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Another Federalist of the Left - Radical Scholar Gar Alperovitz on Decentralization:

Prominent left-wing radical scholar and pundit Gar Alperovitz has an interesting NY Times article arguing that the United States and other large nations are overly centralized and should devolve more political power to the state or regiona level (hat tip: Ethan Leib). Here's a brief excerpt:

The United States is almost certainly too big to be a meaningful democracy. What does "participatory democracy" mean in a continent? Sooner or later, a profound, probably regional, decentralization of the federal system may be all but inevitable.

A recent study by the economists Alberto Alesina of Harvard and Enrico Spolaore of Tufts demonstrates that the bigger the nation, the harder it becomes for the government to meet the needs of its dispersed population. Regions that don't feel well served by the government's distribution of goods and services then have an incentive to take independent action . . .

James Madison, the architect of the United States Constitution, understood these problems all too well. Madison is usually viewed as favoring constructing the nation on a large scale. What he urged, in fact, was that a nation of reasonable size had advantages over a very small one. But writing to Jefferson at a time when the population of the United States was a mere four million, Madison expressed concern that if the nation grew too big, elites at the center would divide and conquer a widely dispersed population, producing "tyranny."

Given the large ideological differences between us, it is not surprising that Alperovitz's argument for decentralization is in many respects different from mine. For example, I think he is wrong to claim that the US is becoming "ungovernable" (at least in any meaningful sense of the term), and I'm also skeptical of claims that the harms of centralization are to any significant extent caused by the allegedly corporate-dominated media.

But it is noteworthy that there are major similarities as well between our two perspectives on centralization as well. I definitely agree with Alperovitz's argument that a unitary central government will be less able to meet the needs of a large and highly diverse society than a more decentralized one. I also agree that regional compacts between states are a valuable and often superior alternative to federal government intervention. More generally, Alperovitz may be right to predict large states such as California will increasingly challenge federal power. Overall, the similarities between Alperovitz's perspective on this issue and my own probably outweigh the differences - a striking result given that we disagree on almost everything else.

Alperovitz's article is part of a growing recent trend towards left-wing interest in federalism and decentralization that I have noted in the past (see, e.g, here, here, and the last part of this article). The recent Democratic takeover of Congress may to some extent diminish that interest, to the extent that it was the result of the assertion of federal power to serve conservative interests by the Bush Administration and the Republican-controlled Congress of 2003-2006. However, given the narrowness of the Democratic majorities and the likelihood that conservatives will continue to have great influence over the federal government, the new interest in "progressive federalism" is unlikely to just disappear.

Howard257 (mail):
Left-wing interest in decentralization is new? Those of us old enough and New York enough will remember the nearly violent controversy over "decentralization" of the public schools in Ocean Hill-Brownsville, Brooklyn, Rhody McCoy and his followers. Seems to me like the left's roots in this regard are old and deep.
2.12.2007 8:09pm
EricH (mail):
Senator Clinton and/or Obama get elected, the Democrats hold on to Congress, and all of this will go away.

Then, it'll be conservative scholars praising federalism again.

Everything old is new again.
2.12.2007 8:11pm
Ilya Somin:
Left-wing interest in decentralization is new? Those of us old enough and New York enough will remember the nearly violent controversy over "decentralization" of the public schools in Ocean Hill-Brownsville, Brooklyn, Rhody McCoy and his followers.

Decentralization of a school district is is very different from devolution of federal government power to state and/or local governments - the subject of Alperovitz's article and my post. At least over the last 40 years, most liberals and leftists have opposed the latter, although this consensus has begun to break down.
2.12.2007 8:11pm
Respondent (mail):
Maybe more liberals will begin to embrace federalism when they realize that the Supreme Court is not likely to significantly expand substantive due process any time soon. One can only hope that they will then come to realize that the only way to meaningfully check the power of an oppressive congressional majority, president (or worse- unelected federal "regulatory" agencies) is to apply more than a toothless rational scrutiny to federal actions that go beyond the actual regulation "commerce among the several states. Because there are no political checks on Congress (and a fortiori agencies)creating popular legislation that doesn't violate the first eight amendments, but goes beyond the national government's enumerated powers, congressional deference here is particularly inappropriate. At least where traditonal state police power is affected, congress should be required to show why they couldn't acheive their goals in a less restrictive way (e.g. if congress really cared about the interstate transportation of drugs, allow states to let their citizens use them by carefully regulating them in a way that would result in no more likelehood of the evil of interstate transportation occuring than under the current "ban all possession, use, and sale" even though what we really care about is the inherently evil interstate transportation.
2.12.2007 8:12pm
JonC:
Senator Clinton and/or Obama get elected, the Democrats hold on to Congress, and all of this will go away. Then, it'll be conservative scholars praising federalism again.

