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December 2007
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Federalism

Just saw this bit:

The Federalism Issue
(Matthey Yglesias, The Atlantic)

In practice, arguments about federalism are almost universally made opportunistically. People favor devolving power to the states when they think doing so will produce policies they approve of, and people favor concentrating power in Washington when they think doing so will produce policies they approve of. Everyone knows this. And while one might condemn the hypocrisy of it all, this always strikes me as a good thing to be hypocritical about. I don’t really have a principled view about the appropriate division of powers between states and the federal government and don’t really intend to develop one. The congressional policy being enacted here seems to me to be a good one, so that’s good enough for me.

My immediate response is that this is probably a very good example of one of the major problems of politics today. All politics SHOULD start with a core vision of what comprises good government… completely independent of any specific issues… completely blind to who may or may not be in power… as both issues and who is in power shift over time… then when looking at how to address any specific issue, that discussion should be framed within the constraints of that model.

When politics starts with individual issues and is organized only on trying to find the optimal way to game the system to get results on those issues, then of COURSE the system is going to get horribly corrupted over time. Maybe you will get results on those specific issues. The desired policy result in the short term will perhaps be exactly as desired. But over time, the shortcuts and distortions to the process eventually come back on some other issue in the opposite direction. It all becomes a muddled mess instead of a functioning system.

Now, it is one thing if there really was a fundamental disagreement on what constitutes good government… in terms of balance of powers between state, federal, local and between executive, legislative and judicial… perhaps even between national and international… and of course on the fundamental of which things government should be involved in at all, and which it should not be… but I think Yglesias actually has it correct. The real case is that most people actually don’t care and don’t have a principled opinion on those issues. They only use those things in whatever way happens at the moment to push their own view on some specific issue.

Yglesias seems to think that is OK. I think that is a horrible problem and perhaps core to the increasingly divided and dysfunctional political culture we see today.

Having some sort of national consensus — or at least real discussion — on what the proper roles, functions, and interrelations of the various parts of government — divorced from the specific issues of today — would be very healthy.

Unfortunately, it won’t happen.