Progressives should take a second look at competitive federalism


Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the contributor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.

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60 Responses

  1. Avatar Cascadian says:

    Count me on board. This has been my basic rant for years. I do think that State governance would improve if they weren’t tied so tightly to national politics. Washington is a great example of the problems of one party rule. There’s no way for a vibrant regional conservatism to develop when it’s tied to the National (Southern) iteration.Report

  2. Avatar greginak says:

    I’m not sure progressives would disagree with you in general, I know I wouldn’t. I think the sticking point would come over certain issues. Some things are just hard to figure in the general sense. Some issues truly are national issues so saying work on at the state level is just a massive dodge of responsibility. Also with some problems we are interconnected so a state level solution wouldn’t actually solve anything ( ex. acid rain). Finally on some issues, I’m thinking mostly of HCR at this point, I see the “do it at a state level” as an abandonment of people that runs counter to the moral argument for HCR in the first place. Or to pick a more obvious example, what would have been the moral calculation to say lets just do civil rights legislation on a state level in 1960.Report

    • Avatar JosephFM in reply to greginak says:

      @greginak, Yeah, Greg, this sort of gets at the main obstacle to this argument: While I probably share it less than many other liberals/progressives, I think communal identity has something do do with it. If you are more inclined to see people in other states as “fellow Americans”, or even “fellow humans”, to whom you have moral obligations beyond live and let live — well you’ll be reluctant to do so. (Of course, this attitude applies just as much the common enemy of libertarians and progressives, activist social conservatives.) It also depends on which issues have the most salience to individual progressives – a lot of the pro-choice movement, for instance, would never accept such a compromise because of the near-certainty that it would lead to abortion bans in much of the South and the Plains.

      If, like me though, you’re more locally inclined, and can bring yourself to accept that maybe leading by example, West Germany style, is a better option (confident in your belief that your own policy preferences will lead to better outcomes).

      That’s ignoring, of course, the problem of states like Florida, New York, Virginia, California, etc that have very strong regional political divisions within themselves – you’d need even more local autonomy than states (which generally control county boundaries and tax rates) typically allow now.

      But like I said, I actually mostly agree. Just trying to work out obstacles to this vision.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to JosephFM says:

        @JosephFM, we need more states. Like, 80 wouldn’t be too many.

        We’d also need more Congressmen. If not 1780 levels of representation, 1910 levels.

        And repeal the 17th Amendment. And limit Executive Power.

        And a pony.Report

        • Avatar Cascadian in reply to Jaybird says:

          @Jaybird, Or, people can just continue to move to places they’re comfortable with. I’ll second you on the pony of course… and add the 14th to the 17th.Report

        • Avatar Jivatman in reply to Jaybird says:


          1. As it currently stands, I favor abolishing the Senate. Senators are elected in the same way as reps, but have 3x longer terms and there are only 100.

          My favorite upper-house system is Germany’s, where senators are basically members of the state government’s cabinet, that is, directly responsible to the state government. However, in a parliamentary system, the ministers are directly responsible to the legislature and must maintain their confidence, not so in our system, thus I’d rather not make governors that powerful.

          Making the senator directly responsible to the legislature would require the legislature to vote on every decision the senator would take, and thus be too bureaucratic. Maybe a compromise is to simply give the majority the power of recall.

          As for the house, the one problem is redistricting. My personal preference is to make the house of reps use party-list PR which would eliminate the need for districts. I don’t think geography is relevant for national assembly unless members of that assembly are held as least somewhat responsible to, say, the state administration, as in paragraph above. Thus it’s better to make representation based on political ideology. I also think this would create more interest in politics among people than currently exists, where many people cannot name their reps, much less hold them responsible for how they vote. Grouping by ideology is somewhat more natural. Barring a total change to party list PR, adding a “negative vote” option would as least break up the two-party monopoly.

          Barring that, make all districts nationally drawn using a mathematic formula (perhaps written in an amendment to the constitution) that makes them as competitive as possible.

          Of course, all of the above is highly unlikely. Probably the most likely thing is term limits. After all, during the 1990’s, 23 states passed referendum on them, and gave their congressman term limits, until the supreme court overturned them all. The republican revolution even ran partially on support for term limits.

          However, the term limits I favor are not lifetime limits, but limits on consecutive terms to break the great, and still increasing power of incumbency and 95%+ reelection rates.

          In fact, consecutive term limits were the form mostly favored by founding fathers such as Franklin, Jefferson, and the anti-federalists, who of course studied Greece and Rome, which had them.Report

        • Avatar Kyle in reply to Jaybird says:


          Can we have like a repeal the 17th movement/party? Also, I never got my mule, so sign me up for the pony bandwagon.Report

      • Avatar Kyle in reply to JosephFM says:


        I think the regional divisions certainly matter and I wouldn’t actually mind some kind of breakup.

