For Proponents of Devolution

This thread was inspired by, if not necessarily directed at, ivylass’s post in the Hillary Clinton Pit thread:

I’ve always been interested in this point of view, because it seems as though it could be fairly held for one of two broad yet completely divergent reasons:

  1. We should eliminate certain federal regulatory programs and turn the administration of those areas over to the states because a) the states will do a better/more efficient job of regulating, or b) because the states will do at least an equivalent job and, in the spirit of smaller centralized government, we should only let the federal goverment do what the states cannot.

  2. We should eliminate certain federal regulatory programs and turn the administration of those areas over to the states because the states will do a worse/less efficient job of regulating and, in the spirit of smaller government (centralized or non-), we should let private individuals and industry operate freely to the greatest extent possible.

These strike me as fundamentally different arguments. It also seems to me, although I may be wrong, that people sometimes couch their beliefs as argument #1 (let the states do it!) when what they actually believe is closer to argument #2 (the states don’t have the power/resources/inclination to do it!).

So I guess I’m curious about this dichotomy, and would like to hear a little from people who think the federal government is too big (and, of course, everyone else, once the discussion is joined). Of the arguments above, which best characterizes your view? Do you think the two are mutually exclusive? If you agree that “we should eliminate the Department of Education and turn the regulation of education over to the states,” to what extent is “we should just eliminate the Department of Education” a second-best alternative?

I’m asking, I think, because while I strongly believe in the need for certain kinds of regulation, I’m indifferent as to the level of government, be it federal, state, or local, that actually does the regulating - except insofar as there’s often, although not always, value in uniformity (every locality possessing a similar regulatory “floor”), and except that the states today do seem to lack the resources/authority/etc. I understand the argument that states would have more resources and so on were the federal government to relinquish control, and that’s fine and dandy. But I rankle at the idea of eliminating federal regulation with nothing effectively taking its place. So I guess I’m in the 1(a) school, and I’m sympathetic to the 1(b) (or states’ rights for states’ rights’ sake) school. I’d like to know how other people feel.

You’ve offered a bit of a false dichotomy.

I often use a different argument, primarily based on this:

It’s more a question of freedom than efficiency, but the latter is a nice side benefit. Certain things, like education, are best controlled at the local level, where parental involvement is the key.

The federal government is good at enforcing uniformity, but that isn’t necessarily a good thing. With 50 states trying 50 different approaches, you have a much better chance of seeing what actually works and what doesn’t.

Competing currencies! If we can’t accept that, we’ve already determined we’re whores for centralization. Now it is just a matter of “how much”. Or something. :wink: ;j


I learned recently that Justice Louis Brandeis coined both the phrase “race to the bottom” and the phrase “laboratories of democracy.” That really amuses me, because I’m a big geek. :slight_smile:

Anyway, of course you’re right; it was an (unintentionally) incomplete dichotomy. Thanks for pointing it out. Although your Tenth Amendment point essentially seems to be my argument 1(b): “the states will do at least an equivalent job and, in the spirit of smaller centralized government [and given a constitutional commitment to same], we should only let the federal goverment do what the states cannot [or what is explicitly set forth as a federal power].” Is that better?

The experimentalist argument, by contrast, might be that some states will regulate better and some states worse, and the more different approaches we try the more likely it is that we’ll hit upon the ‘optimal’ level and style of regulation in a given area (or for a given state). But this presupposes a couple of interesting things: first, at the very least, that the experimentation of some states will yield a worse result than would have occurred under a federal regulatory regime (or, if not, assumes an ideological conviction that federal regulation will be worse than anything a state might try). I wouldn’t want to be a citizen in one of those states. Second, it presupposes (I think) that we’ll be able to tell when an optimal level of regulation has been reached, and that the optimal level is a result of Experiment X rather than countervailing factors A, B, or C. (This, obviously, is a problem for federal as well as state regulation, and there are benefits as well as drawbacks to having the regulatory policy be a dependent, rather than independent, variable, when assessing fifty separate data points.) Finally, it presupposes either that a successful experiment in one state will also work in other states, or that it won’t. If the former, then we are striving for eventual uniformity; when we find the “best” solution, it’ll be adopted by everyone (the other states being rational actors). If the latter, then it’s not really experimentation but (as you say) freedom. The freedom of one state to decide whether it wants to learn from another state, or to continue to forge its own path.

