Arnold Kling  

Bipartisanship or Irreconcilable Differences?

Paranoia About Paranoia... The Fear Budget Hypothesis...

Pundits bemoan the absence of bipartisanship. Implicitly, they believe that bipartisanship is necessary and sufficient to solve public policy problems. Another possibility is that our politics today actually involves irreconcilable differences.

One picture of American politics is that only about 10 percent of us want the European welfare state and only about 10 percent are adamantly opposed. There are 80 percent in the middle. Given that picture, if the centrists could quiet those of us on the extremes, then the country could be governed in a nice, rational way.

But what if the center is not really so dominant? My sense is that there are a lot of people who do not have strong ideological convictions one way or another. But that represents indifference or ignorance, rather than a center.

Among people who care about politics, I suspect that the center is pretty small. Perhaps most people who care are on one side or the other. In that case, we should consider the possibility of irreconcilable differences.

I think that the best way to deal with irreconcilable differences is to revive federalism. Imagine Maine as a European welfare state and New Hampshire as a libertarian state, with the Federal government only providing national defense.

For me, the next step beyond reviving traditional federalism is virtual federalism. People do not have to segregate by moving between Maine and New Hampshire. Instead, for purposes of education, health care, and social security, people can join virtual states. I could join a virtual state that implements something like compassionate liberarianism for all its members. Progressives could sign up for a state that offers a more technocratic approach to education, health care, and income security. There could be hundreds of different states.

Again, see the widely-unread Unchecked and Unbalanced.

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COMMENTS (22 to date)
Ella writes:

Virtual states? That's a really intriguing idea. If I could sign an agreement - like, I don't pay unemployment, SoSec, or Medicare taxes and I agree never to apply for benefits - I'd do it in a heartbeat. And, unlike traditional federalism, that one may actually be achievable.

Consider "Unchecked and Unbalanced" as wish-listed.

TDL writes:

Isn't "virtual federalism" basically how the old Vikings nobility worked. A thane or a commoner would agree to a contract with a lord, if they were unsatisfied with that lord (as far as military victories & plunder in the case of thanes and services of protection & arbitration in the case of the commoner) they could seek to contract with another lord. I believe that is the gist of how the relationship worked and it sounds like what "virtual federalism" would be.


Andy writes:

I love the idea of a virtual state. As Ella says, "I'd do it in a heartbeat."

And that is the reason it will never be an option. The government needs those of us that are overly attached to a specific geographic location (for me the warm weather and proximity to family of Southern California) and therefor willing to pay excessive taxes to support those that don't pay taxes.

Questions on the idea:
Would your state be chosen by household or by individual? If, for example, my wife preferred a more European type state and I preferred a more libertarian state, would we both be able to choose or would we have to fight to the death to determine which "state" our household existed in?
How easy should it be to transfer from 1 state to the next? How much control would each state have over "immigration" into their state?

All in all its a fascinating idea and one that is certainly feasible given our current technology.

Also, I own Unchecked/Unbalanced, but have not made time for myself to sit down and read it.

Les Cargill writes:

"But what if the center is not really so dominant? My sense is that there are a lot of people who do not have strong ideological convictions one way or another. But that represents indifference or ignorance, rather than a center."

The center is the home of *rational* ignorance. Things are pretty good and have been for a long time - most people simply aren't that interested. Remember - dissatisfaction is part of the willing suspension of disbelief cycle of much "infotainment" ( including, to an extremely limited extent EconLib - the principle difference being EconLib is much more transparent than most such ).

Even if they are somewhat interested, they don't see the payback from becoming more interested. And they suspect that those who do care that much aren't very trustworthy.

Interestingly enough, the suspicion that one is better off with the status quo without having done much to deserve that improvement is highly Burkean - real conservatism, IOW.

Revealed preferences, anyone? only us ... weirdos think about things like governance. Ordinary people are too busy complaining about how hard they work....

Les writes:

Its a great idea, and it could even be done with just very few virtual states.

But the huge obstacles are:
1) The federal government, who will let no-one out of their clutches to join a competitive virtual state. They will use the excuse of people trying to be "free riders" enjoying protection from the military but not paying taxes to support the military.
2) The state governments, who will let no-one out of their clutches to join a competitive virtual state.

Since we cannot pass a constitutional amendment without federal and state government cooperation, how do we get to square one?