        Still it’s your first paragraph that strikes me. I see my neighbor as a fellow American as much as say an Iowan and an American as much a fellow human as a Canadian (hi Scott!).

        For that reason, if I see my neighbor struggling with a heavy box, I’ll offer to help. That’s neighborly. What I won’t do is go into his house and rearrange things because the new arrangement is objectively better for him and his family. I’m making an extreme analogy to highlight that live and let live doesn’t preclude cooperation or even a sense of social obligation to help, or at least offer to help.

        However, I do think there’s a pretty clear difference between we’re all in this together, let’s find ways to cooperate on various things and we’re all in this together so you must do certain things because it’s better for everyone.

        I think it’s the latter element of moral busybodiness that is so pungently off-putting about progressives and social conservatives, who have a shared tendency to use the power of the state to create social norms they believe are in the interests of “the people.” They really are two sides of the same coin.

        What I think is interesting here is the failure to learn from history, you can’t make good Christians at gun/sword point anymore than you can make good environmentally conscious citizens at tax(point?).

        You talk about the pro-choice crowd and maybe they’re proud of Roe’s influence in the heartland, but for someone in the heartland, in a community that would as soon as anything outlaw abortion, does anyone honestly think Roe as law has much of an effect? (sidenote, erik’s thoughts wouldn’t exactly undermine the state of abortion law throughout the nation) Probably not, if you’re in a community that is viciously homophobic, is an ENDA going to make your life easier? Nope.

        You can’t outlaw hate, what you can do however, is make it easier for communities to grow organically and for people to travel between them.

        Frankly, I wonder about the shared hubris of the progressive left’s and social conservative right’s almost compulsive need to comment on the myriad of ways in which other people are doing what they ought not to and level of certainty in acting to make them better people.Report

      • Avatar Kyle in reply to JosephFM says:


        Joseph, I just wanted to emphasize that this was more of a general comment spawned from what you said and not specifically directed at you.Report

        • Avatar JosephFM in reply to Kyle says:


          I got that. And I pretty much agree with you; I was just saying that if one is in fact a moral busybody, then Erik’s idea is pretty much a nonstarter.Report

  3. Avatar willybobo says:

    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.

    ED, I hear people say that often, but seldom do people explain what they mean. Why do you think that what works in Sweden can’t work in America? Certainly there’s no political will to reform in that direction, but I mean, in principle?Report

    • Avatar Cascadian in reply to willybobo says:

      @willybobo, I’d say that there’s more political diversity in the US than Sweden. Scandinavian countries, until very recently, have been rather homogeneous, where there are significant differences between the different regions of the US. When we dictate that both Oregon and Texas have to run on the same principles we deprive both.Report

      • Avatar Kyle in reply to Cascadian says:


        I would agree with Cascadian here and just go a bit further to say that – to our credit – what complicates our system is that compared to other countries the United States is far more inclusive of minorities, sometimes political but definitely cultural.Report

    • Avatar Simon K in reply to willybobo says:

      @willybobo, There’s a sense in most European countries – probably especially in the Nordic countries – of a common national interest that doesn’t supercede individual interests but has to at least be considered. That doesn’t exist in the US as a whole – we talk about Southern interests, Black interests, maybe Midwestern interests and New York City interests, but not really about the national interest in any coherent way. Hell, San Francisco and Los Angeles have nothing in common with each other – how do you think we feel about the rest of the country? In Sweden – even in England (though not really in Scotland) – you can talk about a national interest without just sounding propagandistic or crazy.Report

  4. Avatar Pat Cahalan says:

    The idea is essentially very attractive, but the question is what to do at the boundary conditions. In order for the states to have more autonomy, it must first actually be decided where the responsibility sphere of the federal government ends.

    Otherwise, you can get free-riding states anyway, and the exception scenarios don’t get any better.

    For example, if Louisiana decides enough is enough after this last oil spill, can they ban oil rigs… where? Obviously any rig within any reasonable delta of the Louisiana coastline can also be reasonably claimed to affect the Texas coastline – what if Texas is willing to take that aggregate risk? Who draws the line? If Texas is willing to take that aggregate risk but Louisiana is not, does Texas have to assume financial responsibility for catastrophic events should they impact Louisiana, too? What if Texas says they will, and then refuses to pony up the lucre?

    Do we dissolve the entity that is the national guard as a body that can be called upon authoritatively by the federal government and institute state guards? I personally like the idea of removing the national guardsmen from the head count of the normal military.

    It’s hard to have reasonable risk analysis and reasonable cost/benefit analysis when two parties are operating off of fundamentally different expressions of value. Now, one can argue that this is the case anyway now, and always will be the case, so there’s no reason not to try to move forward with a more decentralized governmental structure.

    It’s certainly the case that lack of support services means something completely different in an urban environment than in a rural one. You’re not going to get the same risk of epidemic in a rural environment, for one minor example. Assuming a general baseline of acceptable environmental conditions, you can drill a well in Wyoming and pump your own water… you can’t do that in San Francisco.

