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Let’s Be Two Americas: The Case for Federalism


There has been some haggling in Congress recently over a proposal to convert a couple of big chunks of federal spending—Medicaid and food stamps—into block grants to the states, which would be given more control over the programs.

This proposal suggests a much broader answer to our current political conflicts, toward which this is just a small first step that doesn’t go nearly far enough.

The reversion of federal programs to the states is touted as a measure that will save money. The politicians keep the reasons for this a little vague, but we all know where the savings are going to come from. Given the opportunity to set their own policy, some states will be less lavish in giving out welfare benefits, while others will maintain more spendthrift programs.

This is not just a matter of states seeking programs that are more practical and efficient. It’s a matter of values. It is about differing visions about the size and role of government and about the morality of taxing those who work to subsidize those who don’t. Different parts of America have different views on this subject, sometimes strongly different views. And perhaps it’s time we stopped fighting against that.

Thus my modest proposal. Let’s be two Americas.

That’s what everybody’s always complaining about, right? We can’t have “Two Americas.” But what if it’s not such a bad thing? What if this was actually designed into the original American system and is the way things were supposed to be? And maybe it would lead, not to more conflict between the two Americas, but less.

I know this may raise a bit of a visceral reaction. We’re supposed to be e pluribus unum—from many, one. It’s the motto on the Great Seal of the United States, for crying out loud.

But the Founders who chose that motto in the first place still believed very strongly in the pluribus. In fact, they gave the unum very little to do, concerning itself with national defense, international trade, and resolving a few high-level legal disputes. Most government was left to the pluribus, to the states, to run as they saw fit.

Back then, of course, government was unbelievably small by today’s standards. And that’s part of the reason we ended up messing up this original federal system: the self-declared “progressives” hatched so many enormous ambitions for what the government was supposed to do that only the federal government could concentrate the massive sums of money and power required.

To be sure, the other blow to federalism was the late unpleasantness over slavery and segregation, issues on which the federal government ultimately had to intervene to compel the states to recognize fundamental rights. But the left seizes on that legacy as an excuse to treat every difference of policy as if it were on that fundamental level. If you think every disagreement over, say, minimum wage laws or union regulations or unemployment benefits, is the moral equivalent of the conflict between slaveholders and abolitionists—then it’s no wonder we’re in a constant, low-grade civil war.

The past few decades’s worth of trench warfare on Capitol Hill is driven by a wider national conflict of values. It is driven by the contrast between the coastal states and big population centers, where people generally want a much bigger and more intrusive government that redistributes a lot of our money—versus Southern, Western, and “heartland” states that want smaller government and more personal responsibility, self-reliance, and private charity. So we’re constantly deadlocked on the federal level, where politicians usually prove capable neither of expanding the welfare state nor of reducing it or reforming it in any meaningful way.

Why not give up fighting on the federal level and just agree to disagree?

Out here in the hinterland, we’ll let Massachusetts be Massachusetts, and we’ll let California be California and New York be New York. But we’d like them to return the favor. New York should have the decency to let Kansas be Kansas, and not feel the need to write books about what’s the matter with them.

At this point, some coastal elite will trot out the usual snarky comment about how the “red states” benefit from a national-level welfare system because the “blue states” pay more of the taxes while the red states have more poor people. Well, then you shouldn’t mind us opting out of that system and relieving you of the burden, should you?

But there’s the rub. They are no doubt worried about competition. They are worried that a lot of us—particularly those who embrace the creed of self-reliance—will conclude that the red states are much better places to live and work and start a businesses. In fact, it’s already happening, with an exodus of Yankees headed South, of manufacturers in search of non-unionized labor, of Californians headed for Arizona, or New Yorkers headed for the Florida is quest of a lower cost of living and no state income tax.

That’s one of the reasons why we had the system of federalism in the first place—to let the states be “laboratories of democracy” that adopt slightly different models of government, for which citizens can vote with their feet. Perhaps the coastal states, for all their smug superiority, are afraid that their model of government is not as attractive as they imagine. But why shouldn’t they be required to put their system to a test? The friendly competition between states would certainly be a lot less stressful to our political system than turning every political issue into a game of thermonuclear war on the floor of Congress.

That’s what we need right now: more pluribus and less unum.

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