Arnold Kling  

Real Electoral Reform

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In this essay, I argue that mass democracy reduces the quality of government.


In 1790, the largest state in the union, Virginia, had a population of under 700,000. Today, Montgomery County has a population of over 900,000. Our nine-member County Council answers to about the same number of registered voters as the entire House of Representatives of the United States at the time of the founding of the Republic.

We cannot have an accountable democracy with such large political units. We need to break the political entities in the United States down to a manageable size.

Instead of the present 50 states, the largest of which have more than 30 million people each, we should break the country into 250 states, with 1.2 million people each.


For Discussion. What unintended consequences might flow from this reform proposal?


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CATEGORIES: Public Choice Theory



COMMENTS (15 to date)
Ian Lewis writes:

This is a great point! New Hampshire has had a law for many years that they had to have a representative for every x number of citizens (I am sorry I can't remember what that number is). The reps. get paid no more than something like $400 a year. Recently (last 30 years?) that x has changed because of huge population growth.

I think it is interesting to note that of all the frugal state governments out there New Hampshire is always near the best, while almost all of the worst states are in the "liberal" north-east. I think that this "proper" representation plays a big part.

(I am sorry that I dont have more accurate facts on the state legislature of New Hampshire).

Robert writes:

If the consequence of reducing the size of the states is to transfer services from the state to the federal level, then the net effect of the proposal is to create highly accountable governments with little actual power, and a powerful government with little accountability.

Timothy writes:

I'm just concerned with finding 200 more names. Not to mention the size of the senate, jesus. a 500-member senate? The 100 we have already much things up, what will 5x that many do? I shudder to think.

mobile writes:

Changing the balance of power in the Senate from sparse Great Plains states to the dense regions of the coast. Or maybe this is an intended consequence. The dynamics of the Senate would converge towards the House, making it (at least temporarily) easier for Congress to get stuff done (shudder).

John Thacker writes:

New Hampshire has a gigantic House and a very small Senate currently. Why not start with simply increasing the size of the current House of Representatives? It would be easy to do, and require very few changes.

Colby Ricker writes:

The biggest problem would be the division of resources. Very few states in the union have homogenous resource distribution. In both NH and VT, there is a serious imbalance in property values, giving rise to "property rich" communities, of which Killington, VT is like the most famous. (Kilington tried to succeed from VT and join NH to avoid paying the excessive property taxes of a doner community.)

Any further division of states would likely take placce along geographic lines, further isolating the wealthy communites, from the less endowed ones.

John Thacker writes:

Merely opening the idea of increasing the number of states could cause a party which controls Congress and a State to divide that State into two in order to capture additional Senate seats.

Texas retains this right as part of their admission to the Union, incidentally; Congress already approved the right of Texas to split into as many as five states. Consider the possibilities of Republicans attempting to gain extra Senate seats by dividing Texas. (Also probably House seats, due to the way the apportionment scheme works.)

I argue that mass democracy reduces the quality of government.

Then it's good.

eric writes:

I'm for smaller more accountable government. But what about interstate commerce? Businesses would have to deal with 200 different sets of laws and courts and taxes. I suppose they already do it on the city level. There has got to be a way to make it doable on a state wide level.

Manhattan would be governed by a far-left government instead of a moderate left government. It might try holding corporate headquarters and financial firms hostage.

Arnold Kriegbaum writes:

I would concur in part. Increase the size of the House to maybe double its current size. This would dilute their individual power, and increase the relative power of each Senator, but the greater representation would be a good thing. I would never think to ask my representative for anything, assuming he/she is too busy (who is mine, anyway, in gerrymander hell of CA?).

This would necessitate a new building in DC to house this body.

Josh writes:

It might also put additional strain on the seemingly overburdened regional circuits. I am from Canada, so I am not the best to comment on this, but with the likely polarization that comes with breaking up the states, it seems to me that the there would be a need for additional districts. The courts might not be serving more people, but as interests become more well-defined, there would inevitably be more of them.

Maybe I am confused, but I am interested in how the supposed 'democratization' might affect the legal structure in the united states.

Also, I think that the states would become polarized along ideological lines, making for solid blue states and solid red states thus reducing the number of swing voters. That can't be good for democracy.

More states jsut sounds like more bureaucracy.

Rob M writes:

This seems to me, intended to give the greatest benifit to the larger cities but oes them harm instead. While North & South Dakota and Montana would in effect combined into one state, lowering the cost of government to the people. New York City would become 10 (12 million people?) states. In effect greatly increasing the cost.

Forget the National implications and focus on the local. Would New York City now have 10 Mayors/Governors? 10 Legislature/city councils?

Would there be a overall power that would streach across the states? When a borough fights another for resources or funds the Mayor can bring the sides together. Would the President have to get involved? In that case we have actually increased the distance between the people and the head of the smallest government.

Now think of the cost. How would we divide NY current tax collection? The natural outgrowth would be more "state" government expenses.

Lastly now what is the increase for graft and corruption? Having run campaigns in Miami, and using that experiance as a basis, the possibility of wrongdoing would be huge.

Now how many cities would we be increasing the cost of government and in effect spliting cities in half or 8ths or worse?

Adam writes:

Whoever said that Manhattan would be a far left government was right, however isn't this what the people would want anyway? I've often thought that the great things about states to begin with was they break up universal governance into smaller domains so that local law more suits the culture. That being said, 250 states would be cumbersome to say the least.

Tremont writes:

...you assume that 'more' nominal 'representation' (..elected government officials) will CAUSE "accountable democracy" ... whatever that is ???

Real American political-power is already highly centralized in the Federal government --- hordes of 'new' state & local politcians will not change that unpleasant situation.

Unless real sovereign power is returned to the united "states" under the original principles of the U.S. Constitution --- it matters little whether there are 50, 250, or 2500 American 'states'.

Fundamental reform of the overall American electoral-process would be more productive IMO.

For example, no elected official should take office in the U.S. unless that person received 51% + of the votes from the 'eligble' voters in a fair election.
The office would remain vacant until a 'majority' of citizenry chose someone to fill it.

'Democracy' REQUIRES majority-rule --- not the plurality-rule which now installs most American politicians in government offices.

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