Monday, July 02, 2007

Devolving Government

Today’s Utah Policy Daily includes an article by LaVarr Webb that echoes his regular calls for more federalism to solve problems with the federal government (scroll down to Monday Musings). Webb says that last week’s failure of the Senate’s immigration bill shows that Congress is “entirely inept” at solving the major issues facing our nation.

One of the major causes of the ineptness of the federal government, per Webb, is that the fed has simply grown too big and has its fingers in too many things. Webb says that “the founders never intended the federal government to grow as big, as pervasive or as expensive as it is today. They didn’t intend it to take over nearly every government program impacting every aspect of life as it has today.”

Webb assumes that the probable cause of our current situation is “congressional overreaching over many decades.” While that is certainly a factor, I wonder if he remembers the Civil War. We fought a war over the issue of a weak central government vs. a strong central government, and the strong side won. Webb refers to “sovereign states” in his thoughtful article. But we do not in fact have sovereign states. The entire premise of the Civil War was that no state was sovereign and had no right, therefore, to secede from the Union.

The outcome of the Civil War and subsequent legal determinations mean that all states are subdivisions of the U.S. and are not sovereign members of a confederacy. For this reason, the Supreme Court has held that constitutional provisions that apply to the federal government, such as the First Amendment’s establishment of religion clause, apply to state (and sub-state) governments as well.

Like it or not, we live in a country that has a strong central government.

But Webb is right that the federal government was intended “to be limited to a few specific things, delegated by the Constitution, and to do those few things well.” Everything else was to be left to the states. The central government has far overstepped the boundaries of its enumerated powers and a willing judicial branch has supported this expansion.

Decentralization results in a lack of uniformity. Even as I write this, the federal government is being lobbied to take over various state responsibilities in the name of uniformity and easing of burdens. Many will argue that decentralizing activities essentially leads to lack of uniformity, which means problems for citizens, especially in today’s mobile society where citizens move between states with regularity.

In another essay, however, Webb eloquently calls for moving each function of government to its most appropriate level. To deal with the messiness this would otherwise cause, Webb calls for mimicking computer networking. He writes, “Just as in a computer network, states would have to agree on standards and protocols to deal with complex interstate issues. But the motto ought to be “national standards, local control,” not top-down, bureaucratic dictates from a one-size-fits-all central government.”

Having a strong centralized government need not mean that the central government has to deal with every single issue first hand. Indeed, even a strong central government could function well (arguably better than it does today) by sticking to those activities enumerated to it in the Constitution, and by delegating all else to the states and their subdivisions.

The major drawback I see with Webb’s plan is that the setting of national standards while allowing local control would either create a mass of unfunded federal mandates for the states, or else would require a huge centralized collection with federal officials controlling the purse strings. States decry the former and some of the current programs that function according to the latter are rife with problems due to overregulation. Could federal officials prevent themselves from over regulating? Sorry, but I just can’t see it. It seems to be the nature of the beast.

In the end, part of me agrees with Webb’s cynical suggestion that a gridlocked Congress might be the best thing we can hope for at present. “At least they’re not making things worse, which is always a real danger. The country may be better off with a do-nothing Congress.” Maybe he’s right.


Democracy Lover said...

There are lots of problems with decentralization including duplication of services (and costs), as well as discrimination in the provision of services, if not by race or gender, certainly by geography.

It is clear that neither political party believes in state's rights or a smaller and less intrusive federal government. The only difference is in the specifics. Republicans love it when the federal government overrides state regulations that affect big business, they love it when the federal courts overrule state courts in cases that are clearly within the rights of states as enumerated by the Constitution. Democrats want to use the federal government to actually help the citizens of the country. There's a big difference.

Reach Upward said...

Your assessment of Republicans is accurate — at least with respect to many in the GOP. But your assessment of Democrats is far too optimistic. They are no less likely than Republicans to hail anything that they believe works in their political favor regardless of the principle of the matter.

Case in point is the howling of Democrats over the recent SCOTUS ruling in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, which upheld the provisions of Brown v. Board of Education. In both cases, parents wanted to send their kids to the most convenient schools, but were stymied by the school districts involved because of the child's skin color.

The court ruled that school districts may not discriminate against a student on the basis of skin color. Democrats loved Brown, but apparently hated Parents Involved. Why? Because the result of Brown was to require racial integration due to disregarding skin color, while the result of Parents Involved may be in some cases to prevent districts from forcing integration based on skin color. But the basis of each ruling is that students are now free to attend schools that are most convenient regardless of skin color.

Democrats have spent 43 years hailing Brown for allowing children of any race the freedom to attend the school of their choice. But when the same principle is used in a way that might result in less integration at some schools (based on people's personal choices), Democrats decry it as racist.

I readily admit that the GOP is a lousy fit for Classical Libralism. I have no problem pointing out the GOP's problems. But your comment makes it appear that you are blind to Democratic incongruencies with their stated principles.

Jesse Harris said...

Democracy Lover: There's always an optimum level at which various functions of government can operate. If a program is too small, there's not enough specialization of internal functions and everyone wears several hats. If a program is too big, then we end up with a situation in which the bureaucracy is expanding to meet the needs of the growing bureaucracy. The trick is to get the balance just right to prevent the latter while avoiding the former. In the case of many federal programs already administered by the states (TANF, food stamps, etc.), it makes no sense to have some kind of federal oversight that only adds more layers of management to the system, reducing effectiveness and allowing states to tweak their own programs (or even eliminate them).

Regarding "geographic" discrimination, I have to say "so what?" Each area of the country is different and should be able to run programs differently. Even in our own state, St. George, Moab and Ogden all have very diverse needs, many of which will not be met properly by state programs, much less federal ones. Decentralization lets you cast off crushing homogeneity in favor of programs tailored to meet local needs. I also fail to see how devolving programs to states, counties and cities can introduce race and gender discrimination. Perhaps you can elaborate on that one.