April 02, 2007

Liberal Federalism?

by Dave

Gar Alperovitz, a liberal/leftist professor of political economy at University of Maryland, recently penned a op-ed for the NYT where he seems to advocate for a breakup of the Union so that regional concerns may take priority over the concerns of the central government in Washington. He uses California's initiatives on global warming as an example of how a region of the country may have objectives that are out of line with the federal goverment objectives.

But the question that remains unanswered is: why would California be interested in leaving the Union over the environment? That California seeks to provide greater efforts on protecting the environment is not, in any way that I know of, hampered by the federal government's lesser willingness to deal with the issue. California may make whatever regulation of carbon emissions that it wants to. Further, if California's interest is to protect itself from global warming, they have an incentive to encourage other jurisdictions beyond their own to limit carbon emissions. If California did indeed leave the Union, pulling their electoral college votes and congressional representatives from the political spectrum in Washington would arguably have the efffect of lessening environmental protection in the remaining 49 states, which would be clearly detrimental to their interests.

in a similar argument from a conservative/libertarian viewpoint, Ilya Somin, a professor of law at George Mason argued over at Volokh Conspiracy that in light of a growing Republican majority, Democrats should reconsider federalism. Somin ponts to "the examples of No Child Left Behind Act, medical marijuana, assisted suicide, Terri Schiavo, and a host of other cases" as representative of issues where Democrats might prefer de-centralized control.

However, I again do not see the rationale here for why liberals would prefer decentralization of power. As for assisted suicide and right-to-die issues, decentralized control is already the norm. Oregon has an assisted suicide law, and it has been held to be constitutional. Terri Schiavo's case is certainly not an argument for decentralization from the viepoint of a liberal, in that Florida's attempt to bar the removal of the feeding tube was equally if not more conservative than those efforts by Congress.

In terms of No Child Left Behind, the effect of the law is only applicable to schools that receive federal funds. If a jurisdiction felt strongly enough about the dangers of that law, they can reject the federal funding. This would seem to me to be a significantly less drastic approach than rejecting the funds as well as completely rejecting any other benefits received from the federal government by backing out of the Union.

Which leaves medical marijuana. Well, I suppose that is an actual issue where federal control might actually compel a state with a liberal electorate to want to back out of the union, if they cared that much about medical marijuana (which by no means is it clear that this is a "liberal" issue.... while blue-state California is obviously pro-medical marijuana, blue-state New York has some of the greatest penalities in the nation for marijuana use).

However, I think it is counter-intuitive to throw away all the benefits a strong central government provides to the liberal viewpoint: effectively forcing more conservative jurisidictions to have higher standards imposed on them by the Constitution and Congress in the areas of environmental protection, civil rights, separation of church and state, and progressive tax policy and progressive (i.e. redistributive) economic and social plolicies.

The major debates we have on the federal level relate to the imposition of a "liberal" viewpoint on a reluctant conservative jurisdiction. The questions are NOT whether California or another jurisdictio can be compelled by the federal governement to ban abortion, have a "mandatory" death penalty, or forced school prayer. If the country did get to that point, then perhaps that might compel a liberal to abandon to the idea of a strong central government. As for the present, I'm not certain medical marijuana is enough to make most liberals want to give the union up.

April 2, 2007 08:06 PM | TrackBack
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