Progressives should take a second look at competitive federalism
In the comments the other day Jivatman asked what sort of system of governance I would prefer. More and more I think I’d fit in nicely in a modern Northern-European style social-democracy – open to free trade but generous in terms of safety nets, more emphasis on community and mass transit and strong education systems and so forth, but also very amenable to business.
The problem of course is that America is not Sweden. What works in Sweden will not necessarily work here in this very big, very diverse, and heavily populated America. And so I’m left wondering if progressive political ambitions are simply wonky pipe dreams, and whether a more decentralized political solution wouldn’t be a much more sensible alternative. Indeed, I think progressive political philosophy would benefit a great deal from an infusion of competitive federalism. Perhaps this is one of those items on the liberal-tarian agenda – achieving liberal ends through libertarian means.
After all, we will always have a decentralized system but one which is overwhelmingly skewed toward federal power when it comes to foreign policy and always systemically vulnerable to capture by powerful special interests. Why not cripple the powers of the federal government, rein in the executive’s war-making capability, and handicap the ability of special interests to spread their influence nationally, all while returning some of the tax burden to the states where they would be free to drum up whatever sort of governments they deemed best for their populations?
I know that competitive federalism is a traditionally conservative concept, but why shouldn’t liberals embrace it as well?
Blue states contribute more to the federal coffers than they get back in return. Perhaps this is the point, and egalitarian liberals feel duty-bound to continue this imbalance. But if you were to turn the tables, these liberal states could create little social democracies of their own, while red states would largely be left with less money than before, but with more autonomy and more self-determination.
Turning Massachusetts into Sweden would be a far easier task than turning the US into Sweden. Massachusetts’ education results are already on par with Japan and Finland, and that state crafted its own healthcare plan long before the federal government stole the idea.
Cities like Houston have prospered by creating friendly business climates and looser zoning restrictions, while other cities have declined due to poor governance or dying industries. Other cities, such as Portland, have created green, walkable communities and succeed by fostering local cultural institutions, artists, and so forth. (This is all brought to mind by Reason’s recent documentary Reason Saves Cleveland which was good but which, I think, left out a number of factors and skewed the symptoms and solutions toward the Houston-fix over the Portland-fix. Obviously poor regulations and ridiculous tax rates aren’t going to save a city, but there is more to a city than its business climate, and I think Portland is a good example of another path.)
One-size-fits-all solutions don’t work in America, though I don’t really buy the dynamist/statist division either and for the same reasons. We need to allow Americans the room to experiment and discover the best possible system of governance, the best possible mix of public and private institutions. We need to ‘keep America weird’ as Reihan Salam put it – and a lot of very blue, progressive places in this country are also quite dynamic, exciting, and prosperous regardless of their so-called statist policies. They will flourish all the more with increased autonomy.
We can achieve social democracy in America, but perhaps it can be done better at the state level. Similarly, states like Texas can better achieve their own deregulated, free market aims if they’re not constrained by federal mandates and red tape.
I could very easily be wrong. Perhaps the states really don’t have what it takes to absorb this sort of responsibility. Perhaps this would be detrimental to our global competitiveness. Certainly the incompetence of many state legislatures across the country should serve as cautionary tales against this sort of move, and certainly many of the things we dislike about government are done at the local and state levels.
Indeed, I’m not really a states-rights advocate myself (though this is quite possibly colored by my own distaste for my state’s government). I’m more interested in practical politics, and at some point you just have to question how effective the federal government can be and whether taking politics down to a smaller scale simply makes better, more pragmatic sense. Furthermore, if less emphasis were placed on national politics, and more tax revenues went directly to the states rather than the feds, perhaps we’d see a real shift toward more competent state government as well.
Maybe somewhere in all of this is a healthy balance and we simply haven’t achieved that yet.