Saturday, June 15, 2013

The undeclared civil war

Prof. Robert Reich, UC-Berkeley.
Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich has noticed that, in the absence of legislation from Washington, the states are pretty much fending for themselves. The problem is, according to his article in the Christian Science Monitor, “many blue states are moving further left, while red states are heading rightward. In effect, America is splitting apart without going through all the trouble of a civil war.”

Of course, Congressional conservative Republicans are to blame. They’ve shut Congress down, refused to play ball with Our Glorious Leader, and left the states to their own devices. But while this sudden absence of power in Washington has allowed blue states to do various worthy things like hike taxes on the rich, impose stricter gun regulations and legalize pot, it’s also allowed the evil red states to cut education and basic services, as well as allow anyone to carry a gun and shoot on sight.

So okay, maybe I exaggerate Reich’s liberal spin on the issues, but that he is a liberal is left to no one’s doubt. (Professor of public policy at UC-Berkeley? Go figure.)

“Federalism is as old as the Republic,” Reich remarks, “but not since the real Civil War have we witnessed such a clear divide between the states on central issues affecting Americans.” Trenchantly observed; and yet from the tenor of what follows, it appears that Reich can’t truly grasp its meaning. To Reich, it’s not so much that red and blue are going their separate ways but rather that red is having a hard time getting with the national program. Federalism is fine when Minnesota legalizes gay marriage and expands trade-union rights, but when Arizona allows state troopers to check the immigration status of suspected illegals, or North Carolina puts surcharges on hybrid and electric cars …? The idea that different values might be in play doesn’t seem to enter his mind.

This devolution of power to the states raises for Reich three problems:

First, it leads to a race to bottom. Over time, middle-class citizens of states with more generous safety nets and higher taxes on the wealthy will become disproportionately burdened as the wealthy move out and the poor move in, forcing such states to reverse course. If the idea of “one nation” means anything, it stands for us widely sharing the burdens and responsibilities of citizenship.

Forget the question of whether local, private efforts will ever succeed better than the national government at feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless. From the libertarian perspective, such activities aren’t essential functions of the government, and therefore aren’t legitimate grounds for taxation. To the protest, “But these people will die if they don’t get help!”, the libertarian responds, “And that’s a damned shame, but it’s still no justification for the federal government to play Robin Hood.”

For the fiscal conservative, transfer payments constitute a drag on the economy; the funds taken away from the wealthy could be better spent as capital investment to provide jobs for the same people the transfer payments are supposed to help. Whether or not the conservative and libertarian hold morally correct positions, they point to a fundamentally different concept of “the burdens and responsibilities of citizenship”, one that Reich can’t — or won’t — acknowledge, let alone reckon with.

Second, it doesn’t take account of spillovers — positive as well as negative. Semi-automatic pistols purchased without background checks in one state can easily find their way easily to another state where gun purchases are restricted. By the same token, a young person who receives an excellent public education courtesy of the citizens of one states [sic] is likely to move to another state where job opportunity are better. We are interdependent. No single state can easily contain or limit the benefits or problems it creates for other states.

Spillovers are included in the price many people are willing to pay for more localized government. The relevant question in any given issue is which level of government would most effectively address the problem; the principle of subsidiarity holds that nothing should be done on a higher level which can be more efficiently and effectively done on a lower, more local level. More tellingly, though, on any given question, spillovers are “their” problem, not “ours”; we may all be Americans, but Texans aren’t New Yorkers and Tennesseans aren’t Californians. Local and regional allegiances still matter to most people.

Finally, it can reduce the power of minorities. For more than a century “states rights” has been a euphemism for the efforts of some whites to repress or deny the votes of black Americans. Now that minorities are gaining substantial political strength nationally, devolution of government to the states could play into the hands of modern-day white supremacists.

Here Reich pretty much abandons reason and goes for pure emotional manipulation, just as Sandra Flake, in her 2012 DNC speech, raised the specter of teeming hordes of misogynists waiting to repress women should the Republicans take charge. The clue: While many people who favored segregation and “Jim Crow laws” used to speak in terms of “states’ rights”, to call it a euphemism for racial repression is a gross mischaracterization, a blatant attempt to tar all who favor states’ rights with the racism brush. Furthermore, racism and racial supremacism aren’t one and the same; bigotry is still a working force in American minds, but white supremacy as a political force is as dead as Latin.

Now, I can applaud the fact that Reich is making essentially nationalist arguments, as distinct from statist arguments. The point of Reich’s post is not that big, “nanny state” national governments solve everything but rather that governing from the federal level makes for more consistent solutions that socialize both costs and benefits more evenly.

But because the federal government’s solutions may be more consistent doesn’t mean they’re necessarily better, more desirable, or even good. Sometimes the solutions have to come from the local level to be tailored to local conditions, because ultimately people don’t live in nations — they live in communities. More to the point, though, if the solution proposed strikes about half the nation as not only a bad idea but a violation of their political values, then it’s no benefit to argue that the solution violates those values more consistently and more efficiently when imposed on the federal level.

Especially if they don’t believe there is a problem … or, at any rate, that it’s their problem.

So the problems are being worked with on the state and local level because the federal government is paralyzed. Is it better this way? Shrug; your mileage may vary. It may even stave off a real civil war. Some would say this is the way our Founding Fathers meant most problems to be solved.

Both red-staters and blue-staters believe in the right to have a different opinion. They just don’t believe those different opinions have the right to be written into law. The fewer values we share, the fewer compromises we can reach on the values we don’t.

And the less viable democracy becomes.