All that being said (whew), the essential distinction made in the OP remains. You say that “certain things, like education, are best controlled at the local level, where parental involvement is the key.” Great - that’s a normative argument that local control will result in better oversight. Essentially what I said in 1(a), and something to which I am completely receptive. But taking power away from the federal government because the state and local governments are better equipped to tackle the complexities of a given issue is very different from taking power away from the federal government because the state and local governments are no better equipped (and in all probability may be less well equipped), in order to allow private individuals or industry to operate with fewer regulatory constraints. Even though the first step in both of these is identical (divesting the federal government of X authority), the intended result is very different.

That’s what I’m interested in exploring. How many people who advocate devolution do so because they believe in the effectiveness of state and local government (whether through experimentation or otherwise), and how many because they believe, well, the opposite?

And erislover, could you restate your point? I didna savvy. :slight_smile:

Oh, I forgot to say, regarding experimentation, that one way to do it which would eliminate some of the problems I raised is to establish a national “floor” for experimentation results. That is, tell states that they have five years to do whatever they want to do regarding, for example, water quality, but that if, by that time, there is greater than 15 parts per billion of arsenic in water samples from that state, then their water policy reverts to federal control. That’d be interesting, but probably a subject for a different thread.

Yay tripleposts!

I just figured out what erislover was saying, and it’s a good point. And, in fact (as I’m sure he knows), one of the main reasons we decided to discard the Articles of Confederation in favor of the Constitution in the first place.

Not really. Again, it’s a matter of freedom, not efficiency or effectiveness. And freedom sometimes means the freedom to fail. At any rate, I do favor a much smaller government, and one that is only incidental to most people’s lives:

But we’re already there to some extent. We have federal involvement in education, but do you really think it makes much difference? Have you moved to that state which has the absolute best educational system? Same thing with roads, police, utilities, etc.

Yes, optimal for New York might not be optimal for Utah, Alaska, or even California. But it’s really only a matter of degree. As I said before, we already have pretty large differences between the states. Adding federal involvement in many areas just detreacts from the ability of people to rule themselves and often adds to the ineffeciency of the overall agency involved.

That really doesn’t address the main issue. The 10th amendment doesn’t have an expiration date attached to it.

So your argument is more that the Administrative Procedures Act and the regulatory structure it legitimated is facially unconstitutional? :slight_smile:

Interesting. Not really where I was going with this thread, but interesting.

Anyone else wanna take a whack at the OP?

Well, if the feds have the authority to get involved in something, they should. If they don’t, then they shouldn’t. If the former is true and the feds think a period of experimentation in the vairous states makes sense, then that’s cool. But I don’t think it adds any more legitiacy to those areas where the feds shouldn’t be involved.

OK, I’ll butt out… :slight_smile:

Don’t butt out; you’ve been really helpful! I just want something more than a dialogue, and I wanna invite others into the conversation before you and I get way off-track into constitutional stuff.

Actually, let me ask you a question: in your eyes, in what way does “freedom for freedom’s sake, even if it’s the freedom to fail” significantly differ from the #2 argument in the OP?

That is, if freedom is what you value, is your ideal outcome that neither the federal nor the state regulate in a given area? And if so, is removing power from the federal government only desirable if we don’t then turn around and make the state and local governments concomitantly more powerful?