Hume writes:

My problem with libertarian calls for federalism is the failure to recognize the nearly prohibitive costs of moving from state to state for family-orientated and poor citizens. Obviously the costs are higher at the federal level, but the costs at the state level are real nonetheless. And I fear that individual states and local governments are more likely to suppress the rights of individuals in the minority than at the federal level (the A-Team Effect).

Jacob writes:

Prof. Kling,

"Widely-unread?" I guess that shows which kind of crowds I'm around... I deeply appreciate your books though. Much thanks.

lark writes:

A "European welfare state" is a straw man.

Comprehensive health care reform doesn't mean we become European. It means we, the ordinary Americans without the gold plated (and increasingly rare) benefits you possess, don't have to die or go bankrupt because of your ideology.

Thanks for caring, dude.

Andy writes:


you are missing the point of the post. The suggestion is to let the states decide how many benefits they want to provide and what tax rates they want to charge. Some states will be likely to adopt more "liberal" policies and some will adopt more "conservative" and (hopefully) some will be more "libertarian." You can then choose where to live.

Governments that govern poorly will be less popular and governments that govern well will be more popular. It allows "voting with your feet" as Dr. Kling likes to discuss.

Loof writes:

Arnold asks: Bipartisanship or Irreconcilable differences?

No irreconcilable difference arises and crucial bipartisanship occurs with neoliberalism: seeking to transfer evermore controls of the economy out of public hands into private handling.

Doc Merlin writes:

One odd thing about libertarianism, is that the more of the state's is replaced by market forces... the less people care about the state. Voter participation and political participation will go down in general. Wearas in a "socialist democracy" people will be very involved in politics because so much of their life depends on it.

I.E: when the state is your doctor, lawyer, protector, judge, and employment, of course you will care about state actions.

Doc Merlin writes:

David D. Friedman wrote about virtual federalism (he called it anarchocapitalism) in his book "Machinery of Freedom."

Anyway, progressives will fight virtual federalism because people when given the choice vote with their feet away from high-tax, high-services locations. However, people when given a vote will often vote for high-tax, high-services policies. This gives us a disconnect between stated preferences and revealed preferences.

George X writes:

bipartisanship, n.: both political parties ganging up on you

Adam Ozimek writes:

I'm curious what policy preferences you think constitute the center. It's easier to quantify the size of the center if we know what set of beliefs or preferences one must have to be a member of "the center".

MernaMoose writes:

we should consider the possibility of irreconcilable differences.

We should. Because the differences are irreconcilable.

The US has been roughly split down the middle since birth. The Civil War was very nearly fought right after the American Revolution, for roughly the same reasons it was fought almost a century later.

If you read enough history, it starts to seem like not much new really happens in the world. Not entirely true, but a lot less than people tend to believe.

I think that the best way to deal with irreconcilable differences is to revive federalism.

Others have thought it should be resolved with guns. Those who wish, are free to say they don't like people who think that way.

The problem with a virtual state is, there's no possible way it can provide law enforcement or military protection against invasions for its virtual citizens.

The idea of competing fire departments was tried right here in the good old US of A. It really didn't work out so well, from my reading of history.

The idea of competing police forces within the same geographic area is a recipe for turning the world into a perpetual combat zone. But I suppose there is some fraction of the populace that wouldn't mind that.

Anarcho-capitalism is one of those funny libertarian dream-worlds that never has been and never will be.

The best "examples" I've seen held up, where people claimed "hey see, it did happen", ignore the fact that in all of these cases -- the dream world existed only because another nearby state was effectively protecting them.

Example: the European Middle Ages. Or should we say late Dark Ages? Or some of both. In any case, the only thing that kept the Turk bells from rolling right across Europe, were those oft-despised, nation-state addicted Byzantines, who just happened to be actually and physically between the Turks and Europe.

Anarcho-capitalism will never work (any more than socialism) for a host of reasons. A really big one is the fact that so far in history, nothing is better than a nation-state at fielding big armies, and then providing the resources to keep them in the field for extended periods of time.

Anarcho-capitalists like to pretend, but the fact is there are times when this is a badly needed service. If you want to unseat the Nation-State, you'll have to come up with something that does this better.

The fact that Europe could not have defend itself against an Ottoman invasion, at the very same time the Ottomans were at the peak of their power, is proof enough that anarcho-capitalism is just not going to survive in the long haul.

Oh yes, Europe did later repel Ottoman incursions -- after Europe had evolved some nation-states of its own.

