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May 2, 2005

federalism, for liberals

There are good tactical reasons for the American left to embrace federalism, just as Republicans in the era of George W. Bush have favored the national government at the expense of the states (witness No Child Left Behind and the Patriot Act). In the nation as a whole, there is a slim majority that's culturally conservative, yet many large states are culturally liberal. Therefore, if states make their own policies, many Americans will live in jurisdictions that provide access to abortion, stem-cell research, education that mentions Darwin, and gun control. But if the federal government dominates, all these policies will be threatened--everywhere.

Meanwhile, states are in a position to address social problems if they can innovate freely. For instance, it should be possible to cut the cost of health care almost in half while improving outcomes. After all, our government spends as much per capita on health care as European states do, and then American citizens spend thousands of dollars more on private insurance, deductibles, and fees--all the while leaving 40 million people without preventative care. A state could solve this problem, but only if it could withdraw from Medicare and Medicaid and spend the same amount of money on a single-payer system. Likewise, we spend billions on farm subsidies that drive up consumer prices, harm nature, and reduce incomes in the developing world. Many a "blue" state (predominantly urban and suburban) could opt out of the subsidy system, save money, and improve agriculture. States could also experiment with legalizing marijuana or reforming criminal sentences.

Since the New Deal (but not before that) liberals have been the main defenders of the national government, while conservatives have made principled arguments in favor of states' rights and decentralization. The high-minded arguments on both sides often go like this:

federalist: First of all, state governments are closer to the people, so they should exercise more power than the federal government does. Indeed, for democratic reasons, we should honor what Europeans call "subsidiarity": the principle that authority should always be concentrated at the lowest practical level. Second, federalism enhances pluralism. We live in a diverse nation; one set of policies cannot benefit everyone equally or reflect local values. Third, states retain rights as the original parties that contracted together to form a constitutional union. Finally, as Brandeis said, states are laboratories of democracy. They can experiment at an appropriate scale (big enough to matter, but small enough to limit the consequences of mistakes.)

nationalist: The United States is one market with free movement of human beings, goods, and capital. One market requires one set of consistent policies. It is simply inefficient to have 50 sets of regulations that firms and individuals must comply with. Besides, if states set their own policies, they will compete in harmful ways. They will try to externalize their problems by, for example, allowing their industrial plants to pollute downwind states, or cutting welfare benefits so that poor people will move away, or skimping on education and then recruiting workers whom other states have educated. The result will be a race to the bottom. Finally, we are one national community, bound together by a shared mass culture and common history. We have moral obligations to everyone in this community. Residents of Connecticut should provide assistance to the Mississippi Delta; Nebraskans should care about Brooklynites, and vice-versa.

I have called these "principled" arguments, as if they were general and abstract. In fact, they are almost all contingent. They depend on changeable matters, such as one's social priorities, the nature of the national majority versus the majority in various states at any given time, and the most serious problems of the day. (The one truly principled argument is the claim that states retain rights from before the ratification of the Constitution, but this doesn't move me at all, because I'm only concerned about human beings, not about regimes.)

Because the high-sounding arguments for and against federalism actually depend on shifting conditions, the left and the right have regularly traded places. At any given time, one can usually hear passionate, and probably sincere, arguments in favor of federalism coming from the side that stands to benefit most from it. During the Progressive Era, many liberals (with the exception of Herbert Croly and his friends) favored decentralization and "home rule," because they believed that they could build experimental, progressive regimes in places like Milwaukee and New York State if the conservative national majority just left them alone. Republicans were nationalists who "waved the bloody flag" and charged Democrats with "rebellion" (as well as "rum" and "Romanism"). From the 1930s through the 1960s, mainstream Northern Democrats often favored a strong national government because they saw local governments as bastions of racism and corruption, both in the rural South and the big-city North. Besides, they had a governing coalition behind them, while conservatives were a national minority. Republicans and Dixiecrats became the guardians of localism.

I think that the tactical situation today again makes decentralization a good deal for the left and a bad one for conservatives. Furthermore, I'm unimpressed by the principled arguments for or against federalism. Therefore, the left should seize the states' banner--in the pragmatic tradition of Louis Brandeis. Let Massachusetts, Maryland, California, Washington State, and New York be laboratories of democracy for awhile, and let the South and Great Plains go their own way.

Unfortunately, real federalism would require difficult changes in national policy. States cannot experiment if one third of their budgets are devoted to highly regulated federal health programs, if their schools are governed by federal rules, and if their criminal laws are set by Congress. Perhaps liberals could join with conservative supporters of states rights to form a new coalition for decentralization--call it the "live and let live" movement.

May 2, 2005 7:08 AM | category: revitalizing the left | Comments


I'm not a big fan of "federalism as a liberal principle" meme. Here in Washington State, several King County (Seattle) lawyers are pushing a return to federalist principles to allow the state to liberalize its drug laws. It felt very contrived -- ignoring the question of whether increasing the frequency of unhealthy behavior is a "liberal" aim or not.

Likewise, in the wake of the 2004 election there was a non-trivial sentiment to "cut off" the Red States, which are almost all net receivers of federal tax dollars, from the money they get from the blue states, which are almost all net payers of federal tax dollars. This would wreak havoc on the areas of the country where poverty is already a very large problem.

Matthew Yglesias sums up his opposition to "liberal federalism" in this post on inequality in education, which I largely agree with.

But, of course, conservative support for states' rights is really a proxy for moving power and decision making to the place where the most ideologically friendly decision makers are.

The exceptions are few and far between. Senator Lindsay Graham (R-SC) is a pretty honest states' rights conservative, and has voted against a lot of the federal GOP tort reform stuff. But most of the real "local control" conservatives--people like Dick Armey (R-TX), Bob Barr (R-GA), and so forth--have given up the ghost to the practitioners of "big government conservatism". You can get a good list of such conservatives by finding the House Republicans who voted against NCLB.

It's unclear to me whether liberal support for a strong federal government is/was a similar proxy for moving power to places where supporters for their ideals were the most common or not.

May 2, 2005 2:44 PM | Comments (2) | posted by Nick Beaudrot

Oh. You covered most of this already. I just didn't read the middle third of your post closely enough.

May 2, 2005 2:57 PM | Comments (2) | posted by Nick Beaudrot

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