    If you don’t assign a barrier to exchange, then you also get moral hazard issues: some red-state might vote for no services until they get sick, and then they hop on a bus and go to Los Angeles, where they sop off the California taxpayer. Some Californians might buy property up in Montana and call it their primary residence, get out of paying into the CA system and still benefit from it.

    You can’t fix these sorts of exception scenarios with progressively fine-tuned language, unfortunately. You just make a bunch of legal loopholes, usually ones that are accessible only to those with a large set of economic advantages.

    I’m generally very supportive of the idea, E.D. (I love the endgame, at any rate), I’m just not sure how to get *there* from here.Report

  5. Avatar dan says:

    I’m sympathetic to your vision, but I think there are some major obstacles to getting there:

    1) One of the requirements for a social safety net is the ability to deficit-spend. The demand for things like unemployment benefits and food stamps increases during times of falling revenue. (This is also a virtue, since it builds counter-cyclicality into the system automatically and helps to shorten recessions.) But as things are states have to balance their budgets every year. You’d need the ability to really borrow money. And what happens a state (say California) defaults, threatening all the other states? You’d have a Greece-like crisis to deal with.

    2) The level of corruption in many states is way beyond what’s going on at the federal level.

    3) Most people pay only passing attention to politics. The minority who really care focus their attention on the federal level. People (mostly) identify as Americans, not as Ohioans or North Carolinians. Things weren’t always this way, but I have no clue how you go back. I think we’re stuck.

    All that said, ideas like this are definitely worth thinking about. Something feels rotten about the way America runs itself these days. Our current set-up is under a lot of strain.Report

    • Avatar ThatPirateGuy in reply to dan says:


      In my experience I’ve found that the likely sources of frustration for me come from state and local governments and senators.

      The common thread I find in these is that they privilege rural opinions out of proportion to their population.

      Example California has way more people than Mississippi, but Mississippi senators can easily obstruct the wishes of the california voter. In essence the Mississippi voter has more power per capita.

      I trust the feds more frankly. Espcially if we really did have a one man one vote system as opposed to the stupid senate 2 per state system.Report

  6. Avatar Aaron says:

    While I’m largely sympathetic to your overall vision, ED, I do think there’s a lot of trouble with getting there. I don’t think you could decouple these kinds of large-scale social programs state-to-state in the way your mean without creating a lot of internal tensions that might prove unsustainable. As it stands, much of Blue State America is propping up Red State America’s financial house (see, for example, the stimulus — degrade it on television, but brag about it at home). Federalism means that all fifty states are somewhere in a reasonable range of each other, economically and socially. Of course, there are outliers like Massachusetts that are way up, or Alabama and Arkansas that are way down, but in general I think it’s important to keep them all in a relatively related range. If they start clustering around the two poles, there’s going to be serious problems in all sorts of ways.

    The other thing I think this doesn’t take enough into account (all though you mention the progressive emphesis on equality) is that this kind of federalist social democracy is unfair for people who happen to live in a poorer area. Social mobility in the US is just vastly overstated — people who lose their jobs in Mississippi aren’t able to just pick up and move to New York looking for a new start: how do you get there? How do you find a job when you get there? Where do you stay? Et cetera. It’s a viscious irony that progressives are being taxed to support the southern poor while Republican and conservatives go on and on about economic freedoms for the rich but, well, somebody has to help them, right?Report

    • Avatar Bob in reply to Aaron says:

      As it stands, much of Blue State America is propping up Red State America’s financial house (see, for example, the stimulus — degrade it on television, but brag about it at home).


      Stimulus per capita
      1. District of Columbia: $5,170

      2. Alaska: $1,718

      3. Vermont: $1,320

      4. Massachusetts: $1,274

      5. Rhode Island: $1,234

      6. New York: $1,197

      7. North Dakota: $1,164

      8. Maine: $1,138

      9. Montana: $1,128

      10. South Dakota: $1,123

      11. Wyoming: $1,099

      12. Delaware: $1,086

      13. Michigan: $1,073

      14. Oregon: $1,046

      15. Connecticut: $1,023

      36. Kentucky: $858

      37. South Carolina: $855

      38. Missouri: $852

      39. Idaho: $841

      40. Arkansas: $831

      41. New Hampshire: $831

      42. Alabama: $828

      43. Louisiana: $824

      44. Florida: $804

      45. Georgia: $804

      46. Colorado: $796

      47. Kansas: $780

      48. Texas: $779

      49. Nebraska: $724

      50. Utah: $682

      51. Virginia: $647

      I see a lot of Blue at the top and a lot of Red at the bottom.Report

      • Avatar Cascadian in reply to Bob says:

        @Bob, Where’s Washington?Report

      • Avatar ThatPirateGuy in reply to Bob says:


