Sunday, July 30, 2006

Federalism is good for Liberals

Reasons that I think Federalism is good for Liberals:

1. It’s more Democratic.
I’m not someone who believes that more Democracy is automatically a goal in itself. But on the whole, and certainly in my own world, I have to believe that more representation and a greater level of accountability is preferable. Congress is particularly bad. Gerrymandered, representing often hundreds of thousands of people, they listen out of necessity to lobbyists and special interests. The State and Local level are far better avenues for representation and accountability. Most Liberals tend to agree that local = accountable & democratic = good.

2. It force Liberals to get serious
The past twenty years saw a dramatic withering in the rhetorical power of Liberalism and Democrats. Democrats could depend on an ironclad majority in Congress that seemed impregnable; why care about State Governments or the South when the majority is secured? Liberal interest groups grew an unhealthy reliance on the Judiciary. Even twelve years after Republicans took over the house, the Democrats struggle to GOTV.

Only very recently have Liberals, such as Dean, realized that politics is about winning every race – state, local, federal. That a majority in Congress comes from a majority of the people. That meant a long, hard road of relearning how to talk to the red states. Federalism encourages that process by re-engaging liberalism with the lost states and people that have a lot to gain from social moderation and economic liberalism.

3. It’s Tactically safer
I reached political awareness after 1994. Thus, my image of liberalism has been decline and defeat, with only occasional oases of safety and marginal victories. My goal is to preserve and protect what we have gained, even if it necessarily limits what can be done in the future. A perfect methodology is to appropriate the same strategy Conservatives used to protect their way of life – devolve political power to the States and Localities. California will be free to institute gay marriage, protect abortion, and even institute stronger health policies. We may even see the day where Federalism is the thin wedge used to break free from draconian drug laws and nonsensical immigration policies.

4. It’s more in line with the Constitution
The design of the Constitution never intended the current level of political power to be concentrated in one body. It was intended to be considerably diffused among the states, localities, and nationally. The result of political concentration has been poor management by Congress, a hyper-struggle over power within the nation, and a winner-take-all system. Not to mention considerable debt. A weaker Congress will be able to deal more efficiently with specific areas, while the States can deal with areas of their own competence. In addition, a failure by one state to act intelligently won’t really damage the other 49.

5. A Thousand Flowers…
Liberalism is partially about the willingness to experiment, to grow as a country. To try out different programs and ideas to combat a list of social problems. Often, this is best accomplished not by one massive, all-or-nothing program, but by an iterative series of experiments. States learn from other states. Good programs are emulated, bad ones ditched. This kind of low-risk, high-reward system is only possible with the growing commitment of political issues to states.


Tommaso Sciortino said...

Interesting post. Here's my reaction:

1. Yes, it is more democratic but I don't know if it's clear that state congress is better than federal congress. They both seem pretty sucky to me. I do admit that the US senate is screwed up beyond repair.

2. This is the argument I have the most difficulty with. I mean, in the past Democrats weren't serious about elections *only insofar as good liberal policies were being enacted without them*. It seems silly to look upon this as a problem: the point of an election is to enact good liberal policies, not to get really good at GOTV. I mean, look if we were really interested in forcing liberals to get serious we would change the laws to count liberals as 3/5ths of a vote. That would surely force democrats to get a stellar GOTV campaign.

3. Agreed.

4. I agree. But then, if we were really interested in the spirit of the constitution we wouldn't support social security and the EPA. We are already in the business of picking and choosing what we like in the original spirit of the constitution.

5. This is a good argument, but as economist you'll agree that certain programs aren't going to work nearly as efficiently on a local scale as they do on a federal one. Sometimes it's worth it to give up "thousand flowering" for the efficieny of scale.

I find your arguments compelling but maybe not as compelling as you thinkg they are. I certainly agree that "federalsim is good in general" but I'm keeping an open mind on the subject. There are certain things which are just handeled more efficiently at the federal level. in those instance it may not be the case that "federalism is good" for anybody.

Kevin said...

1. I'd argue that greater accountabilty to voters weakly leads to greater intelligence. California has not borne this out. This may be more an idealization of the democratic process then a real description of state v. federal competence.

2. I think my point here was that liberals once could win on policy without winning 'hearts and minds,' so to speak. In the long run, this would lead to a weak Democratic party, and thus fewer policy victories. I think this has been borne out in the past twelve years. Combatting all 50 states should mean, in the long run, more like-minded thinkers.

