What Good Are States?
[I]t’s difficult to think of what kind of issues are actually well-suited to be dealt with at a state level. It’s easy to think of kinds of issues that Arlington County, Virginia, should address on its own without input from people who live in Norfolk, VA or Montgomery County, Maryland or Boise, Idaho. These are your local government responsibilities. And it’s also easy to think of issues that should be decided in common between Arlington and Norfolk and Montgomery and Boise. These are your federal responsibilities. But it’s very hard to think of what kinds of things should involve Arlington and Norfolk, but not Montgomery County. Conversely, it’s pretty easy to think of things that should involve Arlington County and Montgomery County but not Norfolk or Boise. These would be metropolitan region issues.
But we don’t have any level of governance that addresses metro area issues. And we don’t really live our lives “at the state level.” And insofar as co-residents of a single state do have idiosyncratic issues in common that tends to be because important fiscal and regulatory powers have been allocated to state government rather than because it actually makes sense for them to have been allocated this way.
The states where you see a real commonality of political interest are small states: Montanans and Alaskans have discrete needs in ways that Californians really don't. That is to say that states have more commonality of interest when they're about as large as a mid-size city, as opposed to a mid-sized country. And because we give the city-sized states as much representation in the Senate as we give to the country-sized states, the city-sized states have even more incentive to emphasize their political interests.
That arrangement might be good for Montanans, but it doesn't make a lot of sense for the country. I've occasionally argued for a more proportional Senate, only to be asked "what do you have against small states?" Well, nothing in particular. I just don't consider states to be a particularly useful political unit. Why not apportion Congress by race? Or population density? Or income? All of those options seem a bit nuts, but the only reason that states make any sense to us is because it's always been thus. All of those options make a lot more sense than organizing representation around the boundaries of Missouri.
And it's not as if there was some high-minded reason for state-based representation a few hundred years back. Rather, states were given a lot of power because that was the only way to entice them into joining a union. It was a coldly political compromise. It's good we got that done, but some of the structural concessions that were required don't make that much sense in the 21st century. Not that "does this make sense?" is a particularly powerful consideration in our system.
October 9, 2009; 3:41 PM ET
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