A Smaller, Broader Federalism


This map, created by geography professor Andrew Shears in 2011, has been making the rounds. It imagines the US if its various secession movements, partition proposals, and other attempts to redraw state boundaries throughout our history had succeeded. Ozimek imagines the economic advantages of having 124 states instead of 50:

1. Competition between the states be higher as more people would be able to move to a different state and accompanying state government by moving much less distance, e.g. a lower cost of switching.

2. There would be more experimentation, and thus perhaps a greater ability to learn more about which policies work and which don’t.

3. The ability to redistribute would be lower, given point #1 above.

4. It would be easier in some places to redistribute since a larger number of states allows for more self-sorting into politically homogeneous states.

On a related note, Michael Greve makes the case for a strong contrast between red and blue states:

[T]he right, “competitive” kind of federalism requires a certain degree of polarization (or sectionalism). And the price may well be worth paying. Consider a few well-understood but underestimated advantages:

  • Competitive federalism reveals information. We can debate the abstract advantages of “red” or “blue,” “American” and “European” social models until the cows come home: there’s no substitute for observing the actual effects in real life.
  • Competitive federalism satisfies preferences. A thoroughly blue or red United States would leave one half of the country very unhappy. That’s not true under federalism—not when preferences are heterogeneous across states and (relatively) homogeneous within states. As, increasingly, now.
  • Competitive federalism reveals preferences and reduces ignorance. People move across states lines in response to a ton of factors (climate, jobs, housing costs…)—many of which are policy-dependent. “Foot-voting” is a pretty good political feed-back mechanism: sooner or later, (state) politicians will pay attention. And as my colleague Ilya Somin has argued in a recent book, there’s no incentive to cast an informed vote for the House, Senate or President; so people vote in near-total ignorance. They don’t vote that way with their feet, for obvious reasons.

You can’t have those sweet advantages without the bitter; the trick is to minimize the costs.

Update from a reader:

Is it just me, or has anyone else noticed that the ONLY state that doesn’t get shredded or sliced by state-level secession is South Carolina?  I mean, even Rhode Island has a partition to it, and that state’s barely three counties big. This is the wrong kind of irony …