As much as I appreciate what anarcho-capitalists would like to accomplish, their ideal amounts to a dream world that can't survive in the real world. Because like socialism, its realization would require that human nature be something other than what it is in fact.

You'd have to start out by going around and shooting all those people who think that irreconcilable differences are best resolved with guns. I'm sure everything would work out fine after that nasty little job was taken care of. :)

MernaMoose writes:

the next step beyond reviving traditional federalism is virtual federalism.

A much more feasible approach, would be to divide the surface of the earth up into segments and impose differing government types in each. We can run the gamut from pure anarchy to complete totalitarianism.

But even this idea poses insurmountable problems. The problem of how people are allowed (or not) to change citizenship might be resolved, but you can bet on this: sooner or later, one of them is going to invade its neighbor.

In time we end up right back where we are now.

There's also the problem of aging. Governments, like people, get old and decrepit. Whatever you start out with, on average the best of them will get a 200 year run, or 300 years tops. [my empirical observation of how long nations remain rich, strong, and powerful, based on reading lots of history as a hobby over many years]. Staying "good" for longer than that is a rare feat, historically.

The Romans did manage to last longer. I've never quite figured out what enabled them to do it. If you want to look at it strictly in cultural terms, the Chinese probably hold the record with classical Confucian China, which made a roughly 2,000 year run of it (until the Europeans effectively invaded and put an end to it). But the Chinese solved the problem of government aging, by the simple expedient of successive dynastic collapse. That they were able to sweep up the pieces after each collapse, put it all back together and do it again so many times is (to me) astounding. The Egyptian story is similar.

If I've learned anything from history, it's that the design of viable, long-standing government institutions is perhaps the most difficult engineering job that Man has ever attempted.

In short, we humans have not yet found a really good way of governing ourselves. We've gotten better over time to be sure. But we still have much to learn.

One thing is clear to me from reading history though, to bring back some of Bryan's recent threads: in their youth, the strong-rich-powerful nations somehow develop a system that enables men (and in some cases women) of ability and ambition to rise (roughly) to the levels that their talents will take them. On average, they get the right people in the right places.

I submit that there is a strong correlation between this part of the system going bad, and the end of of each nation's Golden Age. When the wrong people start getting into positions of power they shouldn't be in, the downfall is coming.

Matt C writes:

Merna, I'm enjoying your posts.

I agree that conquest and war generally are a major stumbling block for anarchic institutions. Some people have argued that we are entering an era where conquest will not be profitable anymore (for a variety of reasons). I'm not sure this is right, but I'm not sure it is wrong either.

If it is right, that at least opens the field for promising developments. Maybe not market anarchism, but at least developments in the opposite direction to the nation state model like city states. I suspect a world with a couple dozen mostly autonomous city states would be a hell of an improvement over what we have now.

Arnold, you should certainly read David Friedman if you have not already. My guess is you are not a science fiction reader, but you might take a look at Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age. He has a different take on an anarchic ("virtual" if you prefer) society that you might find interesting.

Yancey Ward writes:

To revive federalism would require the central statists to give up power. Federalism is marginalized because government busy-bodies don't like it when people vote with their feet. Incidentally, we see the exact same process at the state level- more and more local functions are being directed from state capitols.

Ryan Singer writes:

I really want to read Unchecked and Unbalanced, but I can't stand dragging physical books around. I would be happy to paypal you $15 in exchange for your book in a kindle-friendly format.

$10 for PDF.

Chris Koresko writes:

@Ryan Singer,

I'd pay $10 for this book in PDF, or better yet HTML format.

PDF is not bad, but HTML makes it easy to reflow the text for comfortable viewing on a wider variety of devices.

I avoid buying DRM-encrypted media.

GU writes:

I am all for federalism, virtual or actual. I think "virtual federalism" could use a better name though. "Virtual federalism" sounds like a computer game. Most people are not computer geeks, and would not necessarily have a good visceral reaction to the phrase "virtual federalism."

I don't have a better phrase to offer, but I thought I'd let you know of a potential problem with your idea. As Masonomists know, people often make political decisions for bad reasons, including disliking the way a phrase sounds (or disliking the associations with the phrase). Something less computer-y/sci-fi-y would play better for a more general audience.

Lord writes:

I don't really buy rreconcilable differences. Prescription drug coverage was bipartisan as are most benefits that ignore costs. All I see is political posturing and avoidance of anything that might involve responsibility or pain.

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