Have conservative scholars started condemning federalism (or stopped praising it) over the past few years? If so, I haven't noticed.
2.12.2007 8:18pm
eric (mail):
A lot of opposition to federalism is, in my opinion, rooted in the desire to impose your views on others. Blue state liberals might be ready to give up imposing their values on fly-over country.
2.12.2007 8:26pm
Cornellian (mail):
Unfortunately, the revived interest in federalism on the left is exactly counter balanced by the decline in interest in federalism on the right. Cynics think this has something to do with whether your party or the other party is in power in Washington rather than a philisophical reconsideration of fundamental principles. In any event, sadly, the net interest in federalism across the political spectrum is always low, except among a few libertarian radicals, VC commenters and Clarence Thomas.
2.12.2007 8:26pm
Enoch:
One suspects that the Left's interest in reducing Federal power will evaporate the instant a Democrat is in office.

Gar is at least consistent. Wrong and confused about atomic diplomacy, wrong and confused about American federalism...
2.12.2007 9:22pm
Dave Griffith (mail):
He doesn't mean "ungovernable". He means "unrulable". Alperovitz is quite correct, although I suspect most of the VC doesn't find that prospect as displeasurable as he does.
2.12.2007 9:26pm
Jack S. (mail) (www):
Bush and the Republican congress have been serving conservative interests? That's news to me.
2.12.2007 9:28pm
Bleepless (mail):
If Alperovitz is in favor of regionalism, it likely is because he thinks it would hurt the US. Keep in mind that he is one of the pseudo-historians who contends that Japan got nuked solely to threaten that gentle giant, Stalin.
2.12.2007 9:32pm
Joshua:
A lot of opposition to federalism is, in my opinion, rooted in the desire to impose your views on others. Blue state liberals might be ready to give up imposing their values on fly-over country.

I wonder if it might go even farther than that. It occurs to me that the sudden interest in federalism from the Left may be a trial balloon for out-and-out regional separatism, if the Left someday concludes that red-state America is too great an obstacle to lasting power. (Also, keep in mind that currently the only remotely concern-worthy regional separatist movement in the U.S., the Aztlan/La Raza movement which targets the southwestern states, is a creature of the Left.)
2.12.2007 10:14pm
frankcross (mail):
Federalism is not especially libertarian. It simply adds another level of government to regulate people. Nor is it necessarily associated with decentralization. Unitary states tend to cede more authority to cities than do federalist states.

Moreover, constitutional federalism has especially little to do with federal imposition of power. The areas that the federal government cannot regulate, even after the federalism cases, are few. The real substantial restriction on local choice lies in preemption cases, for which federalism seems to have little meaning.
2.12.2007 10:24pm
Mark Knights:

A lot of opposition to federalism is, in my opinion, rooted in the desire to impose your views on others. Blue state liberals might be ready to give up imposing their values on fly-over country.

As a "blue state liberal" and an ardent supporter of federalism, I have to agree that opposition to federalism--from both sides of the political spectrum--is a function of either party's inability to live with the idea that their conception of justice is the alpha and omega of good policy. Federalism is no more a natural choice for conservatives than it is for liberals; I think the main impetus for either political persuasion to gravitate toward federalism is the perceived success of the other side's policies on a national scale, as Enoch's comment notes:


One suspects that the Left's interest in reducing Federal power will evaporate the instant a Democrat is in office.

Probably true. Not my interest, at any rate. But I wouldn't give up on most blue state liberals wanting to impose their values on red states--or on most red state conservatives wanting to impose theirs on blue states.
2.12.2007 11:16pm
eric (mail):
As a "blue state liberal" and an ardent supporter of federalism, I have to agree that opposition to federalism--from both sides of the political spectrum--is a function of either party's inability to live with the idea that their conception of justice is the alpha and omega of good policy. Federalism is no more a natural choice for conservatives than it is for liberals; I think the main impetus for either political persuasion to gravitate toward federalism is the perceived success of the other side's policies on a national scale, as Enoch's comment notes

I can agree to that. I think a large part of red state conservative America would like to impose their views on blue state America. However, I would note that the New Deal was a progressive/liberal movement. Government programs from the federal level require a decline in federalism. This historically links the Democratic party (excluding that old southern seperatist faction) to a lack of support for federalism. The Republicans tend to do the same thing on drug policy.

Would we all be more content with increased federalism? The interesting question to me is whether people would vote with their feet.
2.12.2007 11:43pm
ROA:
Liberal opposition to centralization is because the federal government is currently taking money from "blue" states and giving it to "red" states. I recall reading after the 2004 election that most states receiving less money from the federal government than they sent were "blue. If federal functions are reduced more money will remain at the state level. And didn't Nancy Pelosi recently say something about California getting its "fair share" of federal funds? If "blue" states were receiving more money than they were sending, I doubt if liberals would be favor of decentralization.
2.12.2007 11:47pm
Lev:

left-wing interest in federalism and decentralization


Which is to say deferring to states? One highly amusing example of that interest was the willingness of the leftwing progressive Justice Stevens willingness to defer to state courts, southern state courts, in voting matters of all things, in Bush v Gore.


