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Federalism and Uniformity

By Matthew Yglesias on January 2, 2007 at 2:21 pm

"Federalism and Uniformity"

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There’s a bit of discussion about in conservative- and libertarian-leaning segments of the blogosphere on whether administrative decentralization (i.e., “states rights”) means anything other than Jim Crow. I suppose there probably is. Approaching things from a different angle, however, Ezra Klein notes that under the American system of government “for all its federalism, there’s precious little variation. The most generous cities display only a couple degrees of difference from the least. Santa Fe may have a living wage, but it doesn’t have single-payer health care, or paid maternal leave, or massive job retraining. We hear talk about the genius of the states, but they all tend to work on basically the same problem, in basically the same way, leaving little room for brilliance to burst forth.”

That seems about right to me. States seem to differ primarily in how they deal with some fairly trivial regulatory matters. Each state’s rules governing alcoholic beverages differ somewhat from its neighbors, cigarette taxes and where (if ever) you’re permitted to smoke indoors vary, but you don’t see a ton of policy variation. No state, no matter how right-wing, has just voted to dismantle its public school system nor have we seen a state attempt single-payer health care. I wonder if this is parasitic on the fact that there’s shockingly little institutional variation among American states.

US federalism is somewhat unusual in that the states have essentially total autonomy in terms of how they want to arrange the institutions of state government. The federal constitution only contains a vague requirement of a “Republican form of government” which seems to offer a lot of leeway. Nevertheless, 49 out of 50 states choose bicameralism. Zero states out of fifty opt for parliamentary-style governance where the state executive must maintain the confidence of the legislature. All fifty states, including tiny Rhode Island, implement a an interstitial country (or “parish”) level of government between the state and towns and cities. All the states elect their legislators on the basis of single-member constituencies. You’d think that some state, at least, would try something different along some of these dimensions and see how it works out.

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