        Hmm, do you have the numbers for welfare type spending? I think that is supposed to be a big part of it.Report

        • Avatar Bob in reply to ThatPirateGuy says:


          Social Spending per capita:
          1. District of Columbia $833.17
          2. New York $582.15
          3. Rhode Island $579.83
          4. Alaska $547.79
          5. Vermont $513.29
          6. West Virginia $513.18
          7. Massachusetts $506.20
          8. New Mexico $498.50
          9. Mississippi $494.09
          10. Maine $491.35
          11. Michigan $487.89
          12. North Dakota $487.61
          13. Louisiana $486.99
          14. Connecticut $470.81
          15. Delaware $464.99

          36. New Jersey $413.04
          37. Georgia $412.43
          38. Texas $408.87
          39. Washington $407.78
          40. Maryland $406.37
          41. Oregon $405.31
          42. Florida $401.53
          43. Wisconsin $400.43
          44. Kansas $400.04
          45. Nebraska $397.64
          46. Idaho $397.08
          47. New Hampshire $392.64
          48. Utah $372.95
          49. Virginia $368.18
          50. Colorado $365.73
          51. Nevada $357.00

          Again more Blues at top and even that the bottom if you discount purple states like Colorado, Virginia and Nevada. Although those states only recently went blue and you just as easily count them Red.Report

      • Avatar Aaron in reply to Bob says:

        @Bob, and if you put some population figures next to those numbers, you might come up with some interesting correlations. I’m talking about dollars contributed per dollar received.. You may also notice that blue states have a much higher percentage of the population than the red states.Report

        • Avatar Aaron in reply to Aaron says:

          @Aaron, Gasp! Redistribution of wealth! That’s the socialism that the tea partiers are always going on about!Report

        • Avatar Bob in reply to Aaron says:

          I understand that blue states overall have higher populations. But you theory doesn’t wash because if what you suggest were true you should see way more Blue states at the bottom. Here states that I posted from Social Spending per capita with their population rank:

          District of Columbia 51
          New York 3
          Rhode Island 43
          Alaska 47
          Vermont 49
          West Virginia 37
          Massachusetts 13
          New Mexico 36
          Mississippi 31
          Maine 40
          Michigan 8
          North Dakota 48
          Louisiana 25
          Connecticut 29
          Delaware 45

          Bottom of List:
          New Jersey 11
          Georgia 9
          Texas 2
          Washington 14
          Maryland 19
          Oregon 27
          Florida 4
          Wisconsin 20
          Kansas 33
          Nebraska 38
          Idaho 39
          New Hampshire 41
          Utah 34
          Virginia 12
          Colorado 22
          Nevada 35

          It’s all over the place in terms of population.

          I also was debating your federal spending but your claim about the stimulus and where the money went.Report

  7. Avatar Jivatman says:

    Several people have made relatively large comments here already, so instead of responding to any of them specifically, I’m just going to start addressing some of their points generally.

    @Dan #2-3
    1. State governments are corrupt because nobody pays attention to them. Nobody pays attention to them because they have very, very, little power compared to the federal government. It’s now at the point where simple domestic issues, such as healthcare, are all being done largely at the federal level, and the states are becoming a sort of administrative redundancy.

    How many people have an opinion of Obama, the Dems, or the Reps? Almost everyone. People in the E.U. payed vastly more attention to the U.S. federal elections than their E.U. elections. But they do pay attention to the politics of their individual countries.

    Then you have some of the most highly developed and high-standard of living countries in the world, Switzerland and Norway. Neither are even in the E.U.

    Population of Switzerland: 7.5 Million.
    Population of Norway: 4.7 Million.
    Average U.S. State pop: 6.14 Million.

    Let’s put it this way: Is there something so defecieint in Americans and so much better in Norwegians and Swiss, give equal populations to U.S. states, and lacking the equivalent of a federal government, can build such efficient and beautiful political systems, but we can’t?

    2. There’s no reason why we can’t continue to subsidize poor states with rich states, but a more direct redistribution of wealth in no way empowers the Fed, and allows states to essentially retain their autonomy.

    You mention that states themselves tend to have strong regional divisions within themselves. One of reasons for this is the haphazard borders of the states. In general, I think many states should be split up, though perhaps some east coast states could be merged. I have another idea too, where we create city-states, but it takes a while to explain…

    Another thing that’s useful to note, state governments and city governments used to be more diverse than they are now. NYC and Cincinnati used to use proportional representation until the two parties quashed them.

    For state governments, the best option may to use some form of party list PR as people would likely be more inclined to pay attention to which parties are in control rather than the legislators themselves. This removes regionalism for the state assembly, but I’m not sure regionalism is useful when you’re talking about a statewide assembly, rather than local administrators, anyway.

    I personally consider it somewhat of a travesty that so few states and localities use a voting system other than plurality, as it would be far easier to change it on this level than nationally. However, with Rep-Dem co-dominance, I somewhat understand why it hasn’t been adopted.

