Polarized States: A Quick Update

A few weeks ago I blogged political polarization among states, and the potential upsides. The topic has traction. Adam Freedman and the Manhattan Institute have a fine take here. And the New York Times has two feature-length pieces here and here. Mirabile dictu, these actually convey information.

The first piece examines the national political strategies (on both sides) to shape state politics: hugely interesting. The pessimistic interpretation is that states are becoming mere staging grounds for national winner-takes-all combat. The optimistic interpretation: it’s good that the combatants have to fight state-by-state. It diffuses and compartmentalizes the conflicts.

The second piece is on the stark differences between Duluth (Minnesota) and Superior (Wisconsin), across the St. Louis river from each other and connected by a bridge. The article illustrates not only the pronounced, policy-driven differences among states that ought to be pretty similar but also federalism’s bundling effects: you get gay rights on one side and a favorable business environment on the other. You can’t have both.

The bundling effect is often mobilized to “demonstrate” that competitive federalism can’t be “efficient.” In blackboard models (of the “Tiebout” variety), this is true: you lose the equilibrium. But that has never struck me as a terribly useful line of inquiry. As one of my mentors (the late Aaron Wildavsky) used to say, “Life comes in bundles.” Children are a joy and a pest—you can’t have one without the other. You may want a car with the safety of a Sherman tank and the fuel efficiency of a Volt: you can’t have it. The trade-offs are everywhere, and no regulator can do anything about them. On federalism as on many other matters, the question is whether we get to choose the bundles or have the federal government decide the optimal mix.

Not even close.

Michael S. Greve is a professor at George Mason University School of Law. From 2000 to August, 2012, Professor Greve was the John G. Searle Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, where he remains a visiting scholar. Before coming to AEI, Professor Greve cofounded and, from 1989 to 2000, directed the Center for Individual Rights, a public interest law firm. He holds a Ph.D. and M.A. in government from Cornell University, and completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Hamburg. Currently, Professor Greve also chairs the board of the Competitive Enterprise Institute and is a frequent contributor to the Liberty Law Blog. Professor Greve has written extensively on many aspects of the American legal system. His publications include numerous law review articles and books, including most recently The Upside-Down Constitution (Harvard University Press, 2012). He has also written The Demise of Environmentalism in American Law (1996); Real Federalism: Why It Matters, How It Could Happen (1999); and Harm-less Lawsuits? What's Wrong With Consumer Class Actions (2005). He is the coeditor, with Richard A. Epstein, of Competition Laws in Conflict: Antitrust Jurisdiction in the Global Economy (2004) and Federal Preemption: States' Powers, National Interests (2007); and, with Michael Zoeller, of Citizenship in America and Europe: Beyond the Nation-State? (2009).

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  1. R Richard Schweitzer says


    “. . . the question is whether we get to choose the bundles or have*** the federal government decide the optimal mix.”

    Insert: ***the people, mostly unelected, who operate

    Reason: “The Government” does not decide anything; people do. The government, like so much else, is simply a result (the results) of human actions.

  2. says

    Professor Greve, Michael, reading your sentence, “On federalism as on many other matters, the question is whether we get to choose the bundles or have the federal government decide the optimal mix” – it strikes my present thoughts that we need to return to the turn of Jefferson’s election – for Federalism and the return of peoples (States) rights, and certainly not the “bundles” the federal branches are fostering upon us.
    Thank you for your timely essay.
    Respectfully, John

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