Our Polarized States: Two Cheers

The Washington Post’s Dan Balz is a well-informed observer of (among other things) political polarization among states. One of his earlier pieces is here along with a few comments by yours truly. Yesterday’s Post has another long-front page Balz article on the subject, along with a companion piece on Texas and California –mega-states that have adopted very different social models.

Polarization (whether measured by single-party control over states, policy outcomes, or whatever) has its downsides. Single-party states may start to work like the House of Commons and “overshoot” in a red or blue direction. At the federal level, a polarized system is bound to produce politicians who aren’t used to compromise; and unless one or the other party rakes all the chips off the table, you can’t get a darn thing done in Washington.

On the other hand: as noted before (e.g. here) the right, “competitive” kind of federalism requires a certain degree of polarization (or sectionalism). And the price may well be worth paying. Consider a few well-understood but underestimated advantages:

· Competitive federalism reveals information. We can debate the abstract advantages of “red” or “blue,” “American” and “European” social models until the cows come home: there’s no substitute for observing the actual effects in real life.

· Competitive federalism satisfies preferences. A thoroughly blue or red United States would leave one half of the country very unhappy. That’s not true under federalism—not when preferences are heterogeneous across states and (relatively) homogeneous within states. As, increasingly, now.

· Competitive federalism reveals preferences and reduces ignorance. People move across states lines in response to a ton of factors (climate, jobs, housing costs…)—many of which are policy-dependent. “Foot-voting” is a pretty good political feed-back mechanism: sooner or later, (state) politicians will pay attention. And as my colleague Ilya Somin has argued in a recent book, there’s no incentive to cast an informed vote for the House, Senate or President; so people vote in near-total ignorance. They don’t vote that way with their feet, for obvious reasons.

You can’t have those sweet advantages without the bitter; the trick is to minimize the costs. Here, that means national-level solutions that allow the states to go their own way, instead of entangling them in federal schemes. Dan Balz thinks we’re moving in that direction, and so do I.

A few quick words about California and Texas: you can make a serious case that these states are really too big for the United States. Whenever we had a choice, we’ve made states roughly equal in size (that’s why the prairie states look so similar, and how Michigan ended up with a piece of real estate that obviously belongs to Wisconsin). Due to the way we acquired Texas and California, that wasn’t doable and so here we are. All things equal it’s not good to have two or so big whales and a bunch of pilot fish: what if the big guys start swimming in the same direction? It’ll look like the EU.

Texas and California aren’t, and a lot depends on keeping it that way. One aspect of the competition that IMHO merits special attention:

There’s been a lot of talk about increasing inequality and the “hollowing-out” of the middle class. Some of the jeremiads are probably overblown, but the concern is real and in any event politically salient.

Who will do better in this regard—California, or Texas? My impression (as an occasional visitor) is that California is becoming a place for multi-millionaires, union members, beach bums, and welfare recipients. Everyone else is toast, or would be better off elsewhere. Texas somehow feels different. It’s at least possible that in this country, a “blue” social model means a lot more inequality.

Just a thought. Additional, better-informed thoughts invited.

Reader Discussion

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on December 29, 2013 at 17:11:57 pm

We should all be one and only when we're all one can there be peace. It's the opposition to the California social model that impedes justice for all, especially minorities who live like slaves in Texas. Differences of opinion mean social disocrd, which means minorities will suffer at the hands of Republicans. Until there are no more Republicans misery and suffering will continue.

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Mary L.
on December 29, 2013 at 18:08:17 pm

This post naturally completes an interesting trilogy beginning with Mike Rappaport's thoughts here, and continuing with Greg Weiner's thoughts. A common thread that runs through these is that political polarization is necessary to a society in the same way instictive polarization is necessary to an organism.

If onewere to design an organism with the requirement that it be able to survive in circumstances marked by novelty and ambiguity, it would be hard to improve on the human cognitive system of instincts and compulsions existing in oppositely directed pairs. Thus, "fight or flight" enables disparate responses when such are called for. Humans are moved to sympathy and schadenfreude, depending on the circumstances; humans must be both risk-seeking and risk averse at various times. Every healthy human has both social and anti-social traits. These are hard-wired, because survival often demands action in settings of limited experience or data. If we were all flight and no fight, we would have starved to death millennia ago. If we did not have drives that seek interaction with others, and the opposite ability to forego such encounters when they would be detrimental, humans would not have been able to form thriving societies. Again, humans must have the
capacity to respond in opposite ways in order to be adaptive and contend with novelty. When one impulse so overwhelms it's opposite such that a person is capable of only a single response regardless of the scenario, this is recognized as the pathology of obsession. It is a disease state, detrimental to the sufferer.

