Your State Has Issues, Man


Reihan Salam starts this off with one line:

I think we need to do a far broader rethinking of state and federal responsibilities.

Matthew Yglesias:

I tend to agree. But a big part of the problem here is that it’s difficult to think of what kind of issues are actually well-suited to be dealt with at a state level. It’s easy to think of kinds of issues that Arlington County, Virginia should address on its own without input from people who live in Norfolk, VA or Montgomery County, Maryland or Boise, Idaho. These are your local government responsibilities. And it’s also easy to think of issues that should be decided in common between Arlington and Norfolk and Montgomery and Boise. These are your federal responsibilities. But it’s very hard to think of what kinds of things should involve Arlington and Norfolk, but not Montgomery County. Conversely, it’s pretty easy to think of things that should involve Arlington County and Montgomery County but not Norfolk or Boise. These would be metropolitan region issues.

But we don’t have any level of governance that addresses metro area issues. And we don’t really live our lives “at the state level.” And insofar as co-residents of a single state do have idiosyncratic issues in common that tends to be because important fiscal and regulatory powers have been allocated to state government rather than because it actually makes sense for them to have been allocated this way.

There’s not a ton that can be done about this. The constitution doesn’t let us appoint a “commission on middle-tier governance” to redraw boundaries. But the boundaries we have don’t follow any real economic or social logic. And the states themselves are a ludicrously mixed bag. California is giant, with the population of a medium-sized country like Poland. And nobody lives in Wyoming. The state of Florida contains eight separate MSAs that contain more people, including places I’ve never heard of like Palm Bay/Melbourne/Titusville.

Ezra Klein:

The states where you see a real commonality of political interest are small states: Montanans and Alaskans have discrete needs in ways that Californians really don’t. That is to say that states have more commonality of interest when they’re about as large as a mid-size city, as opposed to a mid-sized country. And because we give the city-sized states as much representation in the Senate as we give to the country-sized states, the city-sized states have even more incentive to emphasize their political interests.

That arrangement might be good for Montanans, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense for the country. I’ve occasionally argued for a more proportional Senate, only to be asked “what do you have against small states?” Well, nothing in particular. I just don’t consider states to be a particularly useful political unit. Why not apportion Congress by race? Or population density? Or income? All of those options seem a bit nuts, but the only reason that states make any sense to us is because it’s always been thus. All of those options make a lot more sense than organizing representation around the boundaries of Missouri.

And it’s not as if there was some high-minded reason for state-based representation a few hundred years back. Rather, states were given a lot of power because that was the only way to entice them into joining a union. It was a coldly political compromise. It’s good we got that done, but some of the structural concessions that were required don’t make that much sense in the 21st century. Not that “does this make sense?” is a particularly powerful consideration in our system.

Josh Patashnik at TNR:

The most important centers on a concept conspicuously absent from Matt and Ezra’s posts: sovereignty.

The “what good are states?” view makes some sense if you regard the federal government as the fundamental political unit in America, and the states as nothing more than sub-national governmental units established for convenience’s sake.  But that’s simply and indisputably not the way our system was established and not the way it works. To view states in that light is un-American (in the literal sense, not the pejorative Glenn Beck sense).  As Justice O’Connor put it, “States are not mere political subdivisions of the United States. . . . [t]he Constitution instead leaves to the states a residuary and inviolable sovereignty.”  States are not a means to some administrative end; within their sphere of sovereignty, they are the end.  In joining the Union they gave up certain powers, but they retained everything else.  To question that is to propose a system radically different from one we have.


My own view is that such radical and wholesale changes are per se inadvisable.  Maybe, though, you disagree.  Sovereignty and historical precedent aside, what normative justifications are there for retaining the role states play in our system?

First, it’s not entirely clear what the alternative is.  Matt says, “a big part of the problem here is that it’s difficult to think of what kind of issues are actually well-suited to be dealt with at a state level.”  This is somewhat surprising to me.  What about the basic, bread-and-butter questions of governance that states currently deal with?  For instance, what should the punishment for murder be?  How much money should teachers make?  How should the car insurance industry be regulated?  How about marriage, divorce, inheritance, and adoption? 

These questions are too local in character to merit federal involvement; in a vast and diverse nation, trying to settle these debates in Washington is as hopeless as it is unnecessary.  Plus, there are the usual considerations about the benefits of state-level policy experimentation that liberals, in particular, should value.  At the same time, these aren’t the sort of municipal- or metropolitan-area-based decisions (about things like transit or land use) that need to be made on an even more local scale.  As confusing as it can be to have 50 states making policy in these areas, it would be far messier to have several hundred smaller governmental entities doing it.  What you’d want, it seems to me, is a moderate number of reasonably sized jurisdictions whose residents share at least some sense of identity, values, and commonality of interest.  (And, for the record, autumn is a strange time to be asking whether state identity still exists.  Go ask the 102,000 people who packed themselves into Ohio Stadium last Saturday, or the other 102,000 in a sea of orange in Neyland Stadium in Knoxville.)

This, again, isn’t to say that if you were drawing states from scratch you’d come up with exactly what we have now.  Maybe you’d come up with 30 or 70 instead of 50.  Maybe you’d think about uniting, say, western Washington and western Oregon into one state, and lump eastern Washington and eastern Oregon in with Idaho.  Surely you’d want to do something–anything!–about California.  My point is just that the current alignment of states isn’t that far off from what you’d probably come up with.


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