The Trouble With States


The other day Reihan Salam opined that “I think we need to do a far broader rethinking of state and federal responsibilities.” 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.