Arnold Kling  

My Hammer and Some Nails

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My solution is competitive government. I do not think that wanting to live in Silver Spring Maryland should automatically subject me to the local school monopoly, the national pensions system monopoly, and so on. I would like to be able to subscribe to the school system of my choice, the financial regulatory system of my choice, the food inspection system of my choice, and so forth. Monopoly based on geography is not necessary for most government services. I am willing to concede national defense and courts. I am also not advocating leaping with blind faith into some anarch-capitalist future. There are lots of gradual steps we could take to make government more competitive than it is now. The widely-unread Unchecked and Unbalanced describes some of these gradual steps.

This solution is my hammer, and to me lots of things look like nails. For example, the United States seems to be in some sort of awful political pickle right now. It will not shock you to learn that I do not think that the Left has the answer. There are several stories in today's news in which folks long for the Center. But the Center is weak politically, because the Center stands for TARP, stimulus, and all sorts of stuff that people hate. The Center is too weak to fix the entitlement mess or to stand up to the political muscle and villainy of the teachers' unions. In any event, the Center, like the Left, has too much faith in experts in The Era of Expert Failure.

So is the Right the answer? Apart from the many reservations one can have about the Tea Party movement, I just don't think that entitlements can be reformed by one political party alone. The Democrats needed big majorities and a strong will to force through a health care bill that was mostly dessert, with a bit of spinach. Entitlement reform is all spinach, with no dessert.

So I don't think that the answer can be found on the Left, the Center, or the Right. Which means that I think there is a serious chance that our political system will become untenable.

Collapse of our government might not be a bad thing. According to Scott Sumner, we are only 15th among advanced countries in terms of quality of government. The top 10 are either very small or else Canada or Australia. I don't know about Australia, but Canada is reasonably decentralized. Its people are very spread out, and my sense is that its provinces feel more autonomous than U.S. states are feeling these days.

After our government collapses, I would propose subdivision. Start with two governments. Regardless of where you live, you can join Northern Evangelica and be governed by the descendants of John Adams and Lyman Beecher or Southern Evangelica, governed by the descendants of James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. Eventually, these governments are likely to split into sub-governments also, but we can start with two.

Anyway, all the arguments about the Tea Party or Arthur Brooks seem to me like nails that I want to hit with my hammer of competitive government.


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COMMENTS (15 to date)
GU writes:
Southern Evangelica, governed by the descendants of James Madison and Thomas Jefferson.

I understand why you categorized it this way, but I think it is a marketing disaster. Equating limited government with "the South" is a great way to ensure that many people will never be in favor of limited government.

Notice that my argument is assuming expressive or irrational democracy, not rationally deliberated "policy is what matters" democracy. The former is more descriptive of reality than the latter IMO. The South = yuck to a whole lot of people.

Stephen Smith writes:

Canada and Australia aren't that big...Australia's population is about equal to the broadest definition of the New York metro area.

GU writes:

@Stephen Smith

Yes. Both countries are large geographically but have extremely small populations given their size (Canada: ~34 million people; Australia: ~22 million people).

I think Kling was trying to make the point that there's a spread-out, decentralized populace in both Canada and Australia.

Rebecca Burlingame writes:

The problem does not seem to be as much between north and south, as it does the wide gap between what people want to do with their lives, and the way their institutions tell them they are supposed to do those things. So it's not as simple as a hammer and some nails. There needs to be many kinds of tools to get through the gridlock and needless laws that stop everyone economically in their tracks.

Hyena writes:

There are something like 200 countries on Earth and even more independent jurisdictions. We already have competitive government, you just don't want to move.

Maybe you just don't value having alternatives more than where you currently live.

John Fembup writes:

I think it would help if Senators actually, you know, represented the states - as envisioned in the original Constitution - rather than, as is now the case, chasing after votes like auxiliary U.S. representatives.

Chris Koresko writes:

Given the very high mobility we have in the U.S., and the fact that the States still have some power, not to mention the counties and cities, it seems to me that we do have at least a degree of competitiveness in government.

One of the reasons I left California was to try and avoid the then-looming political disaster.

And I hear a lot of people have left New York City because of the recent tax hikes there.

States and localities compete with each other to attract businesses, too (though one of the main ways they do that is by promising them goodies at the expense of their taxpayers.)

Patrick L writes:

I've been thinking of how best to explain the 'centralized / decentralized' phenomenon in a way that's better then "Its people are very spread out". Because when we look at the data this answer 'sort-of' works.


40% of Australia's population lives around its 4 largest cities. An equivalent distribution in the US would be like 60 million people living in the New York City metro area, with another 30 million in LA, and Chicago being about the same size. Imagine if the entire population of California was jammed into the LA area!

