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Liberal Federalism

Friday, July 23, 2004
There's an idea I've been kicking around for a while: decentralizing more power to the state and local level. Now most liberals will look at this suggestion with horror. Republicans have been suggesting this for years aa a back door way to kill federal social programs, and liberals have typically pointed to the "race to the bottom" as an insuperable obstacle. States usually compete with each other to minimize social spending in order to attract more businesses.

So why, despite these criticisms, do I like the idea of decentralizing power? I have three reasons: as political strategy, as good policy, and as achieving the aims of democratic theory.

To the first point: the Republicans have had two arguments against political popular liberal social program. They can either straightforwardly oppose the program on its merits, which can result in galling political defeats for them ("No money for education!" is not the world's greatest campaign slogan). The other is to mask this position by claiming that the program should be handled by the states. The states will then ignore the program, and it will never amount to anything.

So my suggestion is to take this smokescreen away from them. We can do so by arguing that we use the states to pursue liberal objectives. The national government's job is to identify national problems, articulate general solutions, and provide resources. The states can then tailor the funding to their own specific needs and culture. Basically I'm suggesting that we use something slightly more specific than block grants (here's a bunch of money to hire teachers- have fun). We can also include the states in the policy-making process. And since the governors, no matter what their party, are more likely to embrace social spending, it can put pressure on the Congress. Either the Republican Congressmen will have to fight with their own governors and revealed as against popular programs; or the Republican governors will have to alienate their own constituency by appearing to be as radical as the national party. This approach also has the advantage of removing the "big government" label that has been such a burden to liberalism in the last few decades.

So that's the politics. I also think that policy-wise this can work. Liberals might object that the states will just use the new money to displace old money. But this is a problem that can be gotten around. If the state of Georgia can figure out a way make sure the lottery money is used on education, then surely we can do so on other policies. Another benefit would be to force liberals to organize advocacy groups at the state level. Right now the left is far too concentrated on washington, and such a strategy might provide a real impulse towards liberal mobilization.

Which brings me to my final argument: that this a good policy from a theoretical point of view as well. New Deal Liberalism has been far too attached to centralized bureaucratic solutions, which has fed anti-government alienation and passivity that has only aided the right. What we should do is follow a path we turned away from in the late 1960's- community-based democratic participation. We need to draw people into the policy-making process, and help them see that personal involvement has real consequences. There is a real sense out there that our democratic institutions are in a state of decay, that there is a declining vigor in our civic life. We need to speak to these concerns.

What I want to make very clear is that "liberal federalism" as I call it is not just about shifting powers to the states, but combining the flexibility and democratic character of state and local government with the power and energy of the national government. In short, we need to end this sterile debate between the heirs of Hamilton and Jefferson by synthesizing the insights of both. That's the only way we can defeat the modern-day heirs of Calhoun who have conquered the Republican party.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 3:39 PM
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