I can’t quite reconcile these differences. To what extent is centralization a good thing? When does it apply, and when does it fail? What are the criteria? We have on the table so far, efficiency and freedom, the practical and the ideal. What I’m unclear on is when each criterion applies, or when to apply both, etc. I brought up the competing currencies thing because it is a clear-cut example of centralizing something that may or may not be practical or ideal. My dollar goes farther in Kentucky, no question. I know I could rent a killer pad in the Cleveland metro area for the rent I’m paying here along the north shore. Just killer. These places arguably have different economies, should they not float their own currency? When does unifying a currency make sense, and does that argument affect our arguments for centralizing or decentralizing power companies, or the Department of Education? More importantly, I think, does this actually reduce the size of the government or introduce redundant governments, effectively increasing the size?

It depends on what difference you expect it to make. Schools get a lot of funding locally from property taxes, something the federal government has nothing to do with. But is this an argument against the Dept or against local funding or…?

What freedom is the Department of Education taking away from local school districts?

I had another thought as well. As has been noted, you can basically separate the people who want to reduce the size and power of the federal government (by, specifically, eliminating federal agencies) into two camps: those who want to give that power to the states (that is, those who are strong believers in federalism, including experimentalists) and those who want neither the federal nor the state and local governments to have that power (that is, those who are strong believers in privatization, including “freedom for freedom’s sake” proponents). Someone can obviously be in favor of federalism in one area and in favor of privatization in another, but it seems generally that people will cleave to one side or the other–either devolution (so that the states and local governments have the power to regulate) or deregulation (so that no government has that power).

Now, one interesting thing is that the Republican Party houses a great number of states’ rights people and a great number of deregulatory people. And though the first prescription of each group is the same (take power away from the feds), the ends are very different. So another question: to those Republicans who believe in strong and vibrant state governments, do you have any concern that once the first step has been accomplished and the federal government has been divested of its authority, you’ll lose the momentum for your ultimate goal as people in favor of privatization and deregulation jump ship and work to maintain the now-status quo?

Does that question make any sense? (It does in my mind, but many things that I think sound reasonable end up as gibberish.)

I think there are 2 issues floating around in ths discussion about state’s rights, and I probably have not been very clear about distinguishing between the two.

Issue 1: Is the delineation of authority, as laid out in the US constitution, between federal and state governments the best overall situation? (I personally think it’s so close to being right on target that it would be nit-picking to argue for adjustments.)

Issue 2: Is the federal government currently opperating with the limitations placed on it by the states in the constitution as it was written (with the various amendments, of course)?

I’m not really talking about Issue #1, but rather Issue #2. Issue #1 can encompass concerns about efficiency or effectiveness, but Issue #2 is strictly about freedom. States joined the union with an explicit understanding of what the delineation of powers would be and with a process in place to amend that delineation of powers if the states so desire.

So my point is, let the feds do whatever they are legally authorized to do in the constitution, and if the states collectively want to give more power to the feds, it should be done thru the amendment process.

There’s an Issue 0 there as well: what is the delineation of authority between federal and state governments as laid out in the U.S. Constitution? The specific answer is not at all clear, and depends both on your philosophical proclivities and your preferred method of constitutional interpretation. For example:

With respect, I don’t think that’s true. And even if it is, it’s arguably the case that the landscape has changed sufficiently, over the course of time, as to bring that delineation of powers naturally along with it. A rather silly example: in the 1920s, the Supreme Court declared that baseball was exempt from the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. The reason? Essentially as follows: 1) The Act couldn’t cover anything over which Congress lacked constitutional jurisdiction. 2) Congress’s main source of constitutional jurisdiction over private individuals and industry was (and is) the commerce clause (stating, basically, that Congress can regulate interstate commerce). 3) Baseball, the Court reasoned, did not constitute interstate commerce, each team being likened more easily to a troupe of traveling actors than to an organization doing business across state lines. Thus, 4) the Act could not be applied to baseball.

Fast forward a few decades. Now we’ve got television and radio broadcasts of baseball games. We’ve got national TV contracts. We’ve got an economy that is, in general, far more integrated and expansive than it was at the time the antitrust decision was handed down. There’s no longer any credible way to argue that baseball is not interstate commerce. Were that case brought anew (and de novo) today, without the binds of stare decisis, I’ve no doubt that the current Supreme Court, notwithstanding its relatively narrow reading of the commerce clause in Lopez and Morrison, would reject any argument that baseball is exempt from antitrust statutes. Did the Constitution change? No. There was no amendment that redefined what interstate commerce meant. Did the application of the Constitution to the world in which we live change? Arguably so.

