April 30, 2006

The Network Commonwealth Begins At Home

More and more, it seems that Americans disagree -- over the war in Iraq, immigration, gun control, and a thousand other topics of public interest. Each national election feels more momentous, or a least more vitriolic. Politics has been become personal in a nasty sort of way that does no one any good.

As far as I can see, one of the root causes of the American predicament is the ever-increasing centralization of power and decision-making. When most signficant policies are set in the District of Columbia, national elections take on ever-greater importance.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. When America consisted of thirteen colonies, most powers were local or state, not central. That used to be called federalism. Now federalism is practically synonymous with centralism. The results have not been salutary.

What is the way out? Arnold Kling has advocated 250 states. But the logic of power relations (eludicated by French scholar Jean Baechler) might mean that a USA of 250 states would be even more centralized, since the most stable arrangement for any power structure is to have around 5 major powers and several smaller ones (as evidenced by the traditional balance of power in Europe and, not coincidentally, by the early United States with its thirteen former colonies, only four or five of which were signficant in size and power).

A more workable arrangement might be what in The Anglosphere Challenge Jim Bennett defines as a "network commonwealth" -- a loose network of civic states, wherein decisions are localized and only a few powers (e.g., common defense) are delegated up to the commonwealth level. (We could see this structure as a kind of updated Hanseatic League.) One key here is that a network commonwealth would consist of civic states -- that is, states that are (according to Jim Bennett) "dependent on essentially voluntary forms for cohesion", likely with small populations since "consensus and coherence are easier to achieve among a limited number of people" (anywhere from tens of thousands to ten or twenty million, as in Kenichi Ohmae's region-states). A vibrant civic state also tends to have "a core population sharing strong ethnic or religious bonds" (and, I would add, cultural assumptions, legal structures, and often economic interests). (Quotes are from chapter 1 of TAC -- and yes, I need to clean up the HTML for that page.)

While the United States has traditionally had a strong narrative of shared culture and history, at 300 million people it is perhaps reaching the breaking point given the strong centralizing tendencies witnessed over the last 150 years. Rather than trying to decide everything in the District of Columbia, it makes more sense to form policy at the state or local level. Indeed, it may make sense to devolve many powers also to the regional level, along the lines of Joel Garreau's book The Nine Nations of North America -- out of those nine (or dozen or whatever) regions, four or five would probably dominate in size and power and thus set most of the (strictly limited) commonwealth agenda. In a sort of fractal design, it makes sense for those regions themselves to be commonwealths or confederations wherein regional power is again delegated up by the civic states making up the region. With around 325 million people in North America, the result would be perhaps 10-15 regions of 25-30 million people, where each region would consist of 10-15 civic states, each with 1-3 million people. At each level, there would be 4-6 main actors (leading to regional and continental stability) and several smaller actors (allied with the main actors on various issues).

Because only about 20 American states have populations less than 3 million people (see statistics), any kind of political devolution would likely result in a much larger number of civic states in North America, driven especially by division of high-population states such as California, Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Georgia, and New Jersey -- see the CommonCensus map for some possible fault lines (downstate vs. upstate New York, Chicagoland vs. central and southern Illinois, north vs. south Jersey, Philly-centric vs. Pittsburgh-centric Pennsylvania, the many varieties of California and Florida and Texas).

Will such a system come to pass? Probably not. But the current system is increasingly unstable (it goes well beyond the Red State vs. Blue State divide), and in a true crisis radical change might become palatable. Only time will tell.

(Cross-posted at one small voice.)

Posted by Peter Saint-Andre at April 30, 2006 09:50 PM

In fact this is where a return to the American founding principles can help. The administrative state is the result of Progressivism's influences on US politics in the early 20th century United States, as witnessed by sentiment of having a bureaucratic-administrative state and "let people's voices be heard" reforms in the administrative structures. Rather than adopting a network reform, I think going back to the future is the way for the US to solve the problems.

For instance, have a look at this blog post from the Claremont Institute:


Posted by: Joel at April 30, 2006 11:08 PM

I'm sorry; I'm all for decentralization and such but this talk of reorganizing the US to accomodate nebulous, theoretical parameters is not only unworkable, but untenable. The US has had, in its history, varying degrees of federal reach - Lincoln and FDR come to mind as particularly acute relative examples - but there's nothing today that would make me throw up my hands in defeat and clamor for an overhaul on the scale Peter is talking about.

And why do we operate on the assumption of this five-power theory without qualifying it? I'm sure one could rummage through a number of instances to argue for it, but I have no doubt that I could do the same arguing that it's hogwash. There's no definitive proof, from what I can see, that makes this five-power postulate any kind of panacea.

I generally consider myself a libertarian (of sorts), and I'm sort of a nut for decentralization in almost every walk of life, but I really see no fundamental error in the current system that necessitates such drastic reconstitution. I say we should just cede more power to the states who should cede more power to the localities. When the loci of power are closer to home, people tend to be more involved and empowered. If the height of democracy are those ubiquitous town hall meetings, rather than deliberations from far-away chambers of mandarins, then liberty and opportunity can only be best serviced by decentralization. Instead of remaking the entire socio-political order of North America, why not work to decentralize the states and allow them to engage more freely in global compacts and arrangements? Virginia in the Commonwealth of Nations? And even if this five-power stuff is truly a constant, should we fear competition between the states? Is it not the furnace from where the dynamicism of America comes?

The utility of Peter's grandiose reorganization eludes me. Such ideas, as far as they seem to be developed here, are best left to scribbles on the margins of political science lecture notes. And I mean no disrespect, actually. I just don't see how anyone is served by such a new arrangement.

Posted by: Anton Traversa at April 30, 2006 11:47 PM

Peter - The term "federalism" acquired its present connotation of states' rights only in the 1970s. Before then, "federalism" meant taking power away from state and local electorates and vesting it in a federal electorate.

The closest America has come to peacefully devolving power along regional lines was in the 1930s, when the Roosevelt administration and the Army tried to divide the country into engineering regions. This didn't happen but the legacy of this effort is still important in terms of energy and electric power.

Devolution seems like it would be good for individual rights but it rarely works out this way. The reason is that you need a vigorous two-party system in the devolved area. In the United States and other modern democracies, populations inhabit regions or localities where one-party rule is more often the norm. Schemes for devolution that are not conscious efforts to shift power to the party that is likely to dominate the devolved area often have stronger forms of such dominance as the unintended consequence.

A different kind of devolution can be seen in the regional communities that link America and Canada (BC and the Pacific Northwest, the Great Lakes, New England and Atlantic Canada). These bypass the tense bilateral relations that beset the federal governments in Washington and Ottawa and involve regional cooperation rather than regional government.

Posted by: David Billington at May 1, 2006 11:22 AM

Another reason, in my view, for the increasing partisonship started in the 70's, as a reaction to Nixon and Watergate. Significant amounts of power shifted from the executive to the legislative branch, and from Senate and House chairman to junior members, via Subcommitee bill of rights and other initiatives. It was at this time that the Federal deficit began to blow up.

Prior to this time, there was less partisonship because Commitee chairman had more leverage over junior members, and since senior members tended to be less partison (relatively speaking) due to their entrenched position (not as big a need to satisfy partison voters) and desire to end their career solving national problems (again, relatively speaking, or on the margin, if you will), there was more likely to see bi-party efforts on important legislation.

Someone did a study correlating Dem and Rep voting patterns, and was able to conclude that, indeed, Dems and Reps do not cross lines on votes as much, and it has been increasing, although I don't recall the starting point, but I would wager it was in the 70's, or possibly late 60's.

None of this is to say there wasn't partisonship before, but I do believe this had an impact, as well as increased information flows to the public (practically minute by minute nowadays), the increasing size of the government (more $ at stake), as well as the federalism you mentioned, are all contributers to this phenomena.

Posted by: cb at May 1, 2006 02:40 PM

The smaller and more numerous the states, the more power the central government will have. Only large states have enough gravity for people to have some kind of identification and loyalty to them--think NY, Texas, California. And in today's America, there really aren't state differences, only regional differences.

Posted by: Adam Greenwood at May 1, 2006 03:00 PM

Anton, there are substantial forces for such a system as Peter discusses. There are periodic movements for dividing large states (California in particular, and the upstate vs. NYC divide in New York, for instance) which have substantial popular support. There's no need to create an overall master plan for this decentralization; if you adop a se of policies that make it easier to 1. Achieve a division of states by consent, (perhpss by creating a default template for division of state debts and assets, etc.) and 2. permit states to for regional confederations, and devolve Federal powers to states and/or confederations of states, then we would shepe the new shape of things emerge gradually over time. As for identity, it's (pardon the expression) all over the map. Some regions (the South, New England) have very strong and clear regional identities; some states (Texas, Hawaii) have strong state identities, and others have strong (sub-state) regional identities. There is not so much a California identity, for instance, as strong Northern and Southern California identities (having lived in both places).

It's not a panacaea, but I think it would substantially reduce some of the "red-state/blue-state" loggerheads.

Posted by: Jim Bennett at May 1, 2006 06:03 PM

This post explores a thought experiment rather than advocating some sort of master plan. I think it can be useful to try to envision how the principles of a network commonwealth arrangement might potentially arise in America (which has the bulk of Anglosphere population and is in many ways the most experimental of the Anglosphere countries). In The Anglosphere Challenge, Jim talks about how a network commonwealth of Anglosphere states could arise through a set of self-assembly protocols (and explains how the U.S. Constitution is in many ways a self-assembly protocol through its procedures for adding states). The problem, as I see it, is that even the best self-assembly protocols cannot override the logic of power relations as elucidated by Jean Baechler. The U.S. has too many states for them to effectively offset the power of the center (in his book, Jim notes that Canada has succesfully resisted the same level of centralization because of the small number of provinces). A more flexible arrangement of tiered powers at the state, regional, and central levels might be more scalable. I'm not saying that such an arrangement would solve all problems, but IMHO it's worth thinking about as a way to defuse some of the pressures that have built up because of excessive centralization of government powers in the U.S.