    The difficult theoretical question is, exactly what powers should be given to the states, and which should be kept by the federal government?

    Obviously if we were to increase federalism, it would be best to states these explicitly. Many countries, such as Germany, have it written fairly explicitly in their constitution which duties are afforded to each. In addition Germany’s upper chamber gives the states a direct say, in a system called “cooperative federalism” …

    Overall, I will describe a couple general principles. The Federal government deals with all foreign policy: Military, Immigration, Treaties, etc. All policy that involves multiple states Interstate Crime, Interstate roads, interstate, pollution, disputes between states. And Importantly… to facilitate free trade between states …. (This is what the interstate commerce clause was for, to prevent things like insurance companies getting in with state governments and creating walled fiefdoms. ).

    Lastly, as a court for violations of basic liberties by states.
    So, to review. 1. Foreign policy. 2. Interstate activity, 3. Protection of basic liberties.

    6. Let me mention a quick case. Switzerland has a totally unique and fascinating government. Formed in 1848, so still one of the very first modern democracies, they were created when federalism was very popular…

    I like to think that their constitution looks very similar to what the U.S.’s would like had only the anti-federalists – George Mason and Jefferson in particular, but also Sam Adams and Patrick Henry, had written it. All wanted more state autonomy., and Switzerland has a rather extreme amount of it. All committed democrats, they’d have loved the heavy use of referendums, too.

    However, Mason had other ideas too, he wanted a tri-partite executive, or at least a constitutional council, for the president. In Switzerland executive authority is actually collective held among a council of 7.

    Skeptical of professional standing armies, they’d have also liked the swiss militia system.

    7. Thank you Kain for the Call out.Report

    • Avatar Aaron in reply to Jivatman says:

      2. There’s no reason why we can’t continue to subsidize poor states with rich states, but a more direct redistribution of wealth in no way empowers the Fed, and allows states to essentially retain their autonomy.

      I don’t think I was clear on this earlier — I’m not concerned with the idea of richer progressive states supporting poorer conservative states — indeed, this is as it should be. My concern is more that, as the states take divergent approaches to social safety nets, that we might end up with states that slide back into Gilded Age/The Jungle style states of nature. It’s fine for conservative politicians representing monied interests from sparsely populated states to rail against the welfare state — they don’t really represent the people who actually use those services, and so have no reason to support their concerns.

      But then, maybe the destruction of the social safety net in those places would give rise to a group of newly minted progressive politicians!Report

      • Avatar Jivatman in reply to Aaron says:

        Democracy is all about letting people make their own choices. As in science, we learn just as much from failures as successes.

        If, as we suppose, progressives states begin to become more prosperous they resemble Western Europe, and conservative states decay, that the people won’t respond by changing their representatives? Granted, this is done more easily and precisely in a PR system, but it’s pretty easy to do even in a plurality system.

        I’d be glad to see new progressive politicians, new conservative politicians, or anything in between. In all likelihood, some progressive ideas will succeed, some will fail. Some conservative ideas will succeed, some will fail.

        The boisterous sea of liberty is never without a wave.
        Only timid men prefer the calm of despotism.Report

      • Avatar Kyle in reply to Aaron says:


        I can’t be the only one here bothered by the Massachusetts-Mississippi (false?) binary that sees Red/Conservative states as bad and poor and Blue/progressive states as good and rich.

        Let’s face it, there are illiterate black kids in Mississippi – not a shocker and also in Connecticut, the nation’s wealthiest state, one that’s pretty blue. The latter’s more of a shocker but really, it shouldn’t be.

        North Dakota and South Dakota are pretty red, a few senators notwithstanding and they’ve weathered the “worst economic downturn since the Depression” exceedingly well as opposed to blue California which doesn’t have 99 problems but $20 billion of them, not to mention some of the worst schools in the nation.

        I just don’t think there’s a dichotomy here between American blue states that look like Denmark and American red states that look like Yemen or Uganda. Moreover I think the trade in caricatures is incredibly patronizing.

        The selling points for blue states in the thread seems to be population and wealth, which are bolstered by Chicago, New York, and California. The sun belt is gaining population in a way that the Northeast and blueish rust belt, isn’t. The wealth of the cities isn’t from progressive wealth transfer but from the banks and corporations. It’s the obscene salaries of studio execs, goldman bankers, lawyers, etc… that are funding the wealth disparity.

        I just don’t get this whole Glenda the good witch treatment that’s driving this section of how can we help “teh” poor, backwards conservative states…who are mucking up our march to northern European enlightened social democracy.Report

  8. Avatar Bob says:

    I got this from the website you linked on federal spending per dollar.