The same principle applies to polities. Societies, if they are to survive and prosper in the face of novel threats and challenges, must be able to effect libertarian and anti-libertarian responses when each is called for. They must be able to embrace governmental solutions in some crises and reject them in others. The absence of this appreciation in ideologues manifests as fanaticism, and is no less a pathology for a society than obsession is for an individual. A fanatic can never perceive excess in his own ideals, but senses excess in any measure opposed to them.

Societies and institutions that lose their ability to accommodate polarity eventually die. This is one problem presented by Professor Rappaport's post: should political institutions meld competing views into an intellectual alloy, that obscures the essence of each philosophy in a hazy and ambiguous compromise, or should those conflicting philosophies be maintained, with each vibrant, constantly in conflict, with the institution capable of reacting full force in one direction when the situation demands it, and reacting fully in the opposite way when that is advantageous? Humans would not have survived long if we had only developed the ability to fight in a fleeing sort of way, or to avoid risks in a risky manner.

Successful societies require vigorous, adversarial movements. Compromise can be feigned when none is necessary; i.e. when advocates of each position would come to the same conclusion, even absent the influence of the other. Let them fight it out vigorously on every subject; there should be no "permanent" solutions, just as there should be no permanent ,majorities or issues settled "once and for all."

This is not new. Plato had his horses, pulling in opposite directions. Ecclesiastes noted that there is a time to kill, a time to heal; a time to build, a time to tear down. Chesterton probably made the most succinct description of the proposition, discussing the perceived contradictions of Christianity:

It is true that the historic Church has at once emphasised
celibacy and emphasised the family; has at once (if one may put it so)
been fiercely for having children and fiercely for not having children.
It has kept them side by side like two strong colours, red and white,
like the red and white upon the shield of St. George. It has always had
a healthy hatred of pink. It hates that combination of two colours
which is the feeble expedient of the philosophers. It hates that
evolution of black into white which is tantamount to a dirty gray.

Polarization is vexing, it is fatiguing and hurts people's feelings. It lends a sense of ongoing chaos, when placidity is desired. It is also however essential in world of threats, changes and competing interests. It is, in the end, a good and necessary thing.

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on December 30, 2013 at 10:38:18 am

Hey Z:

Good to hear from you again. Great piece!

I would only add that from time to time out of this polarity comes a new synthesis - witness the elections of 1800, 1860 and (yes, regrettably) 1932. These new syntheses are later undone and eventually become the basis for another polarity - ultimately resulting in a further synthesis.
So we go from competition of ideas to cooperation and back to competition in the sphere of ideas / policies.
Where are we now, however, seems to be the important question.

It is somewhat doubtful that the States can serve as the "experiment of federalism" as they have been "co-opted", bought off" and otherwise neutralized by the "largesse" (I use that term advisedly) of the Fed Guvmnt. So, perhaps, it must come from the area of ideas which you rightly point out.

And of course, concern for "social justice" must of necessity eliminate any intellectual or moral opposition so that we can keep those mean Republicans from spreading misery and evil amongst us. I mean, "can't we all just get along" the way Mary wants us to? Oops, isn't that rather totalitarian?

No, I think I will stick with social discord. It is somewhat more entertaining in any event.

take care

take care

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on December 30, 2013 at 13:51:35 pm

It would be a great thing for our country for California to adopt a single-payer healthcare system. Ten years or so would be enough of a test run.

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David Upham
on December 30, 2013 at 18:21:14 pm

Absolutely, David!
let's do away with all discord - after all, isn't that what competition is -discord?
But why just do it in California - that would leave discord between Californis and Nevada and oregon. Let's just go all out and provide everyone with the benefits to be derived therefrom.

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on December 31, 2013 at 08:04:17 am

[…] some of the standard criticisms. But as my George Mason colleague Michael Greve explains, state polarization also has some valuable […]

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Image of The Benefits of State Polarization and a California Break-Up | angryid
The Benefits of State Polarization and a California Break-Up | angryid
on January 04, 2014 at 09:34:52 am


[...]Sites of interest we have a link to[...]…

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