Ages, but it slowly declined, in part because of its internal political complexity.
The Empire was not a single state, but instead a collection of states. When the Empire first formed, it consisted of about four kingdoms. Those four kings together elected one Holy Roman Emperor to rule over all of them. Through the years, the Empire split into over 300 individual, sovereign states. This fission was due to inheritance rules. For example, a prince ruling a moderate-sized state might divide his state into smaller states when he died. Through time, some states became very small. Some were no larger than a single city. Sometimes even a single monastery or abbey would be its own sovereign state.
Even as states were going through fission, there were also fusing. When nobles married, they would unite different states, even if they weren’t adjacent. The simultaneous processes of fission and fusion led to a confusing patchwork of enclaves and exclaves.
The political geography was only one aspect of a larger political problem. States had to make agreements with other states, leading to a mind-numbingly complex political landscape. If someone wanted to get elected emperor and they didn’t have the money or political power to do it outright, they would need to strike a bargain, making concessions to the many “princelets.”
In retrospect, it seems inevitable that this immensely complex system would fall to an aggressive, more centralized neighbor. Under pressure from Napoleon, starting in 1802, the Empire “mediatized,” meaning that the very small states were absorbed into larger ones. The number of states decreased from about 300 down to 39. In 1806, the Empire officially dissolved, and Napoleon took a large chunk. The remainder limped on until it became part of a unified Germany under the Prussians.
It might be tempting to make a Napoleon-like fix of US counties. But there are cautionary tales. The UK had historic counties set up by the Angles and Saxons hundreds of years ago. In 1889, the historic counties were replaced by “administrative” counties. This reform wasn’t sufficient, and in 1974, the administrative counties were replaced by “metropolitan and non-metropolitan” counties. The postal system had a nearly identical, but not totally identical set of “postal” counties, which were used from 1974 to 1996.
So if it ain’t very broke, don’t fix it?