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.