The Benefits of State Polarization

Many commentators decry the increasing polarization between “red states” and “blue states.” This recent Washington Post article summarizes some of the standard criticisms. But as my George Mason colleague Michael Greve explains, state polarization also has some valuable benefits:

Polarization (whether measured by single-party control over states, policy outcomes, or whatever) has its downsides. Single-part states may start to work like the House of Commons and “overshoot” in a red or blue direction. At the federal level, a polarized system is bound to produce politicians who aren’t used to compromise…..

On the other hand:… [the] “competitive” kind of federalism requires a certain degree of polarization (or sectionalism). And the price may well be worth paying. Consider a few well-understood but underestimated advantages:

Competitive federalism reveals information. We can debate the abstract advantages of “red” or “blue,” “American” and “European” social models until the cows come home: there’s no substitute for observing the actual effects in real life.

Competitive federalism satisfies preferences. A thoroughly blue or red United States would leave one half of the country very unhappy. That’s not true under federalism—not when preferences are heterogeneous across states and (relatively) homogeneous within states. As, increasingly, now.

Competitive federalism reveals preferences and reduces ignorance. People move across states lines in response to a ton of factors (climate, jobs, housing costs…)—many of which are policy-dependent. “Foot-voting” is a pretty good political feed-back mechanism: sooner or later, (state) politicians will pay attention….

You can’t have those sweet advantages without the bitter; the trick is to minimize the costs. Here, that means national-level solutions that allow the states to go their own way, instead of entangling them in federal schemes.

As Michael notes, I have explained why foot voting often leads to better-informed decisions than ballot-box voting in my recent book Democracy and Political Ignorance (see also here and here). State polarization can facilitate foot voting by giving people a wider range of options to choose from.

Michael also correctly emphasizes that the effectiveness of foot voting is sometimes undercut by large states such as California and Texas, which are so big that leaving them becomes extremely costly, at least for people who have to be located somewhere within the large geographic area they control. In previous posts, I outlined why California’s size is a significant cause of some of the state’s dysfunctional policies in recent years (see here and here). Because the state is so enormous and occupies some much of the attractive real estate on the West Coast, people have often been reluctant to leave even when its policies are badly flawed. Over the last decade, things got so bad that California finally did start losing large numbers of migrants to other states. But not before the state’s government dug a much deeper hole for itself than would have been likely had California been three or four smaller states, each forced to compete for migrants with the others.