    “The Tax Foundation’s annual federal tax burden and expenditure study clarifies the geographical patterns of income redistribution that federal tax and spending policies cause each year. The results of the study have been controversial for years because they show that the nation is not only redistributing income from the prosperous to the poor, but from the middle-income residents of high-cost states to the middle-income residents of low-cost states.

    “Thanks to a steeply progressive federal income tax, states with higher incomes pay vastly higher federal taxes, payments that are unlikely ever to be matched by federal spending directed to those states. Ironically, most of these high-paying states are the so-called blue states that have generally elected politicians who support a more steeply progressive tax system even though their own constituents bear a greater share of the burden as the code gets more progressive.”

    It’s food for thought. Do middle-income people in Blue states feel ok with sharing the burden more than similar middle-income in Red?

    Which also brings me back to your statement on the stimulus and why it was wrong.

    “The spending-to-tax ratios are driven by demographic factors like the age of the population and the average income, not governors and state legislators.”

    The stimulus was divided out by legislators and not purely by demographics.Report

    • Avatar Cascadian in reply to Bob says:

      @Bob, “It’s food for thought. Do middle-income people in Blue states feel ok with sharing the burden more than similar middle-income in Red?” I don’t feel OK with sharing with those that disparage sharing. I don’t mind taking care of me and mine (those in my State). I have no more interest in supporting Alabama than I do Afghanistan.Report

  9. Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto says:

    Isn’t this basically what the federal government is starting to do with several projects such as with Race To the Top? (Provide seed money, let states compete and reward the best one?)

    On the other hand, I’m not convinced your Texas example is a good one. Texas has a whole slew of problems, one of them being that it doesn’t even want to try to compete for federal dollars by improving stuff…Report

  10. Avatar EndevourtoPersevere says:

    This is what I mean when I say Libertarian Socialism but I fear I’m in the minority when using it in this manner.Report

  11. Avatar Simon K says:

    I agree, but it would take a substantial change in mind-set. One of the big motivators for progressive politics is economic fairness and federalism is by definition unfair. People living in better governed and richer states will inevitably end up having better lives that people in poorer, worse-governed states. Its already true to some extent of course, but one of the big motivators for progressive politics over the last 60 years has been making it less true.

    It would be a huge mental leap to have to deal with the sorts of retrograde things some states would almost certainly do were they given their pre-New Deal level 0f authority back. Would liberal voters really accept it if, say, Texas stopped paying any form of welfare at all? Or Arizona completely withdrew state support from legal immigrants? I suspect not.Report

    • Avatar Kyle in reply to Simon K says:

      @Simon K,

      Three questions, Simon K.

      1.) “People living in better governed and richer states will inevitably end up having better lives that people in poorer, worse-governed states.”

      Is this actually true? It’s true they’ll probably have more shiny new toys in their lives, more BMW’s, more gardeners, more clean energy trains. But will they actually be happier? Perhaps mo’ money, mo’ problems only applies to Notorious B.I.G.

      2.) “big motivators for progressive politics over the last 60 years has been making it less true.” Ok, but how successful have you been in the past 60 years? How would you rate 60 years of some level of success, by effort or results?

      3.) “Would liberal voters really accept it if, say, Texas stopped paying any form of welfare at all? Or Arizona completely withdrew state support from legal immigrants?”

      Ok. Is there a difference between liberal voters in Texas and not in Texas, would liberal voters go to war over it?

      I mean why stop at Texas, why not make Mexico make changes to be more friendly to legal immigrants? How about Iraq, we should make them pay for some form of welfare? The Japanese are pretty cruel to prisoners, perhaps we should just
      install a benign regime there too.Report

      • Avatar Simon K in reply to Kyle says:

        @Kyle, Answers:

        1. Yes, people in richer, better governed societies are happier. The necessary comparisons are obviously hard to make, but the implication of most research is “yes”. Up to a certain level of development the differences are big – beyond that level, they get smaller but do not disappear. Certainly the whole rich world is at a level where the differences are small, but that doesn’t mean they’re not politically important. Consider, for example., what would happen if some state in a more-federal US went through a phase of bad government and it got to a point where certain well defined groups were suffering (this happens in certain rich countries and has happened quite recently in the US). Would there be pressure for federal intervention? Without some considerable cultural change, obviously the answer is “yes”.

        2. Quite successful. More or less everyone would count the end of segregation as a success. Most people would also count smaller scale redistributive policies, like unemployment and social security, as successes and it would be hard for either to survive without federal redistribution from richer to poorer states. Attempts to more directly promote development is poorer or declining areas have failed, as have some kind of afirmative action. On balance I’d say more success than failure, though.

