What did Madison really think of the states? Is it true states are laboratories of democracy?
Policy debates benefit from clarity about underlying principles, which in the case of state and local matters often means federalism. Federalist principles are normally invoked opportunistically, to support positions on say, gay marriage or healthcare reform, that were developed for reasons which, whatever their merits, had little to do with federalism.
But it doesn’t have to be that way, and questions of principle are worth discussing on their terms, not least because, like policy questions, they’re complicated.
The following are three conceptions about our federalist system of government which, though not necessarily wrong, can be misleading and need qualification.
The founding fathers were strong believers in state governments-The American “founding” refers specifically to the development and ratification of the Constitution. Our Constitution was designed the way it was in reaction to the profoundly flawed character of its forerunner, the Articles of Confederation, a very different document, as the scholar Martin Diamond describes:
In recent years we have come to think of the Articles as having created too weak a central government. This is not precise enough. Strictly speaking, neither the friends nor the enemies of the Confederation regarded the Articles as having created any kind of government at all, weak or otherwise. Article III declared that ‘the said states hereby enter into a firm league of friendship with each other.’….Men referred to the Articles as a kind of treaty…the word government never appears in that document.
The Articles failed because of its inability to do much about the many, many bad policies then being pursued by the state governments. Think Illinois and California have been errant in managing their affairs of late? You should read about what the Federalist Papers have to say about Rhode Island.
Throughout the ratification debate, the central question was how strong the national government should be. Those we call the Framers–Madison and Hamilton foremost among them–were on the pro-national government side. The states’ rights proponents were the anti-Federalists, who made many insightful arguments but lost. Had Madison and Hamilton lost the debate, we would have much stronger state governments.
It is easy to find quotes from the Federalist Papers that seem to assert an important role for states under the proposed Constitution. But the rhetorical context must always be appreciated: Madison and Hamilton were trying to solicit the support of men who were greater states’ rights advocates than they were.
Federalism concerns the relation between the state and federal governments-There are actually two forms of federalism: “vertical federalism” refers to the division of responsibilities between the state and federal governments. “Horizontal federalism” refers to the division between different states. The chief benefits of vertical federalism are negative liberty (a viable role for state governments prevents overreach by the national government) and positive liberty: self-government, or something approaching it, through administrative decentralization.
The benefit of horizontal federalism is competition. It may not be enough to rely on voters to keep their state and local officials in line. Other states may help enforce accountability, by poaching businesses, wealth and population from one another. When California loses jobs to Texas, that’s horizontal federalism at work, as is also when Illinois’ pension mismanagement causes it to lose out in the competition for capital among municipal bond market investors.
The states are laboratories of democracy or policymaking-Louis Brandeis, stalwart man of the left, is responsible for this conception, but modern conservatives have appropriated it for their own. It’s what Plato may have called a “noble lie”: morally useful but theoretically dubious.
In some sense, every new public policy is an experiment in that it’s never certain if it will work and the risks of unintended consequences always exist. But social science does not lend itself to proof like natural science. Implementing a policy, even one legally sunsetted, commits some official and/or party’s fortunes to its success. Rendering objective judgments about “what works” is particularly hard with new spending programs, because both the program’s beneficiaries, and those paid to do the spending, have a strong incentive to believe that it’s a pretty good program.
States can stimulate national debates by bringing issues to the fore, and they have a freer hand in crafting policy because, unlike divided DC, most states are now dominated by one party. But is it certain that state governments as such are better at policymaking than the federal government? Self-government is valuable for the sake of itself; self-government is not always good government. Urban school districts? Town hall meetings?
Sometimes states have good ideas, but they have many bad ideas as well. On balance, the clearest thing to say about states’ importance is that they act as a check on the federal government. Their negative role in governance and policymaking is more important than their positive or constructive role as “laboratories.”