13 January 2011

Let's Call the Right Wing on Their Bluff

Full disclosure: I am a proud, dyed-in-the-wool, American liberal. I believe I am the keeper of my brother if he is weaker or in need. I believe healthcare is a right, not a privilege. I believe a government’s reach does not extend to a woman’s control over her own body. I believe marriage is not a special right reserved to people of a particular sexual orientation. I unapologetically believe that, to paraphrase Oliver Wendell Holmes, taxes are the price we should happily pay as the cost of a just, safe and civil society. I believe that rights belong to people, not corporations and other abstract legal entities: such entities’ existence and behavior should be regulated at the discretion of our citizens so that the former serve the latter, not the other way around.

Now that I have established my left-wing bona fides, allow me to commit liberal heresy. We liberals should accede to the right wing’s assertion of the preeminence of states’ rights over federal policy in all but the unarguably national arenas. The view of the right wing is best summarized by Texas governor Rick Perry’s recent quote to the effect that people vote with their feet, so if policy is left to the states and their citizens don’t like it, they can move to states whose laws more closely reflect those their beliefs. I have recently been won over to this point of view for a number of reasons:

1) As Jared Diamond (the noted ornithologist-cum-anthropologist and a hero of mine) has lamented, our convergence towards an increasingly homogeneous world culture has greatly reduced the variety of ‘experiments’ we can run to find the best outcomes for society. If we in the United States strip away the centralized federal model in favor of 50 different states each conducting its own ‘experiment’ within a looser federal union, we have 50 experiments running all at once, which could lead to new models of government and political economy. This could benefit not just Americans, but the entire world.

2) The Republicans are right about one thing: devolving power to the states does indeed increase freedom in the very real sense that local populations are free to decide on the model that best suits them, instead of bowing to a national “50 percent + 1” majority.* And that leads to the final reason...

3) Americans have lost the ability to reach a true national consensus. Every decision is made by essentially cobbling together agendas that represent just under half of the people’s will, then getting just enough indecisive people in the middle to support those goals, goals that in turn enrage the 49.9% left on the other side. For example, if I get my way on healthcare**, it basically alienates the 49.9% of America that didn’t get its way. That isn’t consensus; it’s imposition.

So I propose we strip the American federal government of everything but defense, foreign affairs and trade policy, the federal courts system, constitutionally-mandated census work, interstate transportation and commerce regulation (including food and drug safety), national parks, national security (e.g. CIA), national law enforcement (e.g. FBI), and exploration (e.g. NASA). Shut down Social Security and Medicare and divvy up and distribute to the states the current assets of those programs based on each state’s prior year contributions to them. Cease all national funding of education and arts. Shut down Medicaid and all federal welfare. Shut down all programs geared towards fostering and subsidizing corporations of all sizes (e.g. Small Business Administration). Shut down Housing and Urban Development. Cease all centrally-planned agricultural policies and subsidies. Then calculate how much money would be needed to fund the few federal departments and programs we’ve left in place and then, on a pay-as-you-go basis, simply require that states turn over that money at the start of each fiscal year, basing their contributions on their share of national GDP. (Also included in the money required of the states should be funds required to pay interest on the debt and enough money to pay off that debt within 20 years.) All federal tax collection at every level (personal and corporate) would cease, leaving only fee-for-service collections for programs like national parks. How the states structure their tax systems to pay their annual federal tab and their own internal expenses, is entirely up to them. Each state decides for itself how and even if it wants to fund such programs as aid to the poor, universal healthcare, pensions, etc.

There will be two overarching consequences to trying this approach. The first will be short-term. The hypocrisy of the right wing will be exposed since conservative states that pretend to hate the federal government even as they benefit from its largesse, will be forced to face the stark reality of life without net inflows of income that many of them receive. (Isn’t it ironic, by the way, that the reddest states that so despise ‘federal waste’ are most often the net recipients of government revenue, while the many blue states that are net contributors seem to mind it the least?)

The second, longer-term consequence (and benefit) is that after a generation or so, we will finally be able to settle the argument of which models offer the most benefits and lead to the maximum happiness of the citizens. As a liberal, I am convinced that after 30 years or so, states like my adopted home state of Massachusetts will have better-educated, wealthier, happier and healthier citizens living in cleaner places. I think red states like my native Tennessee will choke (quite literally) on their ‘freedom’ from such things as healthcare and environmental regulation. Conservatives will of course wager that after a generation, their models will have proven to have produced the best outcomes. Either way, the argument will slowly be won and we can return to a truly national consensus, after which point we may return to a more centralized model based on that new consensus (if the left ‘wins’) or just maintain the devolved approach (if the right ‘wins’).

The one wrinkle may be that both sides may well claim victory because they will ask different questions about their respective models’ successes. Liberals will ask who is happiest, wealthiest (pre-tax) and healthiest. Conservatives will likely ask questions like who is ‘freer’ in the sense of being less obligated to communal needs; how many corporations are headquartered in their borders (since lower corporate taxes will likely attract many companies even if their largest markets are in, and most revenue comes from, the blue states); and how much after-tax income the ‘average’ person has (even if that average masks huge disparities between the richest and poorest as their middle classes are squeezed out). If we are therefore unable to agree on ‘who wins’, there will never be a return to national consensus, in which case I would expect to see the states drift towards regional federations of like-minded states, with the overall union eventually doomed to a slow extinction through obsolescence.

The beauty of this idea lies in its simplicity: no phonebook-size laws, just a simple raft of repeals that undo all the relevant laws, with perhaps a few new laws to govern distribution of assets to the states, collection of states’ contributions to the remaining federal programs, and to replace still-needed sections of repealed laws. Since all funds for Social Security and Medicare would simply be refunded to the states, we wouldn’t even need complicated grandfather clauses to phase out those programs. Citizen pressure should suffice to ensure that the refunded money is used for similar programs at state level. (And if not, vote with your feet!) There would be high transitional unemployment as legions of federal workers are thrown out of work, but their skills would doubtless soon be required at state level and the federal government would send them on their way with one-time payouts in order to liquidate federal employee pension obligations. The relatively few remaining federal workforce would keep their benefits and be exempted from any state-level pension contribution requirements.

There is also an historical beauty to this approach in the way it would bring us full circle: The Enlightenment-inspired Jeffersonians to whom we liberals ultimately trace our roots, were the original champions of states’ right; but in the 20th century we switched places with the Republicans, having decided that our liberal goals were best pursued at the federal level. We could now reclaim the Tenth Amendment as our own.

So let us liberals call the right wing on their bluff. Let’s try it their way and see who comes out on top.***


*Whether or not this 'freedom' to behave foolishly and deprive certain people of rights and even human dignity is a good kind of freedom, is another discussion for another day.

**I didn't. No public single-payer option means this reform was far from complete.

***For the record, I know there's no way this experiment is going to happen. But as a mental exercise, it's worthwhile to consider if for no other reason than that it reveals the hypocrisy of the right wing. Their attitude and actions seem akin to those of the weakling who says "hold me back or I'll kill 'em"....knowing full well that he is being securely 'held back'.

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