5. Certainly! Lord knows, there are vast, vast areas where the Feds are more competent/efficient. I'm merely saying we should presume an issue is local until proven federal, rather then the converse.

Tommaso Sciortino said...

5. That's something I can agree with without reservation.

Paul said...

This sounds, to me, like a list of reasons why federalism is good for everybody. Which, of course, would mean it's good for liberals, too. Which is fine; federalism has its virtues. But, like Tom said, I think it's easy to overestimate those virtues considerably.

I think your point number 3 is a good example of this overestimation. One of the logistical virtues of liberal policies is that they tend to be difficult to undo. Liberals don't need to make huge changes in strategy to "preserve and protect what we have gained"; we've gained social security, Medicare, the interstate highway system, abortion rights...nobody's going to take those accomplishments from us.

Now, those are great accomplishments, so I can agree that the prospect of losing those things is terrifying. It's also a wildly unlikely prospect, so it seems like a poor evaluation of relative risks to swing over to federalism, especially "if it necessarily limits what can be done in the future." This seems like cutting off our face to save our nose.

I'm also extremely uncomfortable with the suggestion that we should just go ahead and assume that all issues are local until proven otherwise. There are a couple of reasons for this, on my view.

First, like I mentioned in a previous comment thread, the vast majority of political arguments are also moral arguments, and at the end of the day I don't see why I should be satisfied that, say, gay marriage is allowed in my state if it isn't allowed in others. All of the reasons I support gay marriage apply just as well in Texas as they do in California.

Second, I don't know what the practical impact of this pro-federalism theory is supposed to be. As of today, federalism is taken seriously by virtually nobody with any power, and I don't see why this would change.

For example, I feel like one of the big neglected issues is the SCOTUS. I find it awfully convenient to have SCOTUS striking down anti-sodomy laws in Texas, precisely because it's a good way to have my views imposed on a state I don't live in. But the trick is to get the Supreme Court you want in the first place. I take it for granted that if we didn't try to get the Justices we wanted, the Right would get them uncontested. And heaven knows conservatives don't care about federalism once they control the federal government.

The trick, as I see it, is to try to win every fight, local or federal, with exceptions only at the margins, where the fight is prohibitively costly. Like I've said before, I think federalism itself is a red herring.

Kevin said...

The Interstate Highway System is Liberal?

I admit that I'm process-oriented, whereas I understand that you're entirely results-oriented. And I care much more about social harmony then getting my way on moral issues. But I consider America to be defined, as my Country, not by its political results but by the process. What is the Constitution but a detailed list of process, with some morals tacked onto the end via amendments? So yes, it is true that Federalism, and Democracy in general, have strong limits on the ability of Liberals to implement their policies. But these limitations are both a fundamental part of America and necessary for some level of social consensus.

I don't see where you want any limitation on a central power. The Supreme Court is a lot of things, but Democratic it is not -- do you want any limitations on its power? Because if it can order anything over any state, political opinion be damned, then abortion is in more trouble then you imagine. I'd like more reassurance on abortion then Stevens' continuing heartbeat. And I'd prefer Congressional approval, which actual representatives, then 8 old men and one skirt.

I see what you mean about 'Well, the Right doesn't mean all this Federalism shit, why should we?'

But the Right DOES care about Federalism, somewhat. John Roberts and Scalia care about it. It was opposition from the Right, on Federalism grounds, that helped scuttle a marriage amendment to the constitution. And there is a wide body of Conservatives that still see Federalism as a lodestar of this Country. Plenty of Conservatives are happy protecting Texas from the Supreme Court, and the rest of the country can do whatever retarded hippy shit they like. I feel like I have more in common with them then you, and your counterparts on the right, who won't be happy until every state in America marches to their drummer.

Paul said...

I'd say the interstate highway system counts among liberal victories, yes. (As well as a victory of central government action.) It was a massive public works project, but more beneficial in the long run, it seems, than many of its Depression-era predecessors.

And yeah, I am results-oriented. I see that as a logically-necessary consequence of having an ideology. What does it mean to believe that homosexuals should be allowed to marry if it doesn't mean they should be allowed to marry everywhere? The alternative seems like a sort of moral relativism - "Well, these moral rules are right for my state, but I guess other states may see it differently." Maybe I'll accept a compromise in the short term, but the compromise isn't - and shouldn't be - the goal.