        3. No. But that’s not the issue. Just as liberal voters didn’t go to war over segregation, and conservative voters haven’t gone to war over gay marriage. Instead they both put pressure on the federal government to intervene in the states affairs. I think this is inevitable, sadly – once you know what’s going on everywhere, and have a mechanism to intervene at almost no personal cost, people will do it. This is increasingly true internationally and has been going on for a while, in those cases often by millitary means, (see Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan, East Timor, and it goes on). It doesn’t happen between developed countries yet because the cost is too big. Give it time.Report

        • Avatar Kyle in reply to Simon K says:

          @Simon K,

          1.) There’s a distinction between states (of the US) and societies, if we’re comparing happiness between say Burma and Belgium, I would not be surprised that the Belgians are happier, however, I think it remains to be seen that the same would hold true for blue Illinois as opposed to red Kansas. California is bluer than Arizona but is Yuma that different from Calexico as a society, not really, no.

          Last May, ABC News ( did a report on the world’s happiest places, a list on which the absurdly wealthy United States did not crack top 10.

          Wealth alone does not bring the greatest degree of happiness. Norway has the highest GDP per capita on the list–$98,822–yet it ranked ninth, not first. On the other hand, New Zealand’s happiness level is 76.7 out of 100 on the OECD list, but its 2009 GDP per capita is just $30,556.

          From an editorial mentioned in the same article,

          research done in Mexico, Ghana, Sweden, the U.S. and the U.K. shows that individuals typically get richer during their lifetimes, but not happier. It is family, social and community networks that bring joy to one’s life,

          I bring that up because I agree that certain material deficits significantly affect life, livelihood, and happiness. However, I don’t think the reverse is true, I think in some cases more wealth is just more wealth and not a substitute for happiness. Moreover, I don’t think the world nor the United States falls into states that are poorly run and poor, and well run and wealthy. (see petrostates).

          I guess I’m pushing back against the idea that wealth is a good measure of quality of life, better lives, or happiness. Maybe it’s very Colors of the Wind of me, but the idea that wealth might = right and/or good government, strikes me as lacking.

          2.) If it’s been so successful than why the pressing need for universal health care, card check, cap and trade? Why are women still making less than men for doing the same work? Why did SG Kagan, as dean of HLS, #2 law school in the nation, hire exactly two non-whites to the tenured/tenure track faculty during a period in which she hired 32 new faculty members. 3% of hires. Segregation, so yay civil rights a full century after the end of slavery.

          Look, I’m not trying to be unduly harsh here, but from a rhetoric expended to results accomplished ratio, I think the progressive accomplishments of the last century, as helpful as they are seem a bit thin when compared to anything other than counter-factuals.

          3.) I completely agree: “I think this is inevitable, sadly – once you know what’s going on everywhere, and have a mechanism to intervene at almost no personal cost, people will do it.” Which is why I think the question is not intervention/not, but instead when intervention is appropriate and I could be wrong but on balance I think progressives assert a Potter Stewart standard that does justify a certain wariness that is often dismissed as mean-spirited -isms.

          Appreciate the answers – sorry for the long winded response.Report

          • Avatar Cascadian in reply to Kyle says:

            @Kyle,When it comes to wealth, we’re not talking about whether you get the new Beemer or not. It’s libraries, social services, infrastructure. It’s hard closing down music programs for the young so the money can be channelled toward a transport plane the military doesn’t even want.

            Leading through legislation, as has been pointed out, has limited value. It would be much better for the progressive States to lead by example, let the retrograde States show who they really are.

            Return to State militias. It would give more ownership to service encouraging more than the desperate or jingoistic to serve. It would also be a check on military adventurism, and the ensuing blowback, and save our military might for when we are actually threatened.Report

            • Avatar Kyle in reply to Cascadian says:


              I don’t know I feel like the description richer blue states can’t be narrowly construed to mean “good wealthy.” What I have trouble reconciling is the anti-wealth vein of liberal criticisms that bemoans concentrations of wealth, perpetuated cycles of poverty/wealth, etc… Then turns around and says hey look at blue states where people graduate from college, have higher paying jobs, and have all these awesome state services to boot.

              There’s an economic argument that just doesn’t seem to reconcile with the class/political argument made. Nor, for that matter, do I think conservatives hate local libraries and without the wise beneficence of blue state leadership, the provision of and creation of state services (which have a history predating the New Deal) would somehow end or be particularly worse off (by the standards of citizens) in red states.

              Final point, money is fungible so the music or guns trade is a completely false dichotomy, it also obscures the way in which military contracts don’t funnel money into Neverland but instead to companies and industries that employ thousands of people. Music versus extraneous tanker sounds bad but music program versus health care for a family of four employed by Boeing sounds much worse.Report

              • Avatar Cascadian in reply to Kyle says:

                @Kyle, Not really sure I understand. I’m not a liberal in the current usage. I don’t bemoan concentrations of wealth. Otherwise not solve the problem by a 99% tax and spread the money around the globe. I like wealth. I like the sorts of things it buys, like education, beer, housing (not necessarily in that order).

                I think Red States should be allowed to spend their money on whatever they wish, roads, libraries or what have you. I would like the same freedom to spend our money on our roads, our libraries, our social institutions.