Same thing with administrative agencies. The constitutionality of the Administrative Procedures Act and of the tremendous power delegated to federal agencies and executive departments is a fixed star in the firmament, and has been for half a century. Thus, the answer to your Issue #2 is, broadly, yes. Sometimes agency action is struck down, but the agencies themselves are operating with valid constitutional authority. But of course, the Constitution in this case only tells us what the federal government can do, not what it must do. It would, as far as I know, be completely constitutional for the feds to dissolve the Department of Education and disperse its duties among state and local governments.

So this thread is taking as a starting point that your Issue #2 is answered in the affirmative. It’s asking whether people who would have the federal government reach less than its entire alloted constitutional scope of powers believe that those powers are better (or more legitimately) handled by the states, or that the optimal outcome is that no government be able to regulate effectively.

As such, I’m still really interested in your answer to my question earlier in the thread. To wit:

If freedom is what you value, is your ideal outcome that neither the federal nor the state regulate in a given area? Or that some regulation is necessary, but that it should be by the states and localities? If the former, is removing power from the federal government only desirable if we don’t then turn around and make the state and local governments concomitantly more powerful?

I start out with the idea that the purpose of government is to secure freedom for the citizens of a given country. As such, I don’t really have issue with envirnomental regulations (provided they’re based on real science) as we’re talking about the quality of common areas that simply cannot be regulated any other way. Regulations that are strictly areas of personal choice (seatbelt laws come to mind) are at the opposite end of the spectrum. Then you have the grey areas in the middle, like workplace safety. We’re not used to regulating things like that by the private market in our society, but it’s not clear to me that it **can’t ** be done that way as effectively as by the government.

I don’t have an issue, per se, with increasing local goverment “power” as a trade-off for decreased federal “power”, but again that local power should derive from the democractically crafted state constitution. Ultimately, the government derives its authority in every area from the people. As much as I would lobby for limited government even at that state level, in a democracy you have to be willing to accept that the majority won’t necessarily agree with you.

Thanks for the thoughtful response, John. I’d still love for some other posters to participate and take a shot at my questions; I suspect they may be staying away because I happened to hit upon the most boring thread title ever. :slight_smile:

Frankly, speaking as a non-American, I think that your country is already amazingly devolved. I can’t think of any other country that has the equivalent of your 51 different law codes, for example, and the fact that the federal government has little or no say in how your federal elections are run is a bit mind-boggling.

It’s actually a very exciting topic, Gadarene, but I hesitate to participate for two reasons: (1) the inevitable pile-on when I, as the lone classical liberal, take on a barrage of complex hypotheticals having little to do with the topic at hand, whereupon I will be accused of hijacking, and if I can’t spend hours responding to every redundant question I will be accused of evasion; and (2) I believe I recall that you dislike me intensely by default and disinvited me from another of your threads. Have things progressed, do you think, or would I still be a destabalizing presence?

Do Canadian provinces not have different laws? If not, what’s the purpose of having the provinces at all?


I agree, but you can blame it on the Constitution. :slight_smile:


I don’t remember doing anything like that. If I did, it was unconscionably rude and I sincerely apologize.

I welcome your participation in this thread - with the caveat that you and I often seem to be operating from very different (heh) contexts, with the result that we sometimes seem unable to understand what the other person thinks is a simple, if not simplistic, set of premises (see the Environmental Standards in Libertaria thread for a great example of you and I talking absolutely past one another). If you do choose to participate, I only ask that you be patient with me and not ascribe disingenuity to what will no doubt be genuine misapprehension. And I promise to do the same. We must lay our rhetorical foundations piece by piece with each other, my friend, and never assume that something is assumed. :slight_smile: