The United Not-States

There's been a debate of sorts in recent days in the liberal blogosphere on the question of whether states should be eliminated. Matthew Yglesias, ...
by | October 26, 2009

No states There's been a debate of sorts in recent days in the liberal blogosphere on the question of whether states should be eliminated.

Matthew Yglesias, in a post entitled "The Trouble With States," says that citizens have national concerns in common and certainly have issues in common with fellow residents of metro areas, but "we don't really live our lives 'at the state level.'

And insofar as co-residents of a single state do have idiosyncratic issues in common that tends to be because important fiscal and regulatory powers have been allocated to state government rather than because it actually makes sense for them to have been allocated this way.

Ezra Klein, a blogger for washingtonpost.com, goes further. He posits that only low-population states such as Alaska and Montana are true communities of interest.

That arrangement might be good for Montanans, but it doesn't make a lot of sense for the country. I've occasionally argued for a more proportional Senate, only to be asked "what do you have against small states?" Well, nothing in particular. I just don't consider states to be a particularly useful political unit. Why not apportion Congress by race? Or population density? Or income? All of those options seem a bit nuts, but the only reason that states make any sense to us is because it's always been thus. All of those options make a lot more sense than organizing representation around the boundaries of Missouri.

And it's not as if there was some high-minded reason for state-based representation a few hundred years back. Rather, states were given a lot of power because that was the only way to entice them into joining a union . It was a coldly political compromise. It's good we got that done, but some of the structural concessions that were required don't make that much sense in the 21st century. Not that "does this make sense?" is a particularly powerful consideration in our system.

Josh Patashnik, at The New Republic's "The Plank" blog, rushes to states' defense in a high-minded way, quoting Madison and Sandra Day O'Connor. Although he's sympathetic to centralization of power in Washington, he's sensible about the states' role in our system:

Maybe it's just me, but the bait-and-switch Ezra apparently envisions seems pretty unconscionable.  Back in the day, states were concerned that at some point in the future the federal government would try to usurp their sovereignty, so they wrote very strong protections for themselves into the Constitution.  Now, in 2009, along comes a chorus of voices proclaiming that, from a national perspective, that arrangement doesn't "make sense," so we should consider changing it.  Well, of course!  That's precisely the concern the states had back then.  The underlying premise of our federal compact is that we're not concerned solely with what "makes sense" for the nation as a whole; the interests of each state deserve independent respect. On one level a Vermonter and a Californian are equal as Americans--but on a different level, a Vermonter and a Californian are qualitatively different, and we don't simply tally up which group has more people.

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