With the endless gridlock of modern Washington, it’s tempting to want to ditch the whole American constitutional system and install a king, who could at least get things done. This is essentially what David Brooks is proposing in his column this month, though he doesn’t quite come out and say it. Brooks is right that gridlock is stifling desperately needed policy innovation and reform, but is wrong about the cause and solution for it.
The problem is too much power and authority is centralized in the federal government. The solution is to look to the states, which are already a hotbed of policy innovation and reform. What America’s politics needs is a federal government that tends to those issues uniquely suited to the federal government and delegates all other authority to the states, shattering gridlock and ushering in a political process that more rapidly advances sound public policy.
The architects of the American system anticipated the lobbyists and “ideological enforcers” Brooks bemoans — they called them “factions” — and devised a system to account for them. What the founding fathers did not appear to properly anticipate was the rise of a federal government with seemingly boundless scope in policymaking discretion. The federal government of limited, enumerated powers has been replaced by a federal government that insists on legislating, rule-making, and executive-ordering on any and all topics. Rarely is the question asked of federal policy proposals, “is there any technical or economic rationale for not allowing the state governments to address this problem?”
This trend has major impacts on our federal politics. The United States is a vast country with many different socio-economic profiles, cultural values, and economic interests. The problem with a national legislature is it must craft one-size-fits-all policy for everyone, from Vermont ranchers to Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. The result of that political and ideological battle is gridlock. The more powerful the federal government becomes, the higher the stakes for winning this battle. Money and the power-hungry are attracted to politics like a bug is attracted to a light bulb: the brighter the light, the greater the draw. And so, gridlock grows as government grows. But there is an alternative.
Instead of the citizens of politically different states squaring off in federal politics for control of the federal one-sized-fits-all system, the citizens of those states could instead foster 50 state-based policy environments. And the citizens in every state that disapprove of their state’s policy can move to a different state with different laws with far less of a barrier and lower cost that becoming an expatriot and moving abroad.
Under such a system, Texas conservatives and California liberals can stop fighting over federal policy like Obamacare. California can implement a state-based version of Obamacare or even single-payer healthcare, and Texas can push for free market reform. Gridlock solved. Then, social scientists can debate the results and self-interested citizens (along with the businesses they run and the capital they wish to invest) can pick a state that fits their ideological preferences and/or the greatest quality of living. The principle of subsidiarity — that power should be delegated to the smallest and most decentralized authority capable of addressing a matter — is essential to sound governance and policy innovation.
As Travis Brown shows in How Money Walks and Chapter 3 of the most recent edition of Rich States, Poor States, Americans are not afraid to opt for the “leave it” clause of the “love it or leave it” proposition. A million-and-a-half citizens have left California over the last decade, just as nearly a million citizens have chosen Texas.
It’s also worth noting that the exact type of bold reform that Brooks desires is happening on the state level and can be super-charged if the federal government will get out of the state’s way. States are leading the way with bold reforms across the nation in an attempt to better the lives of their citizens and compete for labor, capital, and firms. Moreover, 50 states experimenting to find the best public policy environment leaves the federal government to focus on its core responsibilities.
When it comes to federal policymaking, Americans can do far more with less. The founding fathers, who roundly rejected a king, did not seem to share David Brooks notion that gridlock was best dealt with by monarchy. Federalism is the proper tool to break the gridlock that ails America’s politics.