It doesn't take that far in to get to the half-way point in Australia, but the population centers get pretty small after that. To show contrast, in the US the half-way point for metropolitan areas is Louisville, KY (Over 40 Urban areas into the list), with a population of over 1.4 million.

I think the correct way to say something like this is: "The US, unlike other countries, has most of its population in large metropolitan areas of over a million people, that relative to the rest of the country are not a significant percentage of the total population. In most (but not all*) Western countries most of the population lives around a handful of urban centers that can each pull a significant amount of the weight nationally. Thus the interests of Sydney or Athens are of a national interest, where as the interests of Atlanta are a 'local matter' (Despite being just as large as the others). As such these local issues are able to get the level of attention they deserve, even if its through national participation rather than local governance"

I think this is the most correct way to explaining differences. When you try to go into the demographics to explain Urban vs Rural, Density, and Distance it's difficult to find the correlations that make sense to explain the 'centralization story'. When we say that, what we're really saying is that the level of power over an area and the attention to the details and concerns of that population is proportional to the level of attention that area should have. In a highly centralized government like the US a hugely populated area like Atlanta isn't getting enough attention from the federal government (only worth a few percent), but since it lacks local authority to make a lot of important decisions there's a lot of mismatch. The solution is either a LOT more federal government (10 times larger federal governance should be enough), or more local autonomy and governance. The first is a silly solution, but the second should work.

* The countries I've found so far closest to the US are Germany and Italy.

Troy Camplin writes:

Wasn't the original idea that there would in fact be 50 competitive governments with free trade and free movement among them?

Hyena writes:

@Troy

Wrong historical direction. Originally you had 13 competitive governments, the goal of the Constitution was to reduce that competition along a number of lines.

GU writes:

@Hyena,

It is true that, compared to the Articles of Confederation, the Constitutional vision was a more centralized one. We are centralized to a point now, however, that is clearly incompatible with the "goal" of the Constitution.

It is not that we should necessarily be bound by the Founders' vision of the proper degree of federalism, though it should count for something. But many things the Congress/President do today wrt federalism also go against the text and the spirit of the Constitution (as well as the "original meaning" or "original intent").

I think it can be legitimate to interpret the Constitution in a non-originalist manner. For instance, the words "cruel and unusual punishment" in the Eighth Amendment surely would allow some gruesome punishments if we adopted the Founders' meaning of those words. A reasonable reading of the Eighth Amendment can lead one to outlaw some things the Founders would have allowed.

But no reasonable reading of the Constitution can lead to the centralization of our federation that we see today. The Constitution clearly notes that the federal government is one of limited, enumerated powers (Art. I, ยง8) and clearly reserves all non-enumerated powers to the states or people (Amdt. X).

Courts have largely abandoned meaningful judicial review of federalism, and this is a problem. I read Kling's proposal as one that seeks to obtain the benefits of a rigorous, competitive federalism, but without relying on the virtue of government officials or judicial review to prevent undue centralization of power. A good idea IMO, but our system (pre-New Deal, or perhaps pre-1913) worked pretty well for a long time, so we could also try going back to that as well.

Yancey Ward writes:

But government's everywhere go for geographical control for a simple reason- it raises the barrier to flight to the maximum possible given the law itself on immigration and emigration.

Would either Northern or Southern Evangelica recognize the right to keep and bear arms?

Kevin Driscoll writes:

How did James Madison and Thomas Jefferson get in the same country. Maybe I could see it but there is a reason Madison and Adams Federalist Papers are collected together.

I propose a country for each of the Signers of the Constitution. In that case, sign me up for Richard Henry Lee -stan. Good luck getting anyone to live in New Rutledge, the country named for the always despised Edward Rutledge, father of slavery in the post-Constitution US.

MernaMoose writes:

Regardless of where you live, you can join Northern Evangelica and be governed by the descendants of John Adams and Lyman Beecher or Southern Evangelica, governed by the descendants of James Madison and Thomas Jefferson.

I presume that neither wars nor racketeers (as in the way people "support" their mafia "protectors") will be part of this little fantasy.

They will be a part of reality, ranging (I predict) somewhere between substantial and totally dominant. But they're not part of the fantasy.

Sorry but when it comes to anarchist fantasies, I am forever ye of little faith.

Of course I have no faith in the current system either and I agree it's headed for disaster. But 1) that disaster is much further off in the future than anarchists might like to believe, and 2) I have NO faith in the idea that what's going to follow, will be anything but living hell compared to the virtual flavor of hell we're currently living with.

Civilization is a man-made thing. But it is thing that man has not figured out how to make very well yet. I wonder if he ever will.

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