Posted by: Peter Saint-Andre at May 1, 2006 09:07 PM

One model for a regional governmental structure in the United States is the Federal Reserve System. The Federal Reserve Banks serve regions that are linked economically, and to some extent culturally. A look at a map of the System shows the regional demarcations have held up pretty well over many decades. State lines are pretty much ignored; economic ties are paramount.

Economic forces eventually will win out over the present overarching federal structure, which is straining to deal with 21st century problems by means of an 18th century model. There is no reason why a devolution to semi-autonomous regions cannot happen, since economic forces will be the drivers.

Of course, this would spell the end of the "mass media," since the media gets along with covering only New York, Washington and LA, and each of these power centers would diminish in importance with regionalism. So the media can be expected to view with horror any such devolution, as would all the pols in D.C.

The movement toward regions in the U.S. had some momentum until 9/11. Now that we are on a "war" footing, the momentum has temporarily stopped. But it will resume once people realize that finding ways to deal effectively with radical Islam is a permanent fact of life for us as Westerners, so we cannot cancel our own development until the "war" is over.

Posted by: JohnR at May 1, 2006 09:23 PM

There are a few simple solutions instead of the massive sort of decentralization that is suggessted here.

1. Increase the size of the Federal House of Representatives, something that has not been done since the 1920's, to at least 700, perhaps as many as a 1,000 and decrease congressional staff proportionally.

2. Invoke the clauses in the California and Texas constitutions to divide those states, in agreement with the Federal Congress. Essentially, revive the state of Jefferson idea, where Texas is allowed to divide up to 4 more times, and California up to two more times.

3. Do away completely with Federal block grants, and nationwide entitlement programs and instead devolve those to the particular states, with the taxes collected for the several entitlements to be collected instead by the states.

4. Allow states to once again set their Senate's based on administrative districts, like counties or parishes, instead of being constrained by a loose interpretation of some of the Civil Rights laws of the late 1960's.

The sort of decentralization you suggest would require not only a new Federal constitutional convention, but 50 new state constitutional conventions as well. It is unthinkable that that could happen in today's climate.

Posted by: J A Greer at May 2, 2006 03:23 AM

also repeal the 17th amendment which requires the direct ellection of senators.

Posted by: Adams at May 3, 2006 08:00 AM

This response to "The Network Commonwealth Begins At Home" attempts to provide some further print and on-line references that give ideas for alternative boundaries for the United States.

The granddaddy of such references is the "Rand McNally Commercial Atlas & Marketing Guide." Beginning with its 1946 edition, it has included a map of trading areas in the United States. Since 1986, Rand McNally has divided the country into 487 Basic Trading Areas, grouped into 47 Major Trading Areas.

It also has a rating system for U.S. cities. For example, if we were to reorganize the country into 10 to 15 regions, we might do it around those cities with a rating of 1-AA or above. These, in alphabetical order, would be Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, Minneapolis, New York City, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, San Francisco, and Washington D.C.

Again, if I were looking to divide the country into 250 states, I might do so by taking the top 250 Basic Trading Areas in terms of population.

Geographer George Etzel Pearcy offered two monographs, "A Thirty-Eight State U.S.A." (1973) and "Supercounties U.S.A." (1976). Both touted the efficiency and savings achieved by having fewer governmental units.

On the Internet, "Ward Cleaver" maintains the website Administrative Boundaries for North America (www.rev.net/~aloe/region/). Using Pearcy's 38 state proposal as a point of departure, he divides the U.S., southern Canada, and parts of Mexico into 41 states. The site has about half a dozen maps to illustrate the new boundaries.

At the Department of Commerce's Bureau of Economic Analysis (www.bea.gov/bea/regional/docs/econlist.cfm) the country is divided into 179 Economic Areas made up of 344 Component Economic Areas.

In "U.S. Commuting Zones and Labor Market Areas: A 1990 Update," a staff paper for the Department of Agriculture, Charles M. Tolbert and Molly Sizer divide the country into 394 Labor Market Areas, made up of 741 Commuting Zones. The report is available at the Louisiana Population Data Center (www.lapop.lus.edu/ftp.html).

Last, and certainly not least, the European Spatial Development Perspective has inspired an American equivalent. At the website www.america2050.org, you'll find maps dealing with what the sites contributors see as America's emerging supercities or MegaRegions.

Posted by: Daniel MacGregor at May 9, 2006 10:29 AM