                The money from those military contracts come from some place. I’d just as soon have a greater say in where it goes. Iraq and Afghanistan seem like poor choices.Report

              • Avatar Kyle in reply to Kyle says:


                Well the former was to the wealth = libraries comment but we can just consider that thread null.

                As for the allocations, we both know we’re borrowing money to pay for Iraq and Afghanistan so I’m pretty sure it’s coming from the holders of T-Bills, not state coffers. Which, certainly one could make the argument that we should be or the states should be borrowing more to spend on other priorities but I think the facts on the ground as it were complicate things. Those appropriations for the wars are developing new medical techniques that will benefit trauma victims around the world well after the wars. They’re building roads and infrastructure in Afghanistan and a future for Afghan women. Yes, it’s also lining the pockets of warlords and informants but it just strikes me as much more complicated than good spending/bad spending.

                Which is a long way of saying, I might agree with you that government expenditures are poor allocations but I don’t like evading the real world consequences of reallocation.Report

          • Avatar Simon K in reply to Kyle says:

            @Kyle, A couple more thoughts:

            1. Wealth alone isn’t a good measure of quality of life, I agree. I mentioned good governance as well in my original comment. The two tend to go together, but Denmark has lots of good government and marginally less wealth relative to the US. Wealth doesn’t make much difference at the margin between developed societies – possibly good government does.

            States of the US aren’t “societies” in themselves, but there are certainly big cultural differences within the US relative to, say, the Netherlands. Some states contain cultural boundaries within them (California) others cultures span states (the North East or Midwest).

            2. Aren’t counterfactuals the only valid comparison? Taking the current set of outstanding problems and saying “these aren’t fixed yet, so nothing has been acheived” is comparing with the distant future.

            3. I think we agree,Report

            • Avatar Kyle in reply to Simon K says:

              @Simon K,

              1. Ok, that’s fair – looking at the good government angle, I wonder how one defines it as such. It seems to me that government and society have an important relationship and I wonder if defining good government is more relative than recognizing bad government when we see it. After all, if one were to compare the governments of say Denmark, Germany, France, and the UK, they’re different but fairly similar. Yet the UK produces a surprising degree of terrorism, the Germans, like the French have had trouble incorporating ethnic minorities not just socially but also into the government. Though it’s possible the Dane’s cruelly oppress the inhabitants of Greenland, not only are they wealthy and well governed, they’re also much more Danish than the other European countries I mentioned. Which I think underscores E.D.’s point.

              If so doesn’t this beget the various obvious question of whether “good” governance and diverse/heterogeneous societies are even possible?

              2.) Not really, one could judge programs and the like from their stated goals. So if, for example, a particular bill is intended to say reduce widget pollution by 1.3%, the bill should be judged on whether or not it achieves such a goal. So that if it doesn’t we might figure out what went wrong as opposed to wildly asserting that widget pollution would’ve increased by 4% had it not been for Measure A? It seems more prudential.Report

  12. Avatar Kaleberg says:

    Didn’t we do an experiment like this? So, we get rid of federal control, and we’ll have slavery back in short order, possibly under a new name. Call it “The New Slavery”. Then we’ll have slaves trying to exercise their “live where they choose” right and running away, basically stealing from their owners. Then we’ll have fugitive slave laws. Wow, that’s going to be fun. (Yeah, we can wait for the election when the slaves get to vote, and we can run our cars on the heat difference when hell freezes over. Been there. Done that.)

    It’s much easier to capture a state than the federal government, if only because the states have different interests. Even if you disregard the moral component, it makes a lot of sense to have two levels with a higher level guaranteeing basic rights, and likely shafting some people when they have to enforce them. For a reference, I’ll suggest reading some Monnet or Servan-Schreiber. The latter’s The American Challenge is a good place to start.Report

    • Avatar Jivatman in reply to Kaleberg says:


      The fugitive slave act was passed in 1850 on a federal level. It represented a the-unprecedented expansion of federal power, mandating all of the northern states and their institutions responsible for returning escaped slaves, as well as increasing the power of Federal marshals.

      It really hit home, and forced even incrementalist and moderate abolitionists to choose whether to obey.

      It was an attempt to rectify the situation from the previous fugitive slave act of 1793, because northern states passed “personal liberty laws” mandating jury trials, and juries routinely used jury nullification on the law. Locals often actively aided escaped slaves and hindered their attempts to escape.

      Several states, such as Michigan, nullified the act of 1850. In any case, the general northern disobedience of the previous act was one of the major factors in leading to the collapse of the institution that precipitated the civil war.

      By the way, the emancipation proclamation only freed slaves in confederate states.

      By selectively using facts, one can either make the states, or the federal government, the demon in regards to the institution of slavery, but the situation itself was an exceedingly complex one

      Had the president been pro-slavery, it might have been that north that seceded and state’s rights would now be celebrated and associated with liberty.Report