Bush and the Republican congress have been serving conservative interests?


With a very few exceptions, they are doing that only when observed from the viewpoint of anti-fascist progressives.
2.12.2007 11:51pm
theobromophile (www):
A lot of opposition to federalism is, in my opinion, rooted in the desire to impose your views on others. Blue state liberals might be ready to give up imposing their values on fly-over country.

Older liberals claim that they are opposed to federalism because that creature allowed Jim Crow to thrive in the South. (Without the wise blue states to impose their will via centralised government, the South would still be living in 1870.) For them, federalism and racism are interchangeable: their issues are with civil rights, not the socialist movement of the 1930s that lead to a radical increase in the function of the federal government.

Being from the Boston area, I've had to defend my (strong) federalist leanings to some very liberal friends. Once I point out that federal powers can (and are) used against medicinal marijuana or right-to-die statutes; the relative ease of making policy on a local level (esp. Mass. vis-a-vis the Republican White House); and, of course, the fact that it's easier to move out of an intolerable state than an intolerable country, they get it.

The rise in socialist programmes has come largely from the Left and has been acheived via a radical increase in the powers of the federal government. That part makes sense. For some reason, liberals seem to be more content in sacrificing one political or civil right for a greater right (i.e. jettisoning freedom of speech to promote non-offensive areas, or Equal Protection for affirmative action, et cetera) - or at least a right perceived to be more important. Conservatives don't seem to care if an optimal end is not acheived because of those pesky civil rights and thus don't seem to like massive centralisation of power in order to promote social ends. I've no idea why methodology splits along party lines.
2.13.2007 6:35am
A.C.:
In my experience, progressive federalists are simply those who see the states as good places to implement (or experiment with) progressive policies. A lot of states are, and have been in the past. See California and environmental protection or Wisconsin and worker's comp. Lots of people think experimentation with new state policies is easier than experimenting at the federal level, and less damaging if things go wrong. (Just because a policy has progressive goals doesn't mean it will work.) The ultimate goal may still be uniform federal policy, but (1) the details of that policy may not be clear at the outset, and (2) working out the details may take a very long time. In the meantime, states have an important role to play. And federalism is the only realistic possibility when consensus can't be reached. As long as none of the options violates the constitution, there's nothing wrong with different solutions in different places.
2.13.2007 9:03am
Spitzer:
One interesting detail from the article is that the author is not espousing federalism, per se, but rather he seems intrigued by smaller states joining into regional compacts. If I recall the article correctly, I was struck by the fact that the author named California as one potential mini-state (his thesis being that it is large enough to form its own nation-state), and New England as a group becoming another; the author then mentioned that "other states" may wish to form a similar compact, and he expressly noted the "southwest" and the "northwest."

What's interesting is that the author couldn't bring himself to mention the region with the deepest historical ties to regionalism and regional compacts. At first I attributed that to a liberal's unwillingness to sink his own proposal in the NYT by raising the spectre of Dixie's autonomy, but I wonder if left-wing proposals of this sort implicitly foresee withholding regional or state autonomy from the south? Would progressives find their newfound support for the idea of federalism melting at the prospect of the South rising again?
2.13.2007 9:55am
MnZ (mail):

Lots of people think experimentation with new state policies is easier than experimenting at the federal level, and less damaging if things go wrong. (Just because a policy has progressive goals doesn't mean it will work.)


Progressives would get a lot of agreement from conservatives on that point. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
2.13.2007 10:20am
Don Miller (mail) (www):
I have started wondering about some of the causes of centrilization of power and things that could be reasonably done to reduce the power of individual politicians.

Many people point to the amendment that allowed direct election of Senators as being part of the problem of Federalism. Senators no longer felt beholden to Governors and State Interests. They became populists.

This is a well known and popular theory. I want to postulate a different one.

Congresses cap on the total number of Congressmen. When the Constitution was first set up, there was supposed to be 1 Member of the House for every 30,000 people in a State. That is a small enough number that people know their Congressman personally. A small campaign budget can reach your whole district efficiently. Less travel, less congressional staff, less power. Being a congressman would have less prestige. Corporations would have less influence. Both the Democratic and Republican parties would lose influence. Congressmen would reflect the political bent of their particular region. More 3rd party canidates would get elected.

Coalition building and compromise would become more important in Washington. It would become harder to get bills through Congress (this is a good thing to me).

Congressional salaries and perks would go down. Based on our current population, there would be around 10,000 total congressmen. It would chaos. The legislature would spend so much time trying to get anything done, that States and Regions would be forced to step forward and take ownership of their own problems.

It would be glorious

/Only sort of serious, but it does make interesting dinner conversation.
2.13.2007 10:32am
Dave G:
<blockquote>
Just because a policy has progressive goals doesn't mean it will work.
</blockquote>

Indeed, that seems to be the way to bet.
2.13.2007 11:12am