Now, it's true that procedural considerations should play a role, because it's irresponsible to want results without having any sense as to how best to accomplish them. But that role is strictly instrumental - there's not a special principal about, say, how much automony the SCOTUS should have - the right answer depends entirely on what yields the best results. I don't put process before consequence.

So I most certainly want checks on Supreme Court and central power - did I ever imply otherwise? But those checks aren't my primary concern - they're secondary, and their importance derives from their effect on the results we can expect from them.

What, exactly, are we supposed to worry about on the abortion front? Suppose Stevens is all that stands between the Right and Roe v. Wade. Suppose he dies tomorrow. On my view, that's the worst case scenario for liberals - but it's your best case because suddenly abortion becomes a question for the states, no? Even though the liberal position loses ground?

And, still supposing that happens, what do liberals do next? Rest on their laurels, content to have abortion legal in some states but not others, with conservatives doing whatever they can to limit the ability of women to cross state lines to find less oppressive abortion laws?

There is, of course, some fraction of the right that cares about federalism in its own right, but I wouldn't adopt a strategy that depends on their power within the Republican Party or the conservative movement. Scalia, as I recall, has recently taken some slack for selective application of the principles of federalism in his decisions. And how many Republican votes, really, were there against the FMA? 10 or so in the Senate?

"Plenty of Conservatives are happy protecting Texas from the Supreme Court, and the rest of the country can do whatever retarded hippy shit they like. I feel like I have more in common with them then you, and your counterparts on the right, who won't be happy until every state in America marches to their drummer."

What my "counterparts" on the right have is firmness of moral conviction. You can object to that in two ways - you can say they shouldn't have firm moral convictions, or you can say they should have different moral convictions. I go with the latter. But once you have a moral conviction you're committed to it, and you can't apply it selectively.

Kevin said...

I feel strongly about my own moral convictions. What I don't have is your evangelical urge. Perhaps it's my Catholic upbringing.. I don't feel that what is best for me is necessarily best for other people -- nor do I feel so confident in the correctness of my own positions that all of politics becomes a game to impose them on other people.

I want to win by emulation, through the gradual realization by others that my position is the right one. By subtle prosetylzation. This is a Culture War, after all. I don't believe that it can be won with mere laws. Morals lead to laws, not the other way around. Laws are only workable when the people that live under them believe in them. But I worry about those people that do feel that laws can impose morals, and thus I push for checks and balances.

I don't push Federalism because I think Liberals will be worse off in the long run. I think in the long run, it will mean more Liberals, because it will force Liberals to re-engage in the Culture War that Conservatives have fought so aggressively. In the long run, Liberalism will come about not through individual policy victories, but through more liberals. And that will occur when Liberals see victory as winning every election and convincing every undecided voter, not through putting democrat asses on the Supreme Court.

Tommaso Sciortino said...

If we all lived in the same city I would suggest we get together for a pitcher to hash this out.

Paul said...

I think it's important to recognize what most liberal moral/political convications consist of. Typically they don't involve telling people what to do. Imposing the liberal abortion agenda on the country just isn't coercive in the same way the conservative abortion agenda would be - because the liberal abortion agenda isn't about making people have abortions, it's about allowing them to do so.

Also, yes, morals lead to laws, but the causation absolutely works in the other direction as well. Major liberal policy victories have, in many cases, shifted the moral debate as well as the policy debate - which gets back to liberal victories being difficult to undo.

There hasn't been any question, in my mind, that you're pushing federalism because you think it's best for liberalism in the long run. It's just that I don't see the argument. I feel like abortion is a good example of why the federalist solution is problematic, and I haven't seen to my satisfaction why I'm wrong about that or, alternatively, why it's an exceptional issue.

"In the long run, Liberalism will come about not through individual policy victories, but through more liberals. And that will occur when Liberals see victory as winning every election and convincing every undecided voter, not through putting democrat asses on the Supreme Court."

So I can't agree with that statement dismissing the importance of actual liberal victories. Part of one's ability to convince is the power of demonstration, and you need liberal policy victories to demonstrate the merits of liberal policy visions. That and everybody prefers a winner to a loser.

But that bit about "every election" I feel like we agree on. I really do think liberals need to try to win every election - federal, state, local, whatever. If we're really in a war, we ought to fight it on as many fronts as possible, especially since that